The Mary Richards Effect

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Today, in my episodic narrative class, we watched the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Having been raised on a steady diet of classic TV sitcoms as a kid (OG TVLand and/or Nick At Nite anyone?), I’d already watched several episodes of the series and own the first two seasons on DVD. Side note, I own the DVDs– not my parents. The show may have been from their era, but when I was in my early twenties it spoke to me. The reason for that being the protagonist, Mary Richards.

For those of you who have not watched the series (and yeah, rectify that immediately if not sooner), the premise of the show is explained in the theme song and in the first five minutes of the pilot episode. A thirty-year-old woman breaks off a four year relationship and moves to Minneapolis to focus on her career. While this premise is ubiquitous on present-day TV, in the 1970s it was considered revolutionary. Having a woman focus on her professional goals more than on becoming a wife was not what audiences were accustomed to seeing on their screens.

To further amp up the girl power of the pilot, Mary interviews for a position in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field. Though she initially applies for a secretarial job, she is hired to be the associate producer of the evening news and, spoiler alert, advances in that role to become an even more valuable part of the news team in later seasons.  

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Mary’s interview with Lou Grant (Ed Asner) is a defining moment for the series as well as for the character. Lou asks Mary some rather personal questions, including her religion and whether or not she’s married. Though the exchange is performed in a comedic way, Mary immediately stands up to Lou and states that those questions aren’t allowed to be asked during an interview and that they are not indicative of her qualifications.

Lou’s response, “You’ve got spunk,” is considered one of the most memorable lines of the episode, but Mary challenging him is also significant because, up until that decade, interviewers could ask prospective hirees anything and everything about their lives to determine their qualifications. The series sets the tone for the era and the changing times by not conforming, and most importantly, not having Mary conform.

Because of that, and because of the the series as a whole, Mary became a symbol for feminism and an inspirational icon for career-driven women. A kind of representation that allowed young women all over to think, “hey, if she can do that, why can’t I?”

The passing of Moore in 2017 was devastating for countless women who were inspired by her and her character’s incredible legacy. Mary Richards graced our screens during a time when representation of women putting career first was few and far between, and she has since inspired women to follow their path of choice.

Rewatching the beginning of Mary’s story today served as a reminder to continue creating my own, and that actively pursuing career goals is something to be embraced, not feared. If only for the reason that you might just make it after all.  

*throws hat up in the air*