Mary Tyler Moore Was a Progressive Hero

The late actress was an early pioneer of feminist television.
January 27, 2017, 4:14pm

It began with a scandalous pair of Capri pants.

The 1960s casual-clothing staple was too much for American TV audiences to handle, at least when placed on actress Mary Tyler Moore, who was playing housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Not only were there the bare calves to contend with, there was also a phenomenon actually discussed by the show's shocked advertisers as "cupping under"—the pants' ability to fit closely to Moore's backside. To please the advertising execs, the show agreed to limit Moore's pants-wearing to one scene per episode.


The pants had been Moore's idea. A relative unknown when cast as Van Dyke's TV wife in 1961, Moore brought her own ideas to the role. Her obvious comedic talent inspired creator Carl Reiner to expand her presence on-screen to almost equal her TV husband, and her chemistry with Van Dyke made them one of the first TV couples that simmered with sexual energy. They were still forced to sleep in separate beds by network censors, but Moore suggested another way to make her character more realistic: She should, she insisted, wear pants. "I said 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," she told NPR in an interview. "And I don't know any of my friends who do that. So why don't we try to make this real?"

This commitment to reality in her roles would make Moore, who died this week at the age of 80, into a pioneer of progressive television. Her best-known character, The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Mary Richards, is perhaps TV's greatest feminist icon—she of the signature beret toss at the end of her message-heavy theme song: "You're gonna make it after all!" But her legacy extends to other progressive issues as well. Her passion for realistic, challenging programming helped her and then husband Grant Tinker, who ran the production company bearing her name, to expand how TV portrayed not only single women but gender roles in marriage and the workplace, gay characters, sex workers, divorce, infidelity, AIDS, addiction, and flawed police work—among many other issues.
Moore's pants-wearing, banter-y take on the wife role was just the beginning. The Dick Van Dyke Show taught her lessons in progressiveness that she'd later apply as founding principles of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That landmark series, which ran from 1970–77, nudged dozens of boundaries in a way that mirrored Moore's earlier stand on Capri pants: It was always done in a tasteful, entertaining way that made anyone who complained look like the one with the problem.


The show's progress on women's issues, of course, was legion and apace with the burgeoning women's lib movement of the time. Suddenly America's sweetheart was staying out all night on dates (shown going out in an evening gown and not returning until the morning after, wearing the same dress). She admitted to taking the pill. She struggled to take control of the newsroom where she worked when her boss left her in charge. She complained about being the token woman at the office. She asked for equal pay.

But through other characters, the show bearing Moore's name explored other social frontiers. Mary's boss, Lou Grant, got a divorce after his wife was inspired by the movement to leave him and find herself. Mary's co-worker, Sue Ann Nivens, had an unapologetic affair with the husband of Mary's neighbor, Phyllis. Mary's best friend, Rhoda, fought bitterly with her own mother, experienced anti-Semitism, struggled with her weight, and pursued a man who turned out to be gay.

This was all the more remarkable because the show was produced by Moore's own company, MTM Enterprises. She started the company with Tinker when she signed on to make The Mary Tyler Moore Show for CBS. The decision to produce it herself proved critical. She and Tinker fought the network often, especially in the first season, to focus on real issues instead of standard sitcom fluff. Network executives sent the show's co-creators, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, a stern note: "Mary should be presented with a problem. Toward the end she should solve that problem in a surprising and comical manner." They further suggested a storyline or two: Perhaps, they said, Mary could meet a visiting prince! Moore's control allowed the producers to ignore these early meddlings and focus instead on realistic plotlines generated with the help of their writing staff, which also happened to include more women than ever previously assembled on one show.

The show also helped spread a new progressive, issues-oriented approach across the TV dial in the early 70s. Its success in reaching the desirable young, urban, affluent demographic fueled a revolution in programming. All in the Family hit the airwaves in January 1971, four months after The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered. Its explosive, argumentative approach to modern issues laid waste to the remaining lightweight programming in primetime. Over the next decade, All in the Family producer Norman Lear and MTM Enterprises took over huge swaths of the primetime schedule with their two distinctive schools of progressive programming. Lear shows such as Maude, The Jeffersons, and Good Times attacked abortion, addiction, race, class, and more. MTM's The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, and Lou Grant dissected mental illness, divorce, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, rape, and journalistic ethics.

MTM Enterprises would go on to produce some of the greatest shows of all time, harbingers of the 2000s' "Golden Age of Television Drama." Because of the company's reputation for protecting its creative talent from network meddling, it attracted the best and produced an impressive stream of works: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart among them.

All of this adds up to one hell of a legacy, one that started with some Capri pants and spread far beyond that iconic beret toss.