Film

Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore, Reluctant Feminist Icon

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Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday at 80, was a reluctant feminist. She wouldn’t even call herself one at all.

In 1970, when Moore embodied the character of flighty, 30-year-old single TV news producer Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, there was no other such woman portrayed on television — at least not one who was leading her own show or not dismissed as slutty. The only forerunner was Marlo Thomas in That Girl, but her Ann Marie was a 20-something on her way to marriage, while Mary was running away from the institution.

On the show, Mary fought for equal pay after discovering she made less than her male coworkers. Storylines tackled premarital sex, infidelity, homosexuality, divorce, infertility — everything on a woman’s mind in the dawning era of equal rights, with the glaring exception of abortion. She seemed to be feeling her way toward feminism, sometimes tripping over it and into a women’s movement she wasn’t all that sure about.

Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine began publishing soon after The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered, but Moore wanted nothing to do with the feminist rights icon. Today, Moore’s show might play as the work of what has become known as a “white feminist,” someone concerned primarily with equality for white middle-class women. But it remains revolutionary for its time, and it’s still ahead of much of TV today in one respect: Nothing was more groundbreaking than Moore’s insistence that the writer’s room be filled with women.

This was a precedent that carried over into all the television series developed by her production company, MTM. I’m currently in the middle of a Newhart binge and can attest to the many women who occupy the writing and directing slots for every single episode. In all, MTM produced almost 50 television series, including Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda and WKRP in Cincinnati, and it gave countless women their starts in television. Gail Parent, who worked on multiple MTM shows, went on to write and produce series like The Golden Girls and Tracey Ullman’s Tracey Takes on …

While Moore’s show rounded up a then-unprecedented 29 Emmys, Moore herself was suffering. She was an open alcoholic, and an episode in which Mary became addicted to sleeping pills was largely inspired by her own life. She funneled that pain into her work, fundraising for charities that combated diabetes (she had had Type 1 diabetes since her 30s) and animal abuse. Toward the end of her life, cancer had infected her brain; according to many friends, the happy liberal Moore was glued to Fox News and suddenly calling herself a libertarian.

It’s not exactly clear why she took a right turn in her politic. What was always most important to Moore, a former dancer, was grace. Grace in asking for what you want and in accepting defeat. It’s not hard to imagine her shivering with disapproval at Black Lives Matter activists or millions of women marching for their rights — shades of Ms.! To her, this would be uncivilized, and Mary Tyler Moore lived in a world far from this one, a world where a woman could walk into a news station to apply for a secretarial position only to walk out with an assistant producer title.

She was a woman of great paradoxes, successes and setbacks. When her son was 24 he accidentally shot and killed himself. Holding this in mind while assessing her award-winning performance in Robert Redford’s 1980 directorial debut, Ordinary People — in which Moore plays a mother grieving her son’s death by slapping on a chipper demeanor — brings her life and career into better focus. It might explain why Moore never joined up with Steinem. The woman who could turn the world on with her smile gave a self-fulfilling prophecy that for the world to accept her she had to smile. But not everything can be smiled over.