Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mary Richards, working girl. Make that working woman.

In the TV world of my youth, women were boring, pearl-wearing, shirt-waisted moms (June Cleaver, Margaret Anderson, Donna Stone).The only non-stodgy, pearl-and-shirtwaist mom was Laura Petrie. Unlike June, Margaret, and Donna, Laura Petrie wore capri pants, boat necked jerseys, and Capezios. And, even if she lived in a suburb, it was a named suburb (New Rochelle) outside a named city (New York). Plus she lived in a cool, mid-century modern house. Laura Petrie was played by Mary Tyler Moore, who died yesterday.

The above list was the “normal” wife/moms on TV. None of them worked.

If you weren’t a boring, non-working wife, you were a ditzy wife (Lucy Ricardo, Joan on I Married Joan). Ditzy wives only worked at occasional odd-ball jobs. (Lucy in the bakery, Lucy in the chocolate factory.)

Then there were the ditzy daughters (My Little Margie).

There were a few TV women with jobs: Our Miss Brooks was a wise-cracking old-maid school teacher. There was a private secretary named Susie. The ditzy daughter on My Little Margie grew up to be Oh, Susannah, the social director on a crew ship. Her gal pal was an actress with the fabulous name of ZaSu Pitts, who played a manicurist. Or women worked as maids (Beulah). Other than being a maid, a working woman was known as a “career gal”, a somewhat pitying term, as it pretty much meant a woman who had to work because she couldn’t get a man. Being a career girl may have looked fun and glam, but we all knew if was second best, pathetic, sad. 

It really wasn’t until Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore) moved to Minneapolis to take a job at WJM, the city’s most pathetic TV station, that we had a women on the tube who was pursuing a career that more of less resembled the sorts of careers that women were starting to pursue. Sure, it was in a TV station, but the day-to-day reality was a lot like what the rest of us experienced on the job.

Oh, there had been That Girl in the 1960s. But That Girl  – although played by the whip-smart Marlo Thomas – was a nasally whiner, always bleating to her boyfriend Donald to help get her out of some predicament.. (Oh, Don-ald.) That Girl locks herself out of her apartment: Donald to the rescue. That Girl writes a check she doesn’t have the funds to cover: Donald to the rescue. Mostly, her job was looking cute. (I think her career was model.)

I have no idea if these were real plots, but that’s the sort of stuff I remember. And if it wasn’t Donald to the rescue, it was her father steaming in to NYC from Westchester to bail her out. (Oh, Dad-ee.)

Then there was Mary Richards. Our Mary.

As preposterous as the show was on some levels, Mary actually dealt with the same sorts of on-the-job issues that those of us in the first wave of ‘making it in the men’s world’ went through. She got passed over for promotions. We got passed over for promotions. She got a promotion, but it came without a raise. We got a promotion, but it came without a raise. She asked for a raise, but got turned down, or less than she deserved. We asked for a raise, but got turned down or got less that we deserved. She screwed up on the job. We screwed up on the job. She made hiring mistakes. We made hiring mistakes. (In Mary’s famous first hire, she brought on a female sports announcer who’d had a wonderful audition but, as it turned out, only knew about swimming and diving. And absolutely nothing about the sports that Minnesotans love. Like football and hockey. I could write a book about my hiring mistakes.)

And Mary seldom had a boyfriend, so she didn’t have a Donald to bail her out. Not that she needed a bail out. (And not that she needed a boyfriend.) Mary Richards wasn’t a ditz. Okay, she may have been bit too nicey-nice and sweet, but she was a serious professional woman. And, while she would have liked to have found someone, it didn’t dominate her life. She didn’t sit around lamenting her single state, or act is if she were less of a woman because she was single. She got on with her career. She got on with her life.

Work was where Mary did a lot her living. She loved her job, and hung out and made life friends with her colleagues. She made other friends, too, and liked to sit around her cool apartment with her funny, zaftig, altogether sexier friend Rhoda, shooting the breeze – mostly about Rhoda’s love life and career challenges. (Rhoda was a window dresser.)

I was still in college when the Mary Tyler Moore show first started, and my career didn’t begin in earnest until the late seventies, by which time the show was in re-runs. But it was one of the few shows on TV that I looked forward to watching and completely enjoyed. And it was one of the few shows that had anything to do with the lives of anyone I knew.

MTM - m

One of the decorator elements of Mary’s cool apartment was a big gold letter M that she hung on her wall. When I got my first solo apartment in Boston, my mother found one in a craft shop and painted it gold. For years, it hung on my wall, or was propped on a book case. At some point, it fell and split in two. I glued it together, but eventually tossed it out.

So long, Mary. Thanks for representin’. As it turned out, most of us did make it after all.

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