Mary Tyler Moore in Mary Tyler Moore (1970) (© Fox Home Entertainment. All rights reserved. / IMDB)

Revisiting the Sexual Power Politics in ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ in the Era of #MeToo

Here we are, perched upon our mountaintop, comforted by experience and enlightenment, by our "wokeness" -- and we cast our judgment upon this '70s-era show. Rightly so.

Somewhere in downtown Minnesota, high up in a drab office building, there’s a meeting in the Human Resources Department of WJM Channel 12, sometime in 1977. Something has happened with the personnel at the low-rated yet beloved newsroom. The friendly banter between the mainly male staff, led by gruff but loveable old veteran news Executive Producer Lou Grant (Edward Asner), has turned into something else. Lou agreed to a single date with his subordinate Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore), the sole female Associate Producer, a 37-year-old single woman who suddenly seems on the verge of giving up. The wife of a colleague suggests to Mary that she date Lou. He’s her ideal man. They both consent, but things dissolve into nervous giggles once they get back to Mary’s apartment and they go in for a kiss. Tension cut and apparently gone, the scene fades to black and everybody goes home happy as the final credits roll.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) was by all regards a masterful and groundbreaking comedy series when it premiered in September 1970. Mary Richards was a 30-year-old woman recovering from a broken relationship when she relocated to Minneapolis, found a modest 2nd floor apartment, and landed a job as an associate producer without any experience whatsoever. “You got spunk!” Lou Grant tells her, admiringly, by the end of that first interview. Mary lands the job, but she never seems to go anywhere with it. In the days before CNN or any notion that the news of the world was a 24/7 proposition, Mary and news writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin Macleod) and bumbling on-air newsman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) seemed to work a 9-to-5 shift, with occasional overtime but little reward for their efforts, especially in salary.

By the time the show reached its end, the character of Mary Richards was as fully-formed as she could be for a female character of the ’70s. She was an independent woman who treasured a close friendship with her friend Rhoda (Valerie Harper) who eventually moved to New York (and the actor got her own series). Mary regularly dated (more about that later) and viewers were treated to a revolving series of suitors, none of which seemed to meet her standards (as we’ll see in season 7.) On 12 March 1977, The Mary Tyler Moore Show aired its penultimate episode, “Lou Dates Mary”. Watching it in 2017 in light of the current blizzard of sexual harassment cases in politics, media, and the arts, the viewer leaves with a question that remains unanswered: did WJM even have ethical standards? or an HR department?

Some of the easiest conclusions to make about woefully inappropriate sexual dynamics in a ’70s TV comedy classic come with the safety of time. Here we are, perched upon our mountaintop, comforted by experience and enlightenment, by our “wokeness” — and we pass judgment on the plot of this episode. This was the second to last episode of the series, but it was the final nail in the coffin of Mary’s personal life. Within the first few minutes, she and her date du jour have returned to her apartment for a nightcap. While Mary prepares it, the date is off-screen. When we next see him, he’s taken off his shirt. Mary won’t have it. She complains and tells him to put his shirt back on. She notes she’s been dating twice a week for 20 years, since she was 17. She calculates how many dates that comes to and her mind reels with the sum. Mary returns to the kitchen to continue preparing the drink, and when she returns, the man’s shirt is off again.

The fact that David Lloyd’s script plays this for laughs is the first of a rather queasy, difficult episode. The viewer in 2017 imagines all sorts of ways this could have ended, none of them where Mary wins. Mary and Lou agree to date, it doesn’t work, and the case seems closed. Two weeks before this episode aired, we see another variation of the Lou/Mary dynamic in writer Bob Ellison’s episode, “Mary’s Three Husbands”. The three primary male lead characters (Lou, Murray, and Ted) have gathered in Lou’s office for a nightcap. Mary is away on a date, and the men wonder what’s going to happen. Will this be the one? Will Mary ever find happiness? Each man imagines how their lives would be if they had ended up with Mary. For Murray, she is a willing and submissive pregnant mother who delivers in mid-dream sequence. For Ted, she’s willing and compliant in their post-wedding/honeymoon suite fantasy but she won’t consummate the relationship.

Just when the viewer thinks this might be another of the funny, sweet, tightly-packaged and smooth comedy gems this show could do in its sleep, we get to Lou’s fantasy of wedded bliss with Mary. They are dotting old people in the newsroom, celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Everybody is old, and the audience enjoys the gimmick. The only problem seems to be Mary’s face, the shame and regret she’s feeling. They’ve been married 50 years, and she wants to talk about a forbidden subject. Lou dismisses it for as long as he can, but then it comes out. After 50 years, they haven’t consummated the relationship. Lou explains (to loud laughter from the audience) that they can’t do that now. He explains that when they were first married, she was like his daughter. When they were middle-aged, she was like his sister, and now she’s like his mother.

Again, the difficulty of assessing any gender enlightenment (or lack thereof) in a 1977 TV comedy is knowing that it will never be balanced. Today we know better, but we have not seemed to change, especially within the worlds of television news and sitcom entertainment. Mary Richards was independent, self-sufficient, and from all apparent evidence a good friend. The fact that she insisted on pleasing everybody and never making waves and always threw parties that failed in every imaginable way might not ingratiate her to today’s audience but they did effectively portray one side of the modern woman. Rhoda, marrying and eventually divorcing (and apparently enjoying an active sex life) with her hirsute husband Joe, represented a more bold version of that modern ’70s/’80s-era woman.

The work environment at WJM-TV seemed to be one replete with hard-drinking and brazenly chauvinistic men who took for granted that the women in their offices revolved around them. Mary was the chronically dating single woman with an apparently infinite supply of hope that her prince would one day come. Sue Anne Nivens, aka “The Happy Homemaker” (Betty White) apparently had an active sexual life, but it was always played negatively. She was always marginalized as a wanton libertine out only for the pleasures of her flesh. If Sue Anne enjoyed sex, (and there was no reason for her to not do so), the show seemed to punish her for it.

In these waning days of 2017, while former CBS Morning Show co-host Charlie Rose (and host of the long-running eponymously-titled PBS talk show) is revealed as a chronic sexual harasser, and Today Show host Matt Lauer is removed after over two decades in the wake of a bombshell report about his indiscretions, we can look back at shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show — , which seemed to take place in a work environment with no apparent HR department, no consequences for crossing blurred lines, and a dynamic that permanently stationed men in positions of power (in front of and behind the camera) — while the women bargained for the right to squirm, dance, or surrender to the inevitable.