Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Looking For Heroes"

Was the “Mary Richards” character from the beloved The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) a feminist icon?

It seems to me she’s been called one.

But does she actually deserve to be?

It was a question that interested me.  I don’t know why.  I guess it troubles me when people believe stuff that is not accurate, even if it’s fictional characters achieving unearned recognition.

“So Hansel and Gretel were not heroes?”

They burned a woman in a stove!

Okay, so I’ve got too much time on my hands and I’m looking for controversy.

Anyway and whatever…

Before DVD’s and before Hulu, if you wanted to find out something about a TV episode, you had to find the original script and actually look at it directly.  So that’s what I did.  I dug up the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, because I wanted to verify something for myself.

That “something” being…

Mary’s intention when she appeared at WJM for her job interview.

My recollection was unclear on the matter.  Was Mary Richards always into television news?  Did she study journalism in college?  Now unencumbered from her long-term relationship, was she now taking the opportunity to pursue a lifelong dream of investigating malfeasance and wrongdoing, exposing sordid transgressions to public scrutiny?

It turns out that she wasn’t.

Reading the script reminded me that Mary had come there to interview for a secretarial position, which had already been filled, and after a marginally appropriate interview with Lou Grant, she was hired as an associate producer – the joke being that the associate producer job paid ten dollars less than the secretarial job.  

Mary needed a job, and she got one.  End of story.  No “Brenda Starr” fascination.  No  pointed mentioning of Lois Lane. 

Just tryin’ to pay the rent.  That’s it.

Of course, that’s just the pilot.  Mary Richards may have arguably evolved along the way.  (Although it did not go unnoticed that Mary called her boss “Mr. Grant” throughout the entire seven-year run of the series.  So I guess there’s “a line.”)

I am aware that Mary creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks made a point of hiring women writers to keep them honest in regards to how women actually think, feel and behave.  (Contrary Note From Personal Experience:  In the four Mary episodes I wrote, the issue never came up.  Though that could be because I am a naturally sensitive guy who is in no need of such admonishments.) 

The Brooks-and-Burns writing team gets no credit for making “Mary” single and thirty; they originally wanted her to be divorced and thirty.  But the network objected, divorcees in those days being considered morally… I don’t know… being married meant that she had probably had sex.   

I wanted to examine the writers’ original intention, that’s why I revisited the pilot.  And at least from a career standpoint, which was, and remains, a major feminist consideration, “Mary Richards” had no demonstrable ambitions in that direction, or in any other direction, whatsoever.

And while I am iconographically myth busting, how about

Lucy Ricardo.

Also sometimes mentioned as a feminist role model.  Although the evidence suggests that the encomium is misplaced.

Lucy, of course, had very serious career aspirations:

She wanted to be in the show. 

And her chauvinist pig of a husband Ricky always said, “No, no, no!  Why, because Lucy was a woman?  Ethel Mertz was in the show (in a “double act” with Fred), and she was a woman.  So no.

The reason Ricky refused to allow Lucy in the show was because Lucy (Ricardo, not the phenomenally gifted Lucille Ball) was congenitally klutzy and terminally untalented.

Neither of which – gender aside – are encouraging qualifications for participating in a show.


Now that I’ve poured cold water on two evidentiarily suspect feminist icons – sticking strictly to the television arena where I have arguable expertise – allow me to offer up an overlooked but legitimate feminist icon.

Sally Rogers.

Of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1965).

Sally Rogers – played by Rose Marie, who entered show business early as “Baby” Rose Marie – was single, talented, ambitious, independent, and in no way beholden for her accomplishments to her youth – she was discernibly, as Sally might describe it, no spring chicken – nor her spectacular beauty.  (Unless you are inordinately attracted to extremely tight hair bows.)

Contrasting the “Mary” theme song lyrics, “… You might just make it after all” – noteworthy for its uncertainly, as reflected by the word “might” – Sally Rogers was an all-out equal to the men – or even more so; she could easily “take” Buddy – and she unquestionably did make it on her own.  (Plus, as an advantage, when she sang, “I Wish I Could Sing Like Durante”, she actually could.)

Okay, so I took two heroes away.  But I gave you one back.

And the “one back” has the benefit of being the genuine article.


Pidge said...

We've Come a Long Way, Baby!

In the early 1970's, Mary was about as good a feminist icon you could get on TV. She was 30 and unmarried!
She actually left home and moved away, paid her own way and dated men without the constant need to see each one as a potential candidate for the altar. That singular focus was left to her buddy, Rhoda.....and, truth be told, Sally Rogers, who spent a lot of time talking about finding the right guy to rescue her from her independence.

Mary was a big move forward from Laura Petrie, who, in the 60's, gladly gave up the opportunity to go back to work because it was just too exhausting to stay up all night, secretly keeping up with the housework, to have the energy to dance all day! There was no expectation that her devoted husband pitch in, god forbid, or that they engage a little domestic help. Laura was destined to be one of Betty Friedan's women who suffered with the 'problem that has no name', if the series had continued.

Whether or not Mary had trained and sought out a particular career in broadcasting, the way people do today, is beside the point. She wasn't a teacher, social worker, secretary or dental hygienist (acceptable 'temporary' jobs for women at the time). She worked in an all-male environment and held her own. (This was not a high-powered Sorkinese newsroom, after all).
She never tried to seduce her boss or sleep with the clients, to get them to marry her, a la Rona Jaffe's heroines. Mary had other currency than sex, to succeed in life.

Over the years, we came to shift our thinking significantly....we didn't worry whether Mary would find true love....we worried about whether or not there was a man out there good enough to deserve her!

As for Lucy....she fought the good fight. She got the network to acknowledge pregnancy on the air. And even though she embarrassed her misogynistic tyrant of a husband with her attempts to horn in on the act, we all knew Ms. Ball was running the whole endeavour.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I mostly agree with Earl. I was six years old when THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW started, and I always loathed Laura Petrie. I didn't like her much better transmogrified into Mary Richards. The sob note of "Oh, Rob" just isn't enough different from the sob note of "Oh, Mr. Grant". However, it's true that the character did break new ground by, as we're often remminded, being the first single female allowed to have an actual sex life on TV. Anne Marie, the to my taste much more feminist lead of THAT GIRL, never did more than kiss her boyfriend. That said, though, I credit Marlo Thomas a lot for refusing to allow the series to end with their wedding because she felt it would be a betrayal of what the character stood for.

btw, the reason Mary Richards was single, not divorced, was (I've read in interviews) that the network was afraid people would think that Laura Petrie had divorced Rob, and that would never do. So they made her single coming off a broken-up engagement or something instead.

I adored Sally Rogers as a child. She was smart, funny, held her own, had a great job. More recently, when friends gave me the full set of DVD DVDs, I noticed how often she spoke of wanting a man in her life. That commpletely passed me by at the time because what I saw was her amazing life doing great and interesting things. Whereas, Laura Petrie seemed to me just one of many 20-something women on TV who all stayed home and did...well, I know child-raising isn't nothing in fact, but that's how it seemed. And Lucy, as talented as Lucille Ball was, never interested me much.


Frank said...

No doubt Sally is the real Germaine Greer of tv comedy.