What Mary Did for the Single Gals

BY CASSANDRA LITTLEWOOD

There is something glamorous and exciting about single girls depicted on screen. We often think of Carrie Bradshaw and the big city, her close friends, large closet and of course, her freedom. The freedom is arguably one of the more tantalizing of her aspects in that she does what she wants with who she wants whenever she wants.

While being a young single girl is something that is more celebrated now, back when TV’s first single girl made her debut there were harsh reactions to her empty wedding finger.

When the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show aired on September 19, 1970, the St. Petersburg Times dubbed the show a bust calling Mary Richards, the heroine played by Mary Tyler Moore, a “spinster.”

“Spinster” has often been seen as one of the worst things a woman could be. It has the connotation that a woman is lonely and unfulfilled because she is not married and therefore leads a sad pathetic life and has an unhealthy amount of cats. Of course, when the Mary Tyler Moore Show was initially a failure, critics were quick to make a joke about Mary’s singledom and her independence.

But that’s what Mary brought to television. Mary’s independence shone a light on other women who were single in a world that was catered toward married life for women. We see Mary, an associate producer at a news show in Minneapolis through the ups and downs of being a career woman in a predominantly male workplace. Not only was Mary defining her single lifestyle, she was also defining her life as a career woman, a double whammy.

From the time I was little I thought that being in a relationship was what should be strived for and that being single was just the limbo you get caught in before getting swept up off your feet and falling madly in love.

Are you laughing at this picture? Because I am.

Being raised on romantic comedies where the couple always ends up together is something that made me feel uncomfortable with being single. It aided (among other things) to create a feeling of inadequacy where I’d wonder what was wrong with me because there had to be something wrong with me if I was single. In my early high school days, I remember trying to play it off with a joke attributing my singledom to one specific reason (“oh it’s because I like to take two bites of my apple then get bored with it” or after making an awkward joke, “yeah THAT’S why I’m single”).

I remember being shocked in grade 11 when I was in Chapters with my Mom when she pointed out the newly released book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick saying that it would be the perfect book for me to read.

“Why?!” I said, offended that my mother thought me so undesirable as to declare me a spinster at 17.

“Because I see you as an independent type. You’ll be focused on a career.”

She got me the book for Christmas that year and curious, I read it. While Bolick discusses a lot of famous and accomplished single woman and her own experience being single, in her book I found a message that being single doesn’t mean being unfulfilled or pathetic, it’s simply a different path and that sometimes being single can offer more fulfilling experiences than married life. This was a message that I had little heard before.

Mary Richard’s path was different, a new path for a woman on T.V., as the Atlantic stated in an article about the show back in 2013, it was the first time that the “woman experience” was on T.V. and where female perspective was crucial to the show’s success. In the series’ second episode Mary and her fellow single-gal-pal Rhoda decide to try to date old flames in hopes of finding a husband, mishaps ensue, of course, but the anxiety around being single at 30 is there plain and present.

That was Mary Richards circa season one, cut to the final seventh season you see a Mary who is great at her job and comfortable being in charge and telling people what to do (something she was not comfortable with in season one). One other difference? Being single isn’t the forefront of her story or a point of anxiety, it’s just a fact. She’s single, having fun and feeling fulfilled through her job and her friends in her life.

Characters like Mary Richards are essential for women to see. To reinforce the fact that women don’t have to be fulfilled through a relationship and can find fulfillment through many different means. I also found it inspiring to see a single woman whose love life wasn’t the be-all and end-all of the show (sorry Carrie). Though at the beginning of the series we saw her struggle with her single relationship status and the feelings of inadequacy that resulted but by the end of the show she was more comfortable with who she was as a person overall, a journey that I think is important for anyone to see.

Mary was one of the first female characters on screen whose single life was groundbreaking for women on T.V., now we have the pleasure of seeing many unattached characters who are single and not in desperation of changing their relationship status.

About a year after my Mom told me that “Spinster” would suit me, in drama class we were each to perform a monologue from the perspective of a famous actor. When I didn’t know who I should play my teacher suggested Mary Tyler Moore because I would “suit” her well. That was my first introduction to Moore and her portrayal of Mary Richards. I’m now flattered to be considered similar to such a strong independent ‘spinster.’