Because I lost a friend to cancer recently, I’m in a eulogizing mood. Sticking with the theme of social/cultural commentary, I return to my favorite arena—the arts—to pay tribute to a television icon, Mary Tyler Moore. We lost so many icons in 2016 (Bowie, Prince, Muhammed Ali, the heartbreaking back-to-back blow of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds) that it seems unusual to me that I’d choose Moore’s passing to remark on. She was neither the most or the least influential figure on the aforementioned list, but her life is relevant to the themes of privilege and prejudice that are on many of my clients’ minds these days.
As I wrote in my last entry, American television exported many symbols in my seventies youth, but few of them were comic. Britain of the 70s seemed to have enough of its own comedy, so its public had little use for contemporary American stars like Carol O’Connor, who played Archie Bunker (who was actually based on a British character), or Carol Burnett, or Mary Tyler Moore. Following immigration, I watched her on sick days from school, or on indolent summer vacations, when reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show were part of a daily TV diet. Watching Laura Petry, I was vaguely aware that she was modeled upon an early sixties ideal: beautiful, graceful, lightly comic (ala Lucille Ball); aspiring a pre-tragic Jackie Kennedy. Her later transformation into Mary Richards, a character fronting Moore’s eponymous 70s sitcom, reminded me more of my mother: she was still beautiful, still gracious, but now she was unmarried (that part’s not like my mom), dating (though carefully falling short of promiscuity, it seemed), and solidly career-focused. She put the men in their place (“put a sock in it, Ted”), but she was never mean about it. Like all of our favorite social revolutionaries, she smiled a lot.
At one time, I may have thought her a poor woman’s Jane Fonda or Sally Field, two of my favorite female movie stars of that era. Ordinary People changed that. Playing a middle-aged woman grieving the loss of a favored son, she dropped the winning persona, lost her smile, and delivered a performance of such complexity that Ordinary People (for a while, anyway) became a staple of graduate school counseling programs, as a teaching tool illustrating dysfunctional families coping with loss. Tyler Moore’s character, in particular, seemed to absorb so many viewers’ projections. She was cold and unsympathetic, yet compelling. Easy to dislike, her manner of coping was too familiar, too relatable, to be dismissed. After OP, her career seemed to wane, as she drifted into mediocre TV movies. Her focus turned to charity, being active in animal rights issues; was sadly beset with alcoholism and diabetes.
I sort of waited for a worthy heir apparent, and thought Julie Roberts and Sandra Bullock fit the bill—Jennifer Aniston, too. These stars were wonderful, but something had changed. I had changed. By the nineties I was noticing Hollywood’s lazy feminism. Murphy Brown, a late eighties sitcom, seemed to keep alive the semi-tradition of lauding independent women, with the implication that social equality in all areas was being promoted. But at this point something else was being suggested of male figures who were career-focused, unmarried, and sexually liberated. Represented by the likes of Jerry Seinfeid, the male cast of Friends, the various roles Charlie Sheen has inhabited, the “independent” men of TV were usually roguish, or at best inoffensively feckless (as in the case of Seinfeld). Their independence was spun as emotional detachment, became a source of parody. They were relationship-phobic. The phrase, “afraid to commit” became a chestnut feminine critique.
The feminists of my mother’s generation seemed to yield to a generation of tiresome male-bashers, largely oblivious to their reversed double standards. This seems to have influenced a number of backlashes: right-wing social movements, reactionary politics; uber-sexist male celebrities. Remember Andrew Dice Clay? He was so obnoxious I once thought him a leftist plant: a kind of pop media Manchurian Candidate, sent by principals of a progressive movement to illustrate the wrongness of an arch-conservative demographic. There have been plenty other provocateurs since, each increasingly provocative, representing new waves of established thought, with fresh, distinctive voices, perhaps, but with ever more ugliness, on both sides of the social/political divide, if I’m honest. If light comedy with a social comment still exists, I’m struggling to find it.