Remembering Mary Tyler Moore

January 25th started out as a pretty standard day, great even. Then, I overheard the following at work: “Mary Tyler Moore just died.” I froze. Nooooo. I had known of Mary’s health problems, but I struggled with accepting the fact that the woman I had always viewed as a strong, resilient fighter was really gone.

The real life Mary was always an excellent role model—she was a lifelong animal rights activist and worked intimately with the JDRF to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes (a condition Mary herself had). Still, like countless others, it was through her two most iconic television roles that I came to “know” her: Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

In addition to the fact that each sitcom features iconic performances from Mary, both are essential viewing for anyone even slightly interested in comedy writing and strong female sitcom characters. Laura was charming, intelligent, quick-witted, just as funny as Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, and one heck of a dancer. Also, thanks to Mary’s influence, Laura revolutionized the way women dressed on television by donning her now iconic capris pants.

What is also worth noting about The Dick Van Dyke Show is how loving and mutually respectful the marriage between Rob and Laura was. Unlike many later sitcoms, where one half of the couple is “in charge” while the other half is often portrayed as a submissive buffoon, thus resulting in a somewhat repetitive cycle of “good cop vs bad cop”, Rob and Laura were true equals. They joked together, danced together, and when they argued neither of them ever came off as controlling or condescending. From episode to episode, the two alternated who was the “straight-man”, giving Van Dyke and Moore equal chance to play the fool.

A few years later (1970 to be exact) on her eponymous sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore continued to break ground as a woman whom was not a wife or mother—she was just Mary Richards. Career-driven, independent and funny, she was more than capable of helming her own story as the protagonist.

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In the pilot episode “Love Is All Around” (the same name as the series’ iconic theme song by Sonny Curtis), a newly single thirty-year-old Mary relocates her life to Minneapolis. She settles into a new apartment and quickly makes new friends (notably Valerie Harper’s quick-witted Rhoda Morgenstern). Then, in one of the most memorable scenes of the series, she interviews for a job at WJM-TV with Ed Asner’s gruff yet lovable news director Lou Grant:

Lou: “What religion are you?”

Mary: “Mr. Grant, I don’t quite know how to tell you this, but you’re not allowed to ask that when someone’s applying for a job. It’s against the law.”

It’s a quick exchange, not nearly as iconic as the line anyone probably thinks of when remembering this pilot (referring to, of course, Lou’s “You know what, you’ve got spunk…I hate spunk!”), but it establishes something even more important about Mary’s character. Yes, of course Mary’s spunky; despite Asner’s excellent comic timing and delivery, the audience hardly needs reminding of such an obvious fact—especially when the aforementioned exchange between Mary and Lou so perfectly highlights Mary’s willingness to speak her mind, no matter whom she’s addressing or what the issue at hand may be. As the scene continues, Mary confirms that she will indeed be what the television landscape (and real life) is always in need of: an outspoken, confident woman who is willing and ready to fight for what she wants and knows she deserves. As Lou hired Mary as his Associate Producer, so too did countless women watching choose Mary as someone they not only wished to emulate as countless still saw her in themselves.

Decades later, this legacy continues. Thank you, Mary; thank you for your smile, individuality, independence, and spunk.

Thank you for paving the way.

The One With the Sensitivity

There are several sitcoms worth analyzing, praising and re-watching several times; none is ever completely above the struggle to master the magic formula that makes certain sitcoms so memorable. This, of course, includes the struggle for a sitcom to be innovative while honoring an already successful formula, and having distinctive characters while inevitably including more familiar tropes. We have seen such tropes a million times and can recognize them a mile away: the ladies’ man who never seems to want to “settle down” (i.e. Friends’ Joey Tribbiani or Happy Days’ Arthur Fonzarelli), the “mother hen”-type woman who cannot wait to wed (i.e. Sex and the City’s Charlotte York or Friends’ Monica Geller) and the “mother-in-law from hell” (i.e. Bewitched’s Endora or Everybody Loves Raymond’s Marie Barone) are just a few. All of these tropes are understandably exaggerations, some more harmful than others, but there is one that particularly annoys me: the guy who cannot (or will not) show his sensitive, emotional side because it is “wrong.”

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Sitcom Study: Friends’ “The One With the Male Nanny” (9×06)

Relevant Episode Information: To Ross’ chagrin, Rachel hires a “manny” named Sandy (Freddie Prinze Jr.) to watch over their daughter, Emma.

That’s right, I am starting with Ross Geller, Friends’often-maligned yet undeniably hilarious (ie. “I’M FINE!” and Unagi) dinosaur-loving leading man. If you are anything like me and know Friends very (perhaps too) well, you will probably agree that, this episode aside, Ross typically does not fit into this trope. He is a loving father to his children, Ben and Emma. He is repeatedly romantic and sensitive (if not also deeply insecure, but that is for another post) during his relationship with Rachel. In this episode, however, he is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a male nanny. Meanwhile, Chandler jokes about Rachel hiring a “manny” and Joey, arguably the closest to a “guy’s guy” on Friends, proves to be the most comfortable around Sandy and even develops a friendship with him. If Joey does not see anything emasculating about Sandy, why should Ross?

Ross explains to Sandy: “You know, I’m just not, um, that comfortable with a guy who’s as sensitive as you.” Ross eventually reveals that his dad would often make him feel as if he were not a “real boy” since he was not particularly athletic as a child. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Ross’ real issue with Sandy is not really because he thinks he is “weird” (as he previously claims), but because he equates Sandy with how he fears his father saw him when he was younger: too sensitive.

While the fact that Ross becomes increasingly sensitive and emotional while explaining this to Sandy is undeniably done for comedic value, it also addresses a key issue I have seen countless men (both onscreen and in real-life) confront: What is the line between being sensitive and “too sensitive?” Can a guy be romantic and sensitive toward a significant other while also maintaining his “bro” side in addition to his independent self?

Here is what I have concluded: the very obsession with this question is in and of itself the problem and it is something that desperately needs to change. I know it is far easier said than done, but if a friend or romantic partner ever makes you feel like you are not being “man” enough, run away as fast as you can. Stereotypically, it is considered “hot” if a girl loves something like Star Wars or South Park, while I have witnessed several guys ashamed to admit to enjoying Disney movies or Sex and the City. This is absurd, especially because if you can honestly look me in the eye and tell me there is not at least one Disney film that owns your heart (mine is Aladdin by the way), I will know you are lying and probably are also lying about your name and where you obtained a magic carpet (but then I would know you definitely watched Aladdin, and that would just be awkward for everyone involved).

The real question, where this subject is concerned, should not be a guy worrying about being “too sensitive”, but moreover if a guy is being respected. Now, I have always had several guy friends from varying backgrounds, so I am acutely aware that the “aw how cute, so-and-so has a new boyfriend/girlfriend” teasing is to be expected, and most of the time it is all in good fun (and I have done it too, to be fair). When the “teasing” turns into guys calling their supposed guy friend a “pussy” or making him feel bad for, say, not being able to have a guys’ night due to established plans with a partner, that is when it is a problem. That is when it is not okay. Thus, it is imperative to know the difference.

If you enjoy holding hands in public or surprising your girlfriend with flowers to remind her you love her, there is nothing “too sensitive” about that—it is actually extremely sweet. Even Ross knows: “It’s always great when someone tells you they love you.” Despite this, several guys still seem terrified of being labeled as “that guy”, always saying this in a tone that implies “that guy” has a death sentence in a few hours, when in reality “that guy” is truly and simply one who is mature and confident enough in himself to show his partner that he or she is loved. Whether it is Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass or Sex and the City’s Mr. Big, we are all guilty of being enthralled by at least one fictional, emotionally unavailable and utterly damaged character. In reality, however, the “too cool to show his feelings” guy is far from attractive.

My own father is one of the most level-headed, mature “manly” men I know, and even he recognizes the importance of and maturity in being forthright with one’s feelings and showing affection for those he loves. Back to Friends, each of the show’s three male characters are in no way hindered by their sensitive, romantic sides—and neither should anyone else.