Back in the 1980s, when everyone was riveted by a rebroadcast of ABC's Roots
, I wasn't. I was in my party girl phase and wasn't home much. One of my coworkers, a woman of color, was surprised I wasn't taping it with my VCR so I could have it in my library. I simply wasn't interested.
"That's because you don't know what it's like to turn on the TV and see someone like Kunta Kinte who represents your heritage and life experience!"
"Sure I do. I've got Mary Tyler Moore."
I was being flippant to end a conversation I'd grown weary of, but I was also uttering a fundamental truth: Mary Tyler Moore, in her three signature roles, was the ultimate 20th century WASP woman.
Laura Petrie. The Dick Van Dyke Show. 1961-1966.
Always pretty, never a (bouffant) hair out of place. A trained dancer, she gave up her career when she married Rob. A stern but loving mother, hers was the parental voice Richie Petrie responded to. She cut coupons and carpooled and volunteered at the New Rochelle PTA. She was a loyal friend to her next door neighbor, Millie. She was the perfect hostess and the perfect ornament when Rob brought her to work functions. She wore slacks on occasion, but she also wore little white gloves with her dressier ensembles -- just like Jackie (whose look CBS consciously emulated). She was clearly the woman our mothers wanted us to grow up to be.*
She and Rob also seemed genuinely in love. To my little girl eyes, the Petries and the Riccardos were the only two couples I saw on TV that I believed when they kissed. No one expected her life to be like Lucy's but Laura ... Wouldn't it be great to have a husband like Rob and a nice ranch house in the burbs? We'd get a sitter and take the train and go see a dinner and a show in the city. Sigh.
Gender roles aside, when you watch this show today, it really doesn't seem that
dated. The writing is that sharp, the performances are that good. MTM was just 25 when the show premiered. What a precocious talent she was!
Mary Richards. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 1970-1977.
How perfect was she? Post-Watergate, she worked in journalism. Of course, it was an off-camera job at a local station, so it was something we could all imagine ourselves doing. She had the smoothest long hair, the nicest clothes and the niftiest little apartment -- to this day, I chastise myself for sloppiness because of how Mary made her bed and folded it back into a sofa every morning.
I've followed Mary's blueprint. My office life consumes an inordinate amount of my time, but I'm OK with that. My friends are my family. And yes, I'm still
unmarried. If only I could turn the world on with my smile ...
Beth Jarrett. Ordinary People. 1980.
|Everything is fine. There's nothing to see here.|
Oh. My. God. If Laura and Mary were the idealized WASP women, Beth was the dark reality. The tagline for this movie is "Everything is in its proper place. Except the past." And that's why Beth's outwardly perfect life is her hell. Her oldest son is dead, her younger son tried to commit suicide, but she can't let herself feel
any of it. Instead she makes lists and plays golf and lunches.
I love everything about Ordinary People
, but especially Beth because she rings so true. It isn't that her (remaining) son is struggling that upsets her, it's that everyone but her knows he's quit the varsity swim team. What will they
think? She hates that her son and husband are in therapy, but rather than confront that anger, she asks what one gives a therapist for Christmas.
I fight being Beth, but I feel like she's programmed into me. For example, I don't cry. My throat closes up sometimes, but I can't cry. It's not allowed. The very act of crying is as frightening to me as whatever triggers it. I think I can count on my fingers the people who have seen me cry. I know this isn't healthy. But it's "ordinary" for us WASP girls.
I suspect that, like me, the real Mary had a great deal of Beth in her.
Somewhere in my den is her autobiography, After All
, and I recall there was a lot more pain in her life than you might suspect.
Two divorces. Rehab. Diabetes. A miscarriage, and being told she could have no more children. Her sister died of a drug overdose and her only son died from a bullet within two years of one another.
But there were Emmy Awards and an Oscar nomination. Elvis once told her he had a crush on her! With her performances, and her production company MTM, she changed pop culture.
The lady herself died Wednesday at age 80. RIP, Mary. Enjoy the serenity that escaped you in life. And thank you.
*Though my own mother never could stand MTM because of her voice.