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Mary Tyler Moore and the single life

Mary Tyler Moore’s death was a bit of a shock to me.

I didn’t know her personally, but she was a big part of my childhood. I grew up watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It was a bright, smart, well-written, funny show and one of the first television sitcoms to feature an adult single woman as the main character.

Up until then, there were few single adult women to be found on television. Many of those were less than compelling. Case in point: Sally Rogers, played by Rose Marie, Moore’s co-star on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Sally, despite being a woman in my personal dream job (comedy writer) was not a particularly attractive character. She was wise-cracking, man-hungry and somewhat frumpy.

Mary Richards was different. She was an attractive single woman who had friends and a career and great clothes and plenty of dates and a cute apartment. She made single life look fun and exciting.

But, the more I think about it, the more I think “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was a mixed blessing for women.

It was, of course, an enormous positive for single women at the time. Having long moved past the Sally Rogers stereotype of the desperate woman, I would imagine they were relieved to find their lives portrayed in a more attractive light.

I’m wondering what impact the show had on those of us who were watching as children. No little girls looked at Sally Rogers and thought “Gee, I want to be like her when I grow up.” But we did look at Mary Richards that way.

In one respect, that was great. There was a real danger in the message that a woman had to marry by her mid-20s (at the latest) or be labeled a “spinster.” That social pressure led to a lot of ill-advised marriages. Mary Richards was in her 30s, single and doing just fine. From her, young girls learned that we didn’t have to settle, or talk ourselves into a marriage that we didn’t really want, just to avoid being perceived as “expired” or pathetic. And, of course, we learned that we could take care of ourselves, and didn’t need to marry just for a paycheck and a roof over our heads. We could work in newsrooms, or pretty much anywhere else we wanted to work.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe Mary Richards made single life look a little too attractive to us. I wonder if, on some level, we little girls were watching and thinking “It doesn’t matter if I don’t get married and have kids. If I don’t, I’ll live a fabulous life like Mary’s.”

Real life doesn’t generally turn out that way.

My concern can be summed up in Mary Tyler Moore’s final line of the series. In the finale, as the crew is gathered in the newsroom for the last time, she says, “Thank you for being my family.” It was touching and beautiful, given the love we had seen grow between the characters over the previous seven years.

They were walking out of the newsroom for the last time. They were saying goodbye. They were going on their separate ways. No more “family.” The characters with actual families were going home to them.

But what was Mary going home to?

Young girls watching the show believed that a life like Mary’s would be just as fulfilling as settling down and having kids. That we wouldn’t need our own family. We would have careers instead, and our zany yet lovable neighbors and co-workers would become our de facto “families.” 

But workplaces, co-workers and neighbors are temporary. Jobs end. Neighbors like Rhoda and Phyllis move away when life calls them elsewhere.

I wonder how many little girls grew up emulating Mary, only to find that these alternative “families” aren’t quite like the real thing. That careers, no matter how wonderful, don’t keep us warm at night, and zany neighbors are no substitute for a loving husband and children.

I am not saying that the single life can’t be fulfilling. Of course it can. But that fulfillment happens in spite of not having a family, not because of it. True fulfillment doesn’t come from a career, per se. It comes from giving ourselves in love to others created in the image and likeness of God. It comes from building real, loving community.

As single people, we operate at a disadvantage in that regard. These communities are often built on sand. The people around us aren’t committed to us. Life can call them elsewhere. And then we need to start again from square one.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” taught us that, as singles, we need to build community with the people around us. I just don’t think it showed us quite how challenging a task that can be.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017