I was born in 1970, the same year as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Growing up, I knew one thing: My mom wouldn’t let me watch it. I went to bed at 8 and she turned on the melody that would haunt my dreams in the next room. Years later, in my 30s, I stumbled across the show again. A local network was running reruns. I was instantly hooked. I also started to understand why my mom had not let her young daughter watch it. This was not a show for a young child.
In one episode, The Happy Homemaker has an adulterous affair with one character’s husband. In another, Mary openly dates two men at the same time. Even the opening episode is rough. Mary and Rhoda spar angrily over an apartment with a barely controlled fury. The famous line, “I hate spunk,” comes across more a punch in the gut rather than funny, only redeemed by Lou’s later agreement with Mary that her former fiancée is a jerk.
Still, the show is funny. I looked up Veal Prince Orloff only to find it is a real dish. I cheered when Mary asked for a raise and watched as she grew in confidence with her job each year. As someone short, I laughed even more when she realized her date was about 10 inches away from her forehead. Mary struck me as still relevant, her struggles still real even as her mustard and brown colored clothes made the shoulder pads of my ‘80s classmates look like the height of style. Her earnest Midwestern niceness was not the brash Jewish Brooklyn style I grew up with, but somehow her perkiness was real and utterly likable.
I went back to it again about a year ago after a friend replayed an episode clip on YouTube. My eldest daughter is in her teens and she came in with me to watch. Episode after episode came to life in our house again during the middle of a blizzard. I made the decision to let her watch it on a whim. She’s not the child I was the first time it aired when my mom was in her living room. Together, we laughed again and again. We cheered on Rhoda, rolled our eyes at Phyllis, and cried when Lou’s wife left him. She asked me why women dressed like that and I told her I didn’t know because I still don’t.
As the snow outside looked like something right out of Minneapolis, I realized something important. I had never really discussed the show with my own mom. I began to realize why she had watched so entranced in the early 1970s and why she once had told me to find my inner Mary so many years later. I suppose in a way the struggles of the main character mirrored my mom’s. She was in her late 20s back then, married with kids. In a sense she was a world away in Queens from the urban world of Mary and daily production schedules, but still, in a sense, she was a Mary trying to decide how to make her own life in a man’s world.
Years later, she would recount to me, with great anger, how she had been denied the right to open up a bank account in her own name. The bank official had demanded she get her husband’s consent even as my dad was able to open up an account at the same bank without her consent. She would also tell me of going back to work when my brother and I were finally in school full time and encountering the same condescension and the same sexism. I told my own daughter this, as I explained what life had been like for women back then and what it is still like for many of us even today.
Even in 2017, the show still holds up. My teen daughter certainly thought so. She laughed and I laughed. And together in the middle of it all, we went to someplace special, a place my mom went before we did. Three generations in my family knowing that we all share the same feeling—that you can throw your hat in the air and see what happens. I hope my daughter understands that the world in front of her still has so far to go for the women of the world. I also hope she knows that she—and her generation—can make it after all, catching that hat in her hand with a pride Mary would have truly understood.