By Liv Jordan
Today, badass female characters are dominating television more and more. Characters like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri, and Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope are perfect examples of strong-willed, quirky, powerful women. These women hold important jobs, rich friendships, and live independent and interesting lifestyles that all audiences can relate to, regardless of their gender. Funny, real, and fictional, they serve as role models for young women like myself (Personally, as I grow older I find myself not so much becoming my mother, but instead, Liz Lemon, glasses and all).
While today it’s becoming more and more common to see representation of both strong female characters and writers, this was surely not the norm in recent history. Mary Tyler Moore’s portrayal of Mary Richards helped pave the way for these incredibly complex characters and opened the door for female writers to create characters that reflect the modern woman.
A gleam in my hippie father’s eye when The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered, I know of the show’s influence via the creative female forces I idolize today. Tina Fey, my number-one inspiration to work in television, cites Mary Tyler Moore as her icon. Samantha Bee, another woman whom I admire, closed a recent episode of her show Full Frontal with, “Thanks to Mary Tyler Moore, the reason a little Sam Bee could ever think I could do something like this.” The role these women play in my life is what Mary Tyler Moore is to them, and to so many other women who dreamed of working in television.
Mary Richards changed the female character archetype. In 1970, when the show premiered, the notion of a single, working woman as the main character was revolutionary. She dated around, enjoyed healthy female friendships, and stood up for herself as an independent and confident woman. Her life did not derive meaning from her relationships with men; her power and liveliness was innate. In addition, she dressed like a real working woman, she mentioned being on birth control, and she confronted her employers about the wage gap at her job. Even though the show was about a woman, it did not cater to the male gaze. Mary Richards proved that women could be simultaneously be spunky and ambitious, likeable and strong.
Part of what made the show so trailblazing was the fact that strong women worked both behind and in front of the camera. According to the Atlantic, 25 of the show’s 75 writers in 1973 were women—a milestone at the time. Women wrote about women! That led to rich storylines that mentioned women’s issues that were often untouched by sitcoms, including workplace sexual harassment, divorce, and the trials and tribulations of singledom. These women writers surely opened the doors for people like Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Oprah, and Ellen DeGeneres. As a woman who wants to write comedy, I owe the fact that I have the opportunity to do so to the women who in the 1970s made the writing room of The Mary Tyler Moore Show their own and proved to the world that women’s voices are valuable and worthy of being heard.
Mary Tyler Moore, her character Mary Richards, and the writers, specifically the women who created the character gave women the confidence that they could in fact “make it after all.” Without these strong women, there would be no Girls, no 30 Rock, no Scandal, basically nothing to binge-watch except for Entourage and Workaholics.
With her recent passing, I tip my hat—and throw it in the air—for a woman who paved the way for other women and helping me believe in myself, the dire need for representation in television, and the inherent power of women. Her legacy is one that will live on as more and more women will walk through the once-closed doors that she helped to pry open with grace and humility.