Turning the world on to feminism

It’s a fair assumption that Mary Richards and early feminism had a complicated relationship. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” character was perhaps a little too refined, a little too feminine (quick to cry, always stylishly dressed) and only a few years removed from its earlier incarnation as the model of urbane, wifely domesticity in the “Dick Van Dyke Show’s” Laura Petrie. Feminism, meanwhile, took on a militancy in the 1970s that contrasted Richards’ (and Moore’s) sunny outlook.

But make no mistake: The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” made an immeasurable contribution to the feminist cause. Through television’s vast influence on the popular culture, Americans were exposed to a female archetype that was nothing short of revolutionary. Men saw a woman in the workplace other than a receptionist — a woman whose considerable responsibilities included supervising other men. Both men and women watched an over-30 single woman proceed through life with no particular desire to be married. This was a time when most women were married in their early 20s and had several children by 30. And most importantly, women were shown a new world of possibilities for themselves, their sisters or their daughters. You could get a job in a male-dominated industry. You could advance, and it was OK to be ambitious in your career. And, unthinkable for many at the time, you could be happy as a single woman. But it helps to bring a smile.

Ah, the famous smile that turned the world on. It was that smile that made “Mary Tyler Moore” so deceptive. Who could object to such a radiant intrusion into the workplace? As her naive optimism wore down gruff male co-workers, it also won over America. This wasn’t a rowdy street protest of butch extremists demanding equal rights. It was Mary. She smiled her way into a producer job for a Minneapolis TV news broadcast, then made the job made her own by countering male bluster with quiet competence. She wasn’t selling out the cause but advancing it with a Trojan horse of charm offensive. Behind the smile, Moore was producer of the show. She was the star — the only actor credited in the introduction via the show’s title — and led a cast that featured three strong (even dominant) female supporting characters. She had an array of female writers posing unique storylines that hadn’t been considered by male contemporaries.

But here’s the thing — it wasn’t exclusively female writers. It wasn’t an all-female cast. It was a vision of real life that, in terms of gender, gave a more balanced presentation than anything TV viewers had seen before. And it did so without compromising quality. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” remains one of the most acclaimed and beloved series in TV history. Because for a half-hour, we got a peek into a world in which women and men lived and worked in relative harmony, and we found it fun, even comforting at times, and, oddly, not all that threatening.

A brief shining moment: A “Mary Tyler Moore” scene to remember

 

A brief shining moment

Far be it from me to step into Hallmark card territory, but I think there’s truth to the idea that life is really about the small moments. Maybe it’s a quick cup of coffee with your dad, an unexpected phone call from a friend, or that presentation you nailed at the office today. These are the experiences that carry us through the humdrum existence that makes up the other 99 percent of our time.

If art imitates life, great art captures the Hallmark moment with snippets so sublime that they rise out of, and in some cases above, the work that contains them. Eric Clapton pulling notes from the air like tears with his guitar slide on “Let It Grow.” Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel sizing each other up as rivals for Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver.” Paul Newman breaking down when he realizes he’s been suckered in “The Color of Money.” Such moments stand alone, as strong as any personal memory.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” has a well-earned reputation as one of television’s finest sitcoms because of its ability to stage life’s beautiful snippets. The series benefited from uncannily spot-on casting, which contributes to the genuine nature of the characters’ relationships. That’s on full display when, for instance, it falls upon Mary to explain the facts of life to Phyllis’ daughter Bess. Or when Edie leaves Lou in one of the more heart-breaking exchanges in television history.

But my favorite “Mary” moment comes early in the episode “Once I Had a Secret Love,” in which Lou confides in Mary about his one-night stand with Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens. The scene, which takes place entirely in Lou’s office, highlights his innocence and Mary’s comparative worldliness in a reversal of their usual roles. The acting is masterful. Lou’s sexual naiveté is believable, while Mary’s mix of concern and amusement probably reflects the reaction of most viewers. There’s a natural friendship, an abiding respect and love for each other that will be tested later in the episode. The drama that plays out only enhances the longing for those cherished 4 minutes and 40 seconds, in Lou’s office with the door closed, that set the story in motion. It’s no surprise that’s where the two return to resolve their differences in another memorable scene to end the show.

Here’s the full episode. The scene I’ve described runs from 1:00 to 5:40.