Carrie Fisher and Mary Tyler Moore, both of whom passed away this winter, shook things up.
Long before there GIRLS and Broad City, before women like Olivia Pope, Mindy Lahiri, and Rainbow Johnson, there was a double-bunned rebel warrior and a Minneapolis transplant tossing her hat in the air.
In 1970, America met Mary Richards. Mary was a sharp, witty 30-year-old who had just moved to downtown Minneapolis after a breakup with her fiancee. Richards, who got a job at WJM-TV and quickly rose in the ranks, was career-minded, ambitious, and loud. When viewers tuned into The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they saw a single woman embracing the chance to start anew in the big city. Mary was something they’d never seen before.
The image of this pants-wearing, work-going, unmarried woman making her way through downtown with “you can have the town, why don’t you take it?” sung over her was unapologetically feminist. Mary was no June Cleaver. For the first time, a woman was at the center of a show that took place largely outside of her home and focused on non-domestic life.
She went to work, navigating office politics, and got promoted. She and her best friend Rhoda were a spirited duo whose fierce partnership was a tribute to the power of female friendship.
Hope Reese, in her 2013 article for The Atlantic, gives credence to just how ceiling-shattering the show was. According to author Keishin Armstrong, as quoted by Reese, the show can be considered “TV’s first truly female-dominated sitcom.” Reese reminds us that the show premiered on the tails of the release of The Feminine Mystique and that, two years into the show’s record-breaking run, the Pill was made accessible to unmarried women.
Susan Silver, who wrote for the show, wrote recently in a piece for Refinery29 about her experience in the writer’s room. The goal, she says, “was showing independent single women, working and leading their lives and supporting each other.”
Silver explains that the writers were committed to depicting women as they really are and had not yet been seen. Not surprisingly, it took a team of women to really nail the female experience. “Any woman knows we talk different talk,” she wrote. Silver and the rest of the team were up to something that had truly never been done before. The show, about a woman created largely by women, contributed to the growing feminist movement by giving 30-somethings a character that looked and spoke and lived like them.
As Mary rose to fame, another woman was making a name for herself in a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars’ Princess Leia, played by the inimitable Carrie Fisher, was a new kind of role model for girls around the world. For the first time, girls went to see a blockbuster movie starring a woman holding the weapons and calling the shots.
Writer Glynnis MacNicol said, in a 2015 Elle article, that Princess Leia stood for everything she believed in as a young girl. Leia’s courage inspired MacNicol and generations of girls who grew up watching her on screen. When she watched Leia, Glynnis recalled, she believed she, too, could fight for her people.
“I could picture myself taking charge…I could imagine myself racing through the forest moon of Endor and chasing down stormtroopers,” she wrote. If Princess Leia could do it, she could, too. MacNicol also reminds us that girls don’t often have role models the likes of the Princess. “For every version of life a young boy might be interested in leading,” he can find an example in pop culture, she argued. Princess Leia was the first of her kind, and she let girls know they too, could lead a life full of agency and adventure.
Today, we are standing on the shoulders of women like Carrie and Mary. Their voices, and their fight to have those voices be heard, paved the way. What a little girl sees when she turns on the TV becomes her idea of what she’s capable of. Just last week, a study in the journal Science reported that, as they grow, young girls begin to associate brilliance with masculinity. They are far less likely to identify themselves or other women as “very, very smart.” The less girls believe in themselves as they mature, the less likely they are to take interest in traditionally male-dominated fields or in “academic” work.
It’s not enough to tell girls they can be anything they want to be. We have to arm them with examples, with real and fictional women who build robots, fight fires, raise children, cure diseases, write poetry, and win basketball games. Girls need to know the names of women at the top of every field. When they read a story or watch a show, they should see the world through the eyes of a girl or woman. Their lives will change because of it.
When a girl sees a woman who is active, loud, and bold, she believes she, too, can speak her mind. When she sees Mary Richards claiming her voice in the office or Princess Leia saving lives, she sees women who are unapologetically strong. We are indebted to Carrie and Mary, who remind us that girls learn from what they see, and who prove that, with the right role models, generations of girls really will “make it after all.”