What We Can Learn About Femininity From Mary Tyler Moore, The Original Boss Babe

By Jessica Marie Baumgartner··  6 min read
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What We Can Learn About Femininity From Mary Tyler Moore, The Original Boss Babe

Since the very first sitcom, portrayals of women on television have changed through the decades. For better or worse, they went from displaying classic feminine ideals to modern conundrums.

The push for modern realism has led females in television to leave behind their general nature in search of more masculine pursuits, but many women are having trouble relating to these characters because they have no connection to our traditional roots.

Storytelling used to exude ideals. Stories displayed what should be instead of what is in order to offer humanity something greater to strive for. Looking back on television’s most iconic characters, one actress embodies all the ideals, as well as the realism of life, that offer women a feminine but strong character to look up to. Mary Tyler Moore was loving, yet not a pushover. She played roles of the caring mother and the single career woman, and in real life she faced tragedy with courage and dignity. 

Her roles on and off screen exemplified the female experience. From The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her candid interviews, Mary Tyler Moore was truly an imperfectly perfect model of women everywhere who displayed what it means to be female, even today.

Playing the Wife and Mother 

Playing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show solidified Moore’s fame. She took on the role of the nurturer with ease, despite lying about her age to get the role. She feared she would be considered too young to play a wife and mother so she added a couple of years to her application and landed the job. 

Her character was constantly worried about the health and well-being of her son, Ritchie. She feared being a nag to her husband and keeping up with housework, but the main element that made this role so admirable was the fact that, although Laura was a housewife and her husband was the breadwinner, she knew her worth.

Moore played a well-rounded woman who knew when to challenge her husband and when to support him. She feared falling short of her own ideals, but still strove to meet them. She was a classic woman with classic tastes that weren’t demeaning, and she never seemed oppressed. 

Playing the Single Career Woman

Fast forward to the ‘70s, and Moore showed her versatility. When she landed her own show, she stepped into the role of a single woman working as a professional. The concept was still new, but viewers embraced the idea because Mary Tyler Moore brought her charm and class to the screen.

Her character was a single woman, but she still sought out the love and respect of others while carrying over traditional values with a fresh outlook. She could “make it on her own” and continue to hope for love and marriage. She could be the working woman while displaying the finer aspects of femininity that best define womanhood. 

And can we stop and admire her fashion sense for a moment? In The Dick Van Dyke Show her character knew how to take care of herself, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show was full of colorful ensembles that were both simple and elegant. Her hair was easy to mimic and is still iconic. 

Being Candid about Life’s Struggles

Her sense of fashion complimented her personality. Mary Tyler Moore played more roles, but her life off-screen shows a very different side of femininity that needs to be explored because it wasn’t picture perfect, and how we face the tragedies in life ─ or our own shortcomings ─ often defines who we really are. 

She was polite and soft-spoken. In her early career, she opened up about taking ballet classes and picking out her own wardrobe for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She didn’t hog the spotlight and offered a friendly approachable aspect, divulging details about her career and family life with a sense of humor.

Despite dealing with divorce, Type 1 diabetes, and the death of her only son, she became the International Chairwoman for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and even released her own workout videos and donated the proceeds. Her ability to keep working and reaching out to others showed women everywhere that no matter what happens in life, we can keep going. 

But balancing pain with passion may not have been as easy as it seemed for her public persona. In private she did struggle with alcoholism, proving that everyone has their own struggles. But, again, even that battle wasn’t something she hid from. She opened up about it in her memoir, After All, and discussed her life and regrets during a Larry King Interview in 1995.

A Traditional Woman

It was Mary’s conversational down-to-earth manner that appealed throughout the years. But her dedication to her fans, her work, and herself displayed a balance that’s often lacking in modern shows and celebrity lifestyles. This may be in part because Mary Tyler Moore didn’t veer away from traditional femininity. 

When asked to join the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, she turned down the offer. She spoke about an encounter she had with First-Wave feminist Gloria Steinem, who tried to recruit her to Betty Friedan’s brand of feminism: “I want to mention my Gloria Steinem experience. She thought that I was 100% on Betty Friedan’s train. And I really wasn’t. I believed that women — and I still do — have a very major role to play as mothers. It’s very necessary for mothers to be involved with their children. And that’s not what Gloria Steinem was saying. Gloria was saying oh, you can have everything, and you owe it to yourself to have a career. And I didn’t really believe in that, so that was a little difficult for me. Well, I just had to say ‘no.’”

Closing Thoughts

Mary Tyler Moore was not perfect. No woman is. But she faced life with courage, dignity, and a female touch that no man could add. 

Her personal life didn’t mirror the ideology of her most memorable roles, but it held the same spark that defined her. Throughout her ups and downs, she kept her charm, wit, and self-respect. And that’s something all women can look up to. 

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