The Top 10 Things I Learned from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”

A 1970s show featuring a powerful woman can still offer us valuable wisdom in the twenty-first century.

Fotos International / Contributor/ Getty Images
Fotos International / Contributor/ Getty Images

I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were two of my favorite TV shows when I was a girl. While I adored — and even studied — Lucy’s antics, I couldn’t relate to the dream that many of my girlfriends had of being a housewife and mother. Mary Richards’ life, though — now that was something I could dream about. So, I listened harder to her character on the show, and studied her life lessons more earnestly.

Full disclosure, I’m still studying. My DVR currently holds every episode of all seven seasons. I love dipping into the Mary Tyler Moore Show to reboot and refresh with a woman who could “take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.”

These are the top 10 things I learned from my beloved Mary Tyler Moore:

1. Spunk is good

In the first episode, Mr. Grant declared that Mary had “spunk,” and then quickly noted that he hated that quality. Even as a young girl, I knew I wanted what she had. Spunk looked like a very cool combination of courage, chutzpah, charm, tenacity, and enthusiasm. That quality was what got Mary the first job for which she was underqualified. It was what got her through all of life’s trials and tribulations — from asking for a much-needed raise, to helping deliver Georgette’s baby, to standing up for women’s rights.

2. Living in a small space can be cool

My favorite and final apartment when I lived in Manhattan was a studio with a big picture window and a futon that turned into a bed. It reminded me of Mary. I didn’t get into a groovy 1970s guesthouse with a step-down living room area until much later in life. It dawned on me once that all I needed to complete the set of the show in my own house was a big “B” on the wall to mimic the signature golden “M” that was always beaming from the wall of Mary’s apartment.

#3. There is no shame in a broken engagement

I love that the first episode has Mary break her engagement because she is certain it isn’t right for her. Like Mary, I’ve almost gotten married a couple of times. Also like her, I’m glad I didn’t marry those men. She and I didn’t ignore dealbreakers for the sake of getting married just because it was the thing to do, or because we felt “alone.” Of course, she always seemed to end those relationships with fewer tears and more spunk than I did, though!

4. Be direct

When a man starts stripping in her living room at the end of a date, Mary immediately orders him out of the apartment. She doesn’t even wonder for a second what she did to bring this behavior on. I love her directness, and I strive for it. I haven’t mastered this one at all, but I’m trying. I’ve been in compromising situations before, and didn’t muster up the lioness roar that Mary always seemed to be able to find.

5. Dating mishaps aren’t the end of the world

While she’s having a nice time dating a sexagenarian, Mary finds out that he is breaking up with her to return to an old girlfriend, and she quizzes him about the other woman’s age. It turns out they are almost exactly the same age, but the other woman is one month older. Mary justifies his leaving by noting that he’s leaving her to date someone closer to his age. She dulled the edge of that wound with humor, which is very clever. I want to do that more.

6. There’s nothing wrong with your relationships

Mary made it OK for love to not quite work out — with no stigma attached. There were never discussions about her having bad luck with men, and she never experienced the stigma of her having a bad “picker.” She had relationships that lasted however long they lasted. There was nothing bad or wrong or needing fixing there. These relationships weren’t failures, but more like trampolines that helped her fly into her next chapter.

#7. Stop apologizing

I am an “I’m sorry” machine — far less than I used to be, but the engine still runs just under the hood. Alternatively, Mary was consistently unapologetic. She knew herself, and trusted herself. She rarely said she was sorry, and never apologized for who she was. I strive to build that strength for myself every day.

8. It’s OK to be uncomfortable in life from time to time

Mary never shied away from an uncomfortable situation. She just dove right in. When in her job interview Mr. Grant asks inappropriately about her religion, after she has only met him moments prior, she simply replies immediately, “I don’t quite know how to say this, but you’re not allowed to ask that during an interview.”

9. Be kind to the people around you

She was always there for them even when they were their most annoying selves. Annoying people annoy me, and I tend to veer away from them. Instead, I strive to change that, and to be less annoyed and more loving. Maybe it’s the theme song lesson sinking in: “Love is all around, no need to waste it.”

10. You don’t have to get married to be a powerful, strong woman

The entire final season of the show has very little romance, and its finale has no romantic interest on the horizon. The show had opened years earlier with Mary having just left a fiance who wasn’t really a perfect fit for her, and the perfect bow on this final package was not the happily-ever-after marriage. It was the happily-ever-after, empowered-to-keep-soaring in whatever direction Mary chose.

Here’s to Mary Tyler Moore, who in real life was married to her last husband for 33 years until her death. She is a love icon for many reasons, including that one.

The final episode of the show didn’t end comfortably. That’s what I loved most about the character of Mary Richards: She did uncomfortable really well. Best of all, though, it ended just like Mary Tyler Moore’s life: with lots of love all around her.

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