What Mary Tyler Moore Taught Me About Work by

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am not presently a huge fan of television. But as a kid, I watched a lot of it! We used to make popcorn and sit on the floor, pajama-clad, mesmerized right in front of the TV. When I was a pre-teen, The Mary Tyler Moore Show taught me all about the world of working women by being an entertaining and exquisitely written show. With the television icon’s recent death, I find myself thinking often about how seminal her influence was, and how grateful I am for the sitcom that ran from 1970-1977 and streamed into my living room on Saturday nights for almost a decade very near bedtime.

Like so many, I loved everything about Mary Richards–her kindness, her high wattage smile, her humility, her courage, even her clothes. During the years the show ran, my own mother migrated from being a stay-at-home Mom to finding herself a divorced college graduate and ultimately, a new profession as a Registered Nurse. As I saw my Mom migrate to independence and strength while simultaneously raising me and my siblings, I delighted in the regular episodes of MTM because they showed me a glimpse of a world I truly only imagined. The lessons I amassed in those formative years have shaped who I have become in so many, many ways. A few specific lessons in the rearview mirror:

Work Hard, Even When It Feels Impossible

On the show, Mary Richards went to work even when it was tough: with a cold, after a sleepless night, when a deadline loomed, when she didn’t know what else to do. For me, going to work has always been a sanctified act that gave meaning and purpose to most days. From Mary I learned the importance of grit and of digging in to work even when you really, really, really do not want to. Mary went to work every day on the show because it was her job and because people were counting on her. I have done the same for more than 40 years, even when I don’t want to.

Don’t Say No to Opportunities, Even When You Are Scared Shitless

The MTM show’s first season showed Mary applying for a secretarial job and when it was no longer available, being offered the job of Associate Producer.The team at station WJM a thought she could handle it, but Mary had self-doubt. Taking the job anyway, despite her fear, was a deliberate act that went against the grain of the feminine culture of white women, then and now. We, white women, often suffer from insecurity and doubt that sometimes causes us us to over-prepare and to amass extra credentials before we take on a risky role, whereas men faced with the same option are enculturated to simply “go for it” and learn as they go. I remember the leap in my young heart every time Mary did something that scared her as I imaged the joy and excitement that comes from doing something hard, even though we aren’t at all sure it will work out. At so many crossroads in my life since, I have been emboldened to take a risk amidst my fear and insecurity in large part due to this early modeling of Mary on TV.

Say What is Difficult, But Say It

The show frequently centered around something difficult that Mary had to say to a friend or to her boss (Lou Reed played by Ed Asner) that would take her many conversations to sort out before she blurted out the idea or the hard question. Sometimes she did it raggedly with a quaver in her voice and while fidgeting, and sometimes she did it with grace and strength. But Mary Richards did it–she said what she needed to say even when it was terribly hard and scary. Our voices matter, and this early impressive character reinforced in my young mind the idea that I, too, had a voice and that I should share it, even if it came out imperfectly.

Cherish Your Women Friends

Rhoda, Georgette, Phyllis, and Sue Ann were precious to Mary, even as they sometimes annoyed each other with their oddball quirks and characteristics.  But when things got tough for any one of them (divorce, cancer, addiction, boyfriend trouble, job woes) they showed up, often with food or to offer a shopping trip. I remember very clearly watching the show with my friend Jen Lamb on sleepovers and feeling the warmth that came from knowing that I, too, had someone who would always have my back and that could hear my deepest darkest fears and problems and would be there. Always. Jen is in my life still today despite living thousands of miles apart as are a handful of other dear women (Ann, Sandy, Cammie, Dana) who show up when I need it and can handle all my mess, as I handle theirs and always will.

Men Are Key Allies

The men on the MTM show embodied what I have come to know as allies. Lou, Grant, and Ted were men who believed in Mary Richards, and they were willing to go out on a limb for her, even when it cost them personally.  Each of them at different times on the show offered an apology, a raise, a public recognition, a private word of support or just their very presence to demonstrate that as colleagues and friends they were on Mary’s side. I remember being amazed that there was never a romantic connection between Mary and these men, they were co-workers and friend through and through, which I found mystifying as a young girl but also so enticing. Were there men like that who would want to have idealogical debate with me in a job? Men who would challenge me but support me at the same time?  In the years since the show stopped airing, I have been fortunate to have a number of male clients and colleagues who have done just that: advocate for me, listen to me, and challenge me, whole also making space for me to do the same for them.

Beauty And Contribution Can Go Together

In 1970’s America Twiggy was the beauty ideal and nice girls were quiet and demure with blonde hair and big eyers. They were beautiful, but to my young mind, kind of superfluous. What did they DO that made the world better, really?  But Mary Richards was both beautiful AND a contributor. Her work made the news better and what she did mattered. Sure, her hair and skin and clothes usually were well put together, but that was rarely the focus of the show. What we were led to on the MTM show was the work itself and the unique relationship dynamics of the workers that shared hours on end together at the station. This gave me hope that the value I might add in the world and to people would transcend my appearance and actually matter to someone or to something.

I know Mary Tyler Moore hesitated to say yes to this show when she first had the chance for fear it would tarnish her reputation as Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke show, but oh how glad I am that she did. It was, after all, the 1970’s, and while women were entering the workforce in droves, there was very little modeling of what it actually looked like when they worked outside the home. The show, and Mary Richard’s character in particular, gave visible life to what it meant to be a working woman. For me, an impressionable pre-teen with a keen curious heart and a bold voice, it gave me hope that I could contribute, that my voice mattered, and that there was a world out there waiting for me to explore.

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    2 Responses to "What Mary Tyler Moore Taught Me About Work"

  1. I’m watching this on Hulu now. Good show. I thought it was interesting because Mary’s work friends and home friends knew each other. I absolutely loved Mary’s parents. Every character added to the show in their own, unique way. I loved Mary’s clothes, her first apartment, and remember she dated a lot of good-looking guys. This was so much better than “That Girl”, which was truly awful and unfunny.

    I agree about her stepping out of her comfort zone–he voice would crack and such, but still, SHE DID IT! You are so right about white women second-guessing themselves (I constantly overprepare); I’ve learned to “go for it”, but I am definitely more of a “Mary Richards personality”.

    However, in one show, there was talk about Rhoda needing to lose weight, and she wasn’t much bigger than Mary–just wore baggier clothes. Curves were definitely out in this era.

    Growing up, I liked “The Dick Van Dyke Show” better, but I appreciate this one more now.

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