A Mary for Our Time

It’s not just that I loved Mary Tyler Moore. It’s that I needed her, especially when I was a confused little person growing up in the 1970s with no desire to be a housewife and very few models of women working in TV, which already was what I wanted to do. There were the beleaguered mothers in my neighborhood and the office secretaries perpetually bemoaning their single-girl status with a thousand unsmiling war stories, and then there was MTM on her eponymous show, living in a cute-as-pie pied-à-terre with no husband telling her to make dinner and no apparent regrets. Mary had the greatest best friend in America–who wouldn’t want to live downstairs from wise-cracking, warm-hearted Rhoda?—and Mary loved everyone she could, including her gruff boss (oh, Mr. Graaaant!) and simpering coworkers. She was gorgeous and hilarious and idiosyncratic and sharp, a vision in pantsuits and clever retorts and triple-take stammers and and just the best, best legs. She organized her medicine cabinet alphabetically and served cognac and coffee and didn’t pretend to be dumber than she was, even if she did suffer too many fools. (Even at age 6 I felt this strongly.) She was made for TV–movies never quite captured the scope of her down-to-earth elegance—but she also made over TV. Through Mary, we all got used to women who lived alone joyously–ones who presided over a newsroom unapologetically, who knew how to be good friends with women and men, who Long Tall Sallied everywhere with compassion, confidence, and clarity.

As Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore was beautifully vulnerable but never caved to her fears, not even when she battled addiction (a plotline drawn from her real-life struggles, a brave novelty in the ’70s), not even when she was demanding equal pay for equal work with a good-girl quiver. If she’d had a pretty kitty, she would’ve led my perfect life. As it were, she wasn’t perfect but she perfectly took us with her as she bloomed from a yes-man of a Dick Van Dyke wife to a formidable, independent woman who dragged the TV nation kicking and screaming out of the 1950s once and for all. In retrospect, it’s no mistake that Mary was her name. She was a Mary for our time, a stunning manifestation of twentieth-century divine femininity, with the Mother’s patience, Magdalene’s grit, and a few pratfalls just for fun.

Lately, I’d be so obsessed with her show–had been mainlining it since the holidays and plastering everything and everybody with MTM references. (I’d posted about her on Facebook last night, which today floored all but those who most ardently believe in my witchy powers.) With some scary professional and personal changes on the horizon, I guess I just needed to revisit her Capricorn capability, not to mention the solidarity she shared with Rhoda. It connected me to my girlhood dream of adult womanhood and a standard of ladyfriendship that I’d never abandoned. My girlfriends are Marys or Rhodas, all of them, and with these broads I don’t just go out on the town. I clean, cook, craft, dish, and, of course, plan empires. This is what Mary Tyler Moore gave us: a vision of modernity that preserved only the good parts of the bad old days—namely, the coziness and the grace. I love you Mary, and I always will. Thank you for being one of my generation’s good mothers. Scratch that. Great.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy