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Who Had a Better TV Friendship Than Mary and Rhoda?


'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' was revolutionary not only for its portrait of an independent working woman—it also depicted a rare, deep female friendship in a way we've never seen.



One of the more striking visuals of the Women’s March on Washington D.C. on January 21, and big ancillary protests across the nation and throughout the world, was the clowder of feline-eared pink-pussy knit hats worn by hundreds of thousands of marchers—a symbolic accessory that, when viewed in aerial shots, resembled a sea of roses. The hats, many hastily hand-knitted in the weeks leading up to the marches, signified a solidarity against the Trump regime and for reproductive rights, gender equality, human rights, Black Lives Matter, the Affordable Care Act, and the need for women’s voices to be heard loudly, across the diverse spectrum of race, religion, and sexual orientation.

So when actress, producer, and feminist icon Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the age of 80 just a few days later, it was touching to see another symbolic hat (and gesture) so fondly celebrated: that of her trailblazing fictional alter-ego, Mary Richards, twirling and joyfully flinging a tartan tam o’shanter into the air on a crowded Minneapolis street corner—it’s so visceral and hopeful. That famous freeze frame, from the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was so striking when we first saw it in 1970: an ebullient single woman with a career she loved, celebrating her freedom and ambition. It remained as the final image of the opening credits throughout the show’s seven-year run. Mary Richards was such a source of pride for Minneapolis that there’s even a bronze statue of her, frozen in time, which currently resides in the city’s visitor’s center. 

The bridge between feminist headwear wasn’t lost on Samantha Bee, who honored Moore with a spirited toss of pink pussyhats on Full Frontal.

Generations of women— those who watched  the original run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and younger women who saw it in reruns—don’t simply admire the show as a brilliant sitcom but see it as a blueprint for their lives. When veteran news anchors and reporters like CBS News’ Jane Pauley and Rita Braver eulogized Moore, they cited the parallels between their experiences in the newsroom in the 1970s and that of the nice-but-firm Richards—including gruff male bosses who slowly evolved from chauvinists to more enlightened. Oprah Winfrey took things a step further, confessing that she once looked for a newsroom job in Minneapolis, inspired by her vision of a Richards ideal.

Significantly, one of the best (and one of the few) jobs for female TV writers in the ‘70s was with The Mary Tyler Moore Show itself—about 25 percent of the writers were women. Executive producers Moore, Jim Brooks, and Allan Burns hired and encouraged writers like Susan Silver and Treva Silverman (who won the first Emmy as a solo female writer in 1974), cognizant that a series about a woman should be reflected accurately by having women write for it. Their inclusion was significant and likely why the principle female friendship portrayed—between Moore’s Mary Richards and Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern—resonated so deeply. And while The Mary Tyler Moore Show is praised for its depiction of a single woman with a career in television news, it also reflected on women’s relationships with other women too.

Complex or close female friendships have always been represented in film—Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door (1937), Ida Lupino’s The Trouble With Angels (1966), and Silvio Narizzano’s Georgy Girl (1966) come to mind—but the bulk of mainstream movies and television shows of the 50s and 60s featured girls and women lacking any close female friends, aside from sisters. It was a lonely, gender-isolationist existence that plagued even the most popular movie stars.  For example, aside from films like The Children’s Hour (1961) and The Nun’s Story (1959) (it’s hard to have a conversation when stifled by a vow of silence), is there any other instance when a character played by Audrey Hepburn had a friend who wasn’t male or a romantic interest?

On American television, women were portrayed as either harried mothers or dutiful housewives, so the warm, confident bond between the very single Mary and Rhoda was revolutionary and genuine. Their friendship was forgiving, honest, tender, unconditional, intuitive, supportive and real—here were two women who escaped their hometowns to freeze in Minneapolis and pursue an independent life. Rhoda, a department-store window dresser, seemed to long for a husband more than Mary, but she reveled in humor, not despair, when romance went awry or she spent another Saturday night (like many viewers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) in a bathrobe and slippers. Eventually, Harper got her own spin-off, Rhoda, where the character moves back to New York, runs through Manhattan in a wedding dress, hops on the subway, gets married—and later divorces.

In the pilot for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Rhoda meet as antagonists on an ice-cold day, competing over a studio apartment in a spacious, old house. Rhoda, who lives in a tiny, colorful garret studio upstairs, is first seen scrubbing the front windows of what is destined to be Mary’s flat. Determined and competitive, Rhoda even cheerfully hires a locksmith to break in, much to Mary’s polite exasperation. But within the course of a half-hour, the funny Jewish New Yorker declares to the sweet Midwestern Presbyterian, “I’m having a hard time hating you too.” It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one of the many loving, quirky, and complicated relationships explored in the series.

Whether squeezed into Mary’s kitchen, yakking over coffee, or settled on the couch, Mary and Rhoda chat about bad dates and diets (Rhoda’s worry over her appearance is a bit of overkill). But in a pre-Bechdel test era, they two talk about much more, a world beyond men: work frustrations, meddling mothers, the ecology, local politics, tonsils, sexism, broken bicycles, gender equality, and their chirpy frenemy and landlord, Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman). Mary and Rhoda were the very definition of best friends, occasionally competitive, but their love for each other was undeniable.

It was a powerful female friendship, one that laid the groundwork for similar relationships that would emerge over the years in shows like thirtysomething, Sex and the City, and Girls. But the friendships in those series were too often focused on men, fashion, familyand mired in hurtful snark and superficiality, especially in the case of SATC or Girls.

The aftermath in cinema was more promising. By the late 70s and early 80s, women’s close friendships were realistically represented in cinema—as in Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978), Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977), Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

When Harper left The Mary Tyler Moore Show for her own eponymous series in 1974, her character’s absence was deeply felt. Mary was more at sea with Betty White’s officious Sue Ann Nivens, Georgia Engel’s flighty Georgette Baxter, and Cloris Leachman’s mercurial Phyllis Lindstrom—none offered the warmth, unconditional acceptance, kindness, trust, and smart discourse that she had shared so effortlessly with Rhoda.

But for four enlightening years, a beautifully written friendship between two very different, single women thrived on national television, laying the groundwork for more to come. It was revolutionary. Which is why I invite you all to toss a pink pussy hat in the air in celebration of the memory of Mary and her incomparable bond with Rhoda.

 

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