Judy Kutulas: How Mary Tyler Moore Helped 1970s America Imagine a New Future

cover image for After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies, by Judy KutulasToday we welcome a guest post from Judy Kutulas, author of After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies. In this book, Kutulas complicates the common view that the 1970s were a time of counterrevolution against the radical activities and attitudes of the previous decade. Instead, Kutulas argues that the experiences and attitudes that were radical in the 1960s were becoming part of mainstream culture in the 1970s, as sexual freedom, gender equality, and more complex notions of identity, work, and family were normalized through popular culture—television, movies, music, political causes, and the emergence of new communities. Seemingly mundane things like watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, listening to Carole King songs, donning Birkenstock sandals, or reading Roots were actually critical in shaping Americans’ perceptions of themselves, their families, and their relation to authority.

In today’s post, Kutulas remembers Mary Tyler Moore’s (1936-2017) character Mary Richards as a role model who helped 1970s Americans imagine a new future.

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Minnesotans are perhaps skeptical of the ways we are perceived in the popular culture. Far too often we are portrayed as way too quirky, driven crazy by the frozen landscape, and prone to the overuse of phrases like “you betcha,” living in towns with names like Lake Woebegon and Frostbite Falls. And while we appreciate native sons Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s taken us a long time to get over Fargo. We embrace without hesitation, however, Mary Richards, played by Mary Tyler Moore, the heroine of the CBS sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore’s recent death has made Minnesotans particularly prideful of our connection to such a wonderful character. Indeed, I claimed Mary as the symbolic cover image of the theme of my book, After Aquarius Dawned, because she so embodied the spirit of the 1970s to me. She is throwing her hat into the air joyously, celebrating her possibilities in the midst of an era—the 1970s—stereotyped as dismal and demoralizing. There is even a statue in Minneapolis that commemorates that hat-tossing. People way too young to remember the actual program pose with it, mimicking the gesture. Moore herself posed there when the statue was commemorated, on a bleak, cold stereotypically Minnesotan day, soldiering on in the face of adversity, just like her fictional self.

Mary Tyler Moore 2002

Mary Tyler Moore (photo: Joe Rossi, St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch, May 8, 2002)

Mary Richards had “spunk,” noted her fictional boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), who added that he “hated spunk.” But spunk, a sort of underdog version of courage, is precisely what bonded fictional Mary to millions of Minnesotans and Americans.

Fictional Mary worked at a television station in Minneapolis even she knew was second rate. Yet it was also so beyond how she imagined her future unfolding that she embraced it with a mixture of gusto and relatable fear. So many of us were in that predicament in the 1970s, jarred out of what was supposed to be our future by the revolutions of the 1960s. Americans identified with Mary far more personally than most previous characters. As someone who studies sitcoms, I could explain to you the structural set-up that facilitated that bonding, but the outcome is what’s more relevant here: that Americans regarded fictional Minnesotan Mary Richards as a real person. They sent letters to the Minneapolis post office addressed to her and made so many pilgrimages to knock on the door of the house featured in the opening credits that they exhausted and angered the actual owners of the house. Real people showed up in the series playing themselves, including first lady Betty Ford, who loved Mary as much as the rest of us.

Role models and mentors help us imagine new futures. Our best heroes are underdogs. Mary Richards was one such underdog. That she was also fictional suggests a lack of real-life role models, which was also true in the 1970s, but that shouldn’t detract from what Mary did for us. At a time of deep cynicism, she was optimistic. In the face of unfairness, she persisted. When she stumbled, she got back up and tried again. Having been raised for one kind of world, she learned to function in a different one. Where else could we see that in the 1970s? Seventies television itself had spunk. It dared to let go of its own past with its fathers who knew best and its hillbillies, revealing for viewers a more realistic and complex world. It stopped telling us how we ought to be; instead it showed us how we really were and how we might be better.

Mary Richards grew as a character. It’s what set her series apart from previous sitcoms. That growth made her a universal character because everyone could relate to her insecurities and her fears, but also the quiet drive that made her want to be better, try harder, and find satisfaction. She embodied our foibles and vanities, but also a sort of all-American pluckiness that spoke to people.

When the series ended, it was on a note fitting for the era: Mary lost her job. Commentators worried about her future as though she were a real person. And in a gesture almost as iconic as the hat-tossing that opened every episode of the series, at its end, Mary Richards gave a little smile and turned off the lights in the WJM newsroom where she no longer worked, leaving the set in darkness.

Still, I think we all had faith that she would get up the next morning, put on that hat, and go out into the darkness to start the next chapter of her life. And if she could do it, so could we, whatever challenges came with 1970s liberations.

Rest in peace, Mary Richards.

Judy Kutulas is professor of history and American studies at Saint Olaf College. After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies will be published in April 2017.