Feminist Criticism and the Mary Tyler Moore Show

I recently started watching all the episodes from the Mary Tyler Moore show which ran from 1970-77 and have now made it to the final season. I was curious about the show after reading Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, an excellent exploration of behind the scenes of this supposed “feminist” show. Early seasons were great, but the show tanks after Rhoda leaves. Mary is then left to interact with the incredibly dull characters that remain. But as I continued to watch, it became more and more of a chore. Why was I starting to turn against the show? Bonnie Dow’s criticism helps to pinpoint some of the reasons.

Essentially, Mary’s a token character. The network was able to pay lip-service to the growing (and complex) Women’s Liberation Movement but not really make any actual changes to the way women are portrayed in the media. Although she’s single and making it on her own, all the women around her are bee-lining for husbands—poor Rhoda gets married off quickly in her own spinoff, Phyllis extols the blessedness of married life, Ted and Georgette get hitched (and then pregnant… the oohs and ahhs of the studio audience for the big reveal of a tiny baby were disgusting).

Dow brings up a dynamic I’d overlooked, that of Mary as caregiver. She kowtows to Mr. Grant (Lou), and is always bending over backwards to help people. Random interruptions are constantly happening when she’s at home. Essentially, the show took the idea of a wife/mother figure and cloaked it in her 30-something single-ladyness.

“The demands made for increased minority and female representation result in higher visibility for these groups on television, although the situations and characters through which they are depicted may implicitly work to ‘contain’ the more radical aspects of the changes such representation implies. Some limited changes in content result, but the general hegemonic values remain intact…. those who create the programming actually have made only cosmetic changes in representation of the disputed group.”

This is exemplified starkly in the role of Gordy the weatherman on the show. He’s a black man and he is given the chance to be the anchorman when Ted’s out. But quickly he fades away and is largely absent for the last 5 seasons. There was also a woman with an Afro who worked as chief of staff for an incompetent local politician, but she’s in and out appearing in only one episode.

Once Rhoda leaves, the focus of the show swings back to be entirely male-focused. And the studio audience laps up Ted Baxter’s idiocy, not realizing they have been switched over to a feed of pablum that was seen in every other sitcom of the season. It’s the only show where I pay careful attention to who wrote the episode, because when it’s written by one of the talented women, I know it will have some good bits. Otherwise, just mind-numbing stuff that doesn’t stand the test of time.