Less than a week after the Women’s March on Washington, the United States lost a pioneering comic and feminist. On Wednesday, Jan. 25, Mary Tyler Moore died at the age of 80 from a cardiopulmonary arrest.
Moore’s feminist legacy, achieved primarily through her comedic one, cannot be overstated. She cultivated the modern sitcom woman and made feminist issues palatable for ’70s audiences. On “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” she weaved contentious issues into her episodes through a witty and timeless execution. In a 1972 episode, Mary admits being on birth control to the chagrin of her parents, when her mother reminds her husband to take his pill, to which father and daughter respond in kind, “I won’t.”
Moore marketed these issues through her subtlety and good humor. You didn’t need to be a woman to appreciate Mary Richards’ tenacity toward her work and relationships with others. Richards didn’t wave a flag of change to viewers. Instead, each episode was a medicine dropper, injecting each controversial joke with flair, grace and familiarity.
Today, there are sitcoms and shows that grapple with equally compelling feminist issues. As feminism aligns itself with issues of race, immigration and climate change, comedy must advance these issues in a way that is compelling, memorable and funny. While comedians should never worry about offending or alienating audiences, it takes a fair amount of dexterity to execute these themes without controversy.
In an episode of “Girls,” a character nonchalantly reveals with a smirk that she can’t go running because she had an abortion. This scene, aiming to be comedic, rather makes the procedure seem trivial. Although there is no right way to write an abortion scene, this episode proved to be rather insensitive, supplemented by creator Lena Dunham’s fetishization of abortion — last year when Dunham was asked whether she had an abortion, the 30-year-old responded, “I wish I had.”
The scene had no comedic value and failed to present the reality of an abortion. While I appreciate the series diverging from the classic abortion narrative of tears, hugs and depression, “Girls” likened the operation to a bout of the sniffles. HBO’s “Insecure” seems to be a better voice for the millennial generation. Issa Rae, who plays a protagonist in the show, flawlessly delivers intersectional messages as a kind-hearted, relatable and down-to-earth character. Between her cringe-worthy freestyle in the bathroom mirror and her onstage “Broken Pussy” rap, it’s hard not to cherish Rae.
“Insecure” breaches themes of race and sex in a way that’s insightful, not alienating. Rae’s narrative of feeling out-of-place lends a hand to people all across the political spectrum, as long as people are willing to open up and experience life through the eyes of a black woman. Rae achieves a precarious balance of comedy and racial insight without relying on tropes or being on the nose. She has the potential to bring people together in a more progressive United States in a similar vein of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
We remember television primarily for its comedic value. Between Moore’s inability to stifle her laughter during the funeral of Chuckles the Clown, her donning of that atrocious green dress and a stellar ensemble to hold it all together, Mary Tyler Moore became the quintessence of future workplace comedies. The show’s ability to advance progressive causes was a byproduct of having such a reliable and inclusionary protagonist. Despite a tumultuous childhood, Moore did make it after all, and convinced an entire generation to as well.
There are many different paths toward social progress. As proven by Moore, television can achieve social goals most effectively through its dialogue and characters, not shock value or controversy. Both on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and her titular program, Moore did not demonize her pre-feminist co-workers and environment, but rather molded it through common sense.
In “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Moore insisted that her homemaker character Laura Petrie wear capris while doing housework as opposed to a skirt because it’s “what I do in real life, what my friends do, and that’s be a realistic wife who wears pants and doesn’t care how she looks.” And she still looked damn good, or at least good enough to win the respect and attention of a relatively conservative audience.
Kristen DiPietra is a junior double-majoring in English and human development.