Editor’s Note: This month, Zimbio editors are looking back, and reflecting on how influential films, TV shows, and celebrities changed us — and the impact they’ve had on our lives and pop culture…
When The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970, things in America were rapidly changing thanks to two books released in 1963: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. These texts brought to light the complications and pressures women faced in both their public and private lives. For the first time in history, two texts written by women effectively conveyed to mainstream America the radical notion that women had “human flaws” just like their male counterparts. America now questioned the perpetuated idea of the 1950’s “happy housewife.” It questioned the pressure placed on women to become this ideal portrait of domestic femininity, ultimately spurring America into second-wave feminism, which encouraged women to seek a life outside of the home.
Enter Mary Richards, the protagonist of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary was single, lived on her own, and was career driven. She was also 30-years-old, on “the pill,” and the only woman to work in her newsroom at WJM-TV.
Watching the show from the vantage point of 2018 is problematic. You quickly realize the show isn’t perfect. But during its run, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was absolutely groundbreaking. It brought real attention to some of the issues that surrounded the shifting power dynamics between men and women in the workplace.
More importantly, while still in the throws of the feminist movement, The Mary Tyler Moore Show asked audiences to identify with the perspective of the modern woman — something that hadn’t been done before.
For better or worse, here are the 5 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that tackled subject matter and brought up issues still relevant today.
1. “Love Is All Around”
Season 1, Episode 1
In the pilot episode, Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) moves to Minneapolis after her boyfriend — whom she supported for two years through medical school — leaves her.
Almost immediately, Mary looks for a job. She applies to the WJM-TV newsroom with the hopes of becoming a secretary, but the position has been filled. Lou Grant (Edward Asner), Mary’s “boss-to-be,” informs her that there’s another position available — one he wants to hire a man for. As Lou reviews Mary’s resume, he asks personal questions, like her religion and marital status. Mary gets offended, objecting to the fact that Lou has asked a bunch of personal questions and nothing about her qualifications for the job. Lou says Mary has “spunk,” and though he claims he hates “spunk,” gives her the position of associate producer on their news show.
Later that evening, Lou drops by Mary’s apartment, half-drunk, saying he wants to write a letter to his wife who’s currently out of town. Mary suddenly feels deflated, because she thinks Lou only hired her because he wanted to get “fresh” with her. But, Lou doesn’t: He tells Mary in colorful language that he loves and misses his wife and really does want to write her a letter.
Though Mary has every reason to be concerned about Lou’s intentions, we can assume her quick judgment of him is based on her prior experiences with men in the workplace — which is sad! But Lou proves he does respect Mary as his co-worker, and this experience becomes the foundation for the type of friendship they have throughout the entire series. Lou often indirectly pushes Mary to stand up for herself, and Mary learns that, though Lou has a hard time admitting his feelings and correcting his mistakes the first time around, he really is a good guy.
2. “What Is Mary Richards Really Like?”
Season 3, Episode 2
When a TV column writer asks if he could interview Mary because she’s the only woman working in the WJM-TV newsroom, Mary agrees. After Mary tells Lou about the interview, Lou informs Mary that the TV writer is a harsh critic and will twist whatever she says to fit the needs of whatever he’s writing.
Mary begins to second guess herself, forgetting key aspects of her personality that got her into the newsroom in the first place, like her “spunk.” Mary becomes self-critical of who she is, and who “Mary Richards” should be. In her attempt to become the type of woman she believes the TV column writer thinks she is, Mary even changes the way she dresses, wearing a suit-type outfit, tie included.
When it comes time for the interview, Mary doesn’t know how to be herself. She stumbles over what she says about her co-workers and even loses sight of the unique qualities she brings to their newsroom. What’s worse is, by the end of the interview, Mary agrees to go on a date with the TV column writer out of fear that he’ll write something bad about her if she doesn’t!
Though bleak, not all hope is lost for Mary. After their date, the TV column writer asks Mary if he could “sleep over,” and Mary says no. He leaves, and though Mary comically questions whether or not she’s “under-sexed,” this turn in the episode reestablishes Mary’s sense of self-worth and assurance in her own identity. Mary becomes less of a pushover, and her ability to establish clear boundaries between her and the TV column writer, ultimately leads to his respect and desire to ask her on a second date.
3. “A Girl Like Mary”
Season 5, Episode 14
When Lou decides he wants to hire a woman to do a short editorial segment during the evening news, he asks for someone who can bring the “woman’s point of view,” someone like Mary — only, not Mary.
The problem is: Mary wants to apply for the job. Mary feels she’s the most qualified to be “like Mary,” because she is Mary! Mary goes up against many contenders, one of them being Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), the “Happy Homemaker.” But, it’s Mary’s nervousness and her desire to please everyone that ultimately prevents her from landing the job.
When Mary finally asks Lou if she got the position or not, Lou takes Mary aside and shows her the girl who he feels is most qualified. During the opening of her mock segment, this applicant says she can’t give the “woman’s perspective” on news, because the news has nothing to do with gender, just facts. She can, however, give her personal perspective.
Lou tells Mary that this is the kind of perspective he wanted — a woman’s personal take on issues, not her ability to speak for the masses. And though Mary comically tries to renegotiate Lou’s decision, she agrees with, and supports, Lou’s chosen applicant for the segment she’ll be producing.
4. “What Do You Do When Your Boss Says, “I Love You?”‘
Season 3, Episode 20
When Lou’s boss is fired and replaced by a woman, Mary thinks he’ll have an issue with it. But, Lou doesn’t. Once again, Lou proves he’s more progressive than Mary thinks he is.
Barbara, Lou’s new boss, quickly becomes friends with Mary. Being that they are the only two women working together, Barbara goes on to confess to Mary that she has feelings for Lou. Mary informs Barbara that Lou is happily married and wouldn’t be interested.
After a late night work session with Barbara, Lou confesses to Mary that Barbara made a “pass” at him, and he doesn’t know what do to about it. At first, Mary doesn’t want to get involved, but then she listens. Mary takes in what Lou says and believes him in the way anyone should when someone tells them about a situation like this. Lou decides to confront Barbara about what happened and Barbara apologizes, and the two are able to continue to work together.
Way ahead of its time, this episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show addresses issues that bubbled up not so long ago with the #MeToo movement. Mary’s inability to listen to Lou’s confession that Barbara made a “pass” at him was her way of gendering sexual harassment. But when Mary finally listens, it provides audiences the necessary space to realize sexual harassment could happen to anyone.
5. “The Good-Time News”
Season 3, Episode 1
While cleaning through her desk, Mary finds an old budget breakdown revealing that the associate producer that came before her made $50 dollars more per week than she does. Mary goes to Lou with her discovery and asks: If she does a better job than the old associate producer did, why is she getting paid less?
Lou says it’s because the old associate producer “had a family,” and Mary doesn’t. Upset, Mary storms out, then returns saying that on the basis of family, that would mean that every single male employee must be getting paid less than those with a family to a support. Lou doesn’t respond to Mary’s point. Instead, Lou avoids the issue, but Mary doesn’t.
By the end of the episode, Lou realizes his judgment in error. He tells Mary there’s no reason why she should make $50 less than the associate producer before her for doing the same work. So, Lou offers Mary $25 more than she gets now. Mary holds her ground because she knows this raise isn’t really fair. Lou gives in, and Mary gets equal pay.
Though we are still dealing with gender pay inequality in America, it’s nice to see that in the 1970s, Lou and Mary came up with a solution that made sense to the both of them: equal pay for equal work.
Catch episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show whenever, wherever on Hulu.
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