Colette Sheridan: Mary Tyler Moore wore the trousers literally and metaphorically

In her weekly column Colette Sheridan recalls a woman who was regarded as ground-breaking in the era of second-wave feminism
Colette Sheridan: Mary Tyler Moore wore the trousers literally and metaphorically

GROUND-BREAKING: Mary Tyler Moore, who appeared in ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’, a fictional programme.

NEWSMEN in popular culture are portrayed in a particular way.

‘Gruff but with a tender heart’ is the clichéd shorthand for these blokes with their sleeves rolled up and, in the old days, a cigarette dangling from their mouth or placed behind an ear.

These streetwise guys were always the beating hearts of busy newsrooms, dishing up the daily diet of violence and murders, occasional lurid sex scandals and more pedestrian stuff such as city council reports.

One of the most memorable newsmen in popular culture was a character called Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. He was played by Ed Asner who died last month at the grand old age of 91. He went on to star in a TV show, Lou Grant, such was the popularity of this paunchy character.

But it was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, starring a character called Mary Richards, who worked for Lou Grant on a fictional news programme in Minneapolis, that captivated me.

Quite simply, I wanted to be Mary, who wasn’t looking after a bunch of squally children but rather, working as a single, independent woman focused on her career. 

The brunette with the toothy smile was appealing to girls like me who didn’t aspire to marriage or a traditionally female career such as nursing or teaching.

We loved her apartment. This was an era in Ireland where a single woman, away from home, would live in a bedsit, or, if they were lucky, a flat. (Think linoleum-covered floors and brown Dralon furniture - death.) Apartments were, to our eyes, an American phenomenon, and therefore sophisticated. They were impossibly glamorous places where parties were thrown and life was lived as an adventure in a big city pad.

A career in TV, a la Mary, was the epitome of sophistication. Astonishingly, the actress created quite a stir when she appeared in ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ in the 1960s in trousers, or more specifically, Capri pants. This created such a stir that the writers of the programme limited her to one pant scene an episode. The problem was all about the butt. It made advertisers nervy. They used a term ‘cupping under.’ They didn’t like to see too much definition of Mary’s bum. Such twisted thinking.

Mary Tyler Moore didn’t demand the wearing of trousers as a feminist stance. Rather, she wanted the programme to reflect reality.

“I’ve seen all the other actresses and they’re always running the vacuum in these little flowered frocks with high heels on - and I don’t do that. And I don’t know any of my friends who do that. So why don’t we try to make this real? And I’ll dress on the show the way I do in real life.”

Crikey, some of the battles women had to fight seem so petty now.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ was regarded as ground-breaking in the era of second-wave feminism. It earned numerous awards. This was partly due to the fact that it had complex realistic characters and storylines as opposed to the more usual simplistic plots and unremarkable characterisations typically seen on television at that time.

The programme dealt with issues such as equal pay for women, pre-marital sex and homosexuality. It also saw the Mary character in jail for contempt of court because she refused to reveal a news source.

While in jail, Mary befriends a prostitute who sought her help in a subsequent episode. And in a much lauded episode, Betty Ford made history by becoming the first First Lady to appear on a TV sitcom in a cameo role.

The makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show must have had great fun, throwing everything at it including Mary overcoming an addiction to sleeping pills.

Over the course of the show, Mary dated a number of men and got engaged twice. But she remained single throughout the series.

Initially, the plan was for Mary to be divorced, but, get this - divorce was still controversial at the time!

The cultural impact of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was considerable. In 2007, Time magazine put it on its list of ‘17 Shows That Changed TV’. It said that the series ‘liberated TV for adults - of both sexes’.

When the writers of the sitcom Friends were planning their series finale, they watched a number of other sitcom finales. One of the creators of Friends said that the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the ‘gold standard’ and that it influenced the finale of Friends.

So much for Sex and the City. You thought that was ground-breaking? The Mary Tyler Moore Show had more at stake in a conservative era when getting married was the goal of most women. Mary literally and metaphorically wore the trousers with great attitude.

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