Thursday, January 26, 2017

Life Lessons from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"

I was saddened to hear of the death of Mary Tyler Moore.  I was most familiar with her as the character of Mary Richards, and all through the afternoon after hearing of her death, I thought of her as a character and the show as a shaper of my expectations of what grown up life would be like.

I am also sad because the show was an essential part of my childhood.  I wrote this e-mail to my mom, dad, and sister:  "I'm hearing that Mary Tyler Moore has died, and I'm feeling sad. That show reminds me of Mom, in part because Mom wore similar clothes. But it also reminds me of cozy family times, watching those great Saturday night shows (the Bob Newhart show!), eating popcorn--and later, when I'd babysit Megan, and we'd melt real butter for our popcorn!"

But I'm really sad as I think about that show, and about how rare that show seems--how plentiful those kinds of shows seemed in the 70's (although I realize there were plenty of bad shows too--I loved those too when I watched them).  I miss TV shows about grown ups who have careers and friends and nothing gruesome happens.  The only people on TV who have careers these days have jobs that require them to investigate all kinds of disturbing things, and then I can't sleep at night.

Let me think about the ways that the show made me anticipate adulthood:

--I assumed that I, too, would have a career that would be fulfilling, just like Mary Richards did.  When I've gone back to watch the show as a grown up, the workplace dynamics seem very true to life, any kind of working life.  We learn a lot about those characters, and we learn about them because Mary learns about them.  They spend time together, lots of time through the years, and thus, they open up to each other.  They are a family of sorts--and for some of the characters, it's the only family they have.

--I love Mary's clothes--very sensible, but not frumpy--but not sexy.  I'm not sure why that feels so important to me, and I suspect if we delved deeply into it, we could find deep-seated neuroses that make me feel this way.  But it's also important to see her as a guidepost:  we can wear nice clothes and not be sexpots at work.  We can wear a variety of clothes.  We don't have to take them off to get ahead.

--I love Rhoda's clothes too.  She has a career that's artsier, and she can still have a place of her own.  She can make a living.

--I love their friendship.  They can have lives that are separate--dating and work--but still find ways to connect and support each other.

--Mary makes her own way, as does Rhoda.  They date, but they don't need men to complete them.  And while their dates are often played for laughs, they also show that a man is not going to be the answer to all of life's problems.

So did the show give me false expectations?  I don't think so.  As I've thought back over my own working life, I've been struck by how much my workplaces have resembled those newsrooms, especially in the variety of the characters.  There are the old-timers who are the institutional memory.  There's the guy who gets ahead, and many of us can't quite understand it.  Every workplace has had the grumpy and the crusty.  There's workplace gossip and intrigue, but no one gets hurt--although in real life, it's easier to see the downside of gossip and intrigue--it's not all solved in a half hour and a comic way.

Unlike Mary Richards, I settled down early, although as I watched those shows, I assumed that if I had a marriage-like relationship, it would be much later.  But those shows helped me to stay realistic in my expectations.  I didn't expect my marriage to complete me, but I did know it would be nice to have a soul mate with me throughout life.

I wonder what a mid-life Mary Richards would have taught us. Or Mary Richards as she faced aging.  I suspect much would have been the same:  she'd have gone on turning the world on with her smile and making nothing dates into something worthwhile.

And now it's up to us to turn the world on with our collective smile.

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