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How The Mary Tyler Moore Show Got Women’s Stories Just Right

How The Mary Tyler Moore Show Got Women's Stories Just Right

If you grew up in the 1970s, chances are you remember
watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show on
Saturday nights, most likely with other female members of your family. You
probably also remember the characters, the storylines and how the show made
people talk about its blunt feminism. MTM‘s producers, James Brooks and Allan Burns, managed to get
the scripts right during a time of upheaval for women in American history by
hiring female producers and really tackling the issues that hadn’t yet made the
small screen (like abortion and the pill). The show caused a mini-revolution and was the predecessor to complicated female characters we see today on shows like Girls
and The Mindy Project. Curious about
the MTM phenomenon, we spent some time recently chatting with Jennifer Keishin
Armstrong, the author of Mary and Lou
and Rhoda and Ted:
And All the Brilliant
Minds Who Made
The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic.

You once
that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the “first truly
female-dominated sitcom” — is this still your belief?

When you write a book like this, you have to think out these labels pretty
carefully because if you say anything is the first or the last or the greatest,
someone somewhere is going to find a fact that contradicts it. 

Was it the first
show about a single woman? No, That Girl
beat it, but That Girl had just one
single girl as its main character, and she was constantly surrounded by and
dependent on the men in her life — her boyfriend and her dad. She also didn’t
really have a job; she was an aspiring actress. So even though The Mary Tyler Moore Show doesn’t get
the distinction of being the first single-girl show, there has to be a way to
explain why it’s seen as such a watershed for feminism on TV. And it’s because
she had a career, was truly single (i.e., she was dating lots of guys and never
settled on one), and had as many female co-stars as male. Same goes for
behind-the-scenes, where several women worked as writers.

How did MTM‘s producers get the scripts
so right during a time of upheaval for women in American history?

hired women, for starters. It’s a real testament to gender diversity, because
they ended up being able to get the input of the female writers they hired,
even as they hired plenty of experienced men who could write a killer script. It made a huge ripple-effect difference in the
industry in ways we probably can’t even begin to measure.

Was Mary Richards a feminist? How about
Mary Tyler Moore herself?

Mary was a declared feminist! And if Mary Richards were really and truly a
card-carrying feminist, we probably would’ve seen her go to a meeting or two,
which most women’s libbers did in the 1970s. That said, she stood up for her
right to equal pay, took birth-control pills, and refused to let her search for
a man define her. She also rose through the ranks of her job throughout the
show until she had quite a clear leadership position by the end. She
represented feminist ideals, no doubt about it. 

Which recent TV shows salute MTM and
what are some of the themes they’ve picked up?

there are so many! I think any show with a lead who’s single, professional, and
sexually active has echoes of The Mary
Tyler Moore Show
. The Mindy Project,
New Girl, Girls, and 2 Broke Girls all nod to the
difficulties of balancing career and personal success — themes that first came
to light for women in Mary.

James Brooks and Allan Burns were
determined to write about real women’s experiences while the women’s movement
was just a blip in the background. How did
they anticipate the explosion that would occur during the show’s run?

think they had a good sense of what makes a solid story, and they also wanted
to do something fresh, different, and of their times. When they thought about
what was going on with real people they knew but hadn’t been reflected on TV,
they thought of divorce and single women with careers. The network didn’t go
for the divorce idea, but the single career-woman thing worked for them. Then
the show and the character were able to roll with the times as they happened.
You can see a huge change in Mary from beginning to end, from a timid, girlish
figure to a real career woman.

Mary’s signature crying was not exactly
a feminist message. She called Lou “Mr. Grant” — why did they want to make her
so likeable using traditional methods?

was still a huge issue in network TV then. Hell, it still is to a large extent. But in 1969, when they were pitching this show, likability was paramount. They
were already pushing boundaries by making her a single career woman, so it was
important for her to have some weaknesses. Of course, weaknesses and
contradictions are also fun in any character! So I think ultimately it worked out
well, making Mary palatable to all and truly relatable to many women. She’s so
perfect in so many ways that I’m not sure I’d like her if she were also the
most perfect uber-feminist.

Can you please talk about what it was like to
meet some of the women attached to the show — the real-life Mary

Valerie Harper – The fact that Valerie Harper knows who I am is still a
little bit of a trip for me. She was unbelievably helpful with my research, I
think because she connected to the feminist themes. 

Cloris Leachman – I always say that meeting Cloris Leachman is not
an interview — it’s an experience. You’re basically getting a front-row seat at “The Cloris Leachman Show” for however long you have an audience with her. I did,
in fact, ask specific questions, but she just told stories as they came to her,
and after a while I gave in and just let her go. It was amazing. She remembers
a lot, and likes to tell everything in story form, with a little extra Cloris
performance to go with it. 

Treva Silverman – Treva is a goddess! She was a huge inspiration for this project. I kind of see her as the real Mary Richards and Rhoda Morganstern. She has this classic story, being a beautiful, brilliant piano prodigy growing up but wanting to become a comedy writer at a time when women just didn’t do that. 

Mimi Kirk – What a unique inspiration. She wore the headscarves and
hippie style that Val eventually adopted for Rhoda. Mimi was working as Mary’s
stand-in, but then became Val’s assistant and de facto fashion consultant. She
later became a raw food expert and continues to put out books now. If you look
her up and see what she looks like at 75, you’ll want to eat raw, too.

Gail Parent – I love what a long and amazing career she’s had, from a
bestselling novelist to writing for The
Golden Girls
to writing Lindsay Lohan movies. You can see why talking to
all of these women was so inspiring. Every time I’d finish another interview,
I’d think, Okay, it can’t get better than that. And then there’d be another,
and another, and another. You could write an exciting biography about any one of
these women alone.

Read an excerpt of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted at Women and Hollywood here.

Buy it here

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Betsy Cadel

Great article!! I grew up on steady diet of MTM as a kid and I know that she was definitely a role model for me. What a truly remarkable cast and so groundbreaking for its time.


Great interview, Holly! I am so very grateful to have grown up with these female characters written by female writers.


Watching MTM and its spin-offs (Phyllis, Rhoda & Lou Grant) was part of my childhood. In retrospect, the show inspired many females including me to know that I could make it after all. It should be interesting to read about the making of this funny yet inspiring show.


I always loved watching MTM (in reruns) as I grew up . Not only did it pave the way for strong female characters in TV, but it really daring for the times. To see how far we've come since then is quite incredible. And MTM was at the helm. Terrific article!

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