Film & Television

Vintage TV Review: Small Screens, Glass Ceilings

Fifty years before Sheryl Sandberg urged women to “lean in” and succeed in the workplace, television viewers were getting glimpses into the lives of a strange new breed: career girls. Often played for laughs, but also presented with compassion and sympathy, these determined characters broke through the small screen — if not the glass ceiling — on a weekly basis. Equally determined actresses stepped up to become producers, insisting on plots that broadened our perceptions and inspired generations of little girls.

In 1966, Anne Marie, a perky young woman with an equally perky flipped hairdo left small-town life in Brewster to make it in the big city. As we learned at the beginning of each episode, she wasn’t just any girl, she was That Girl. (Cue theme song and opening credits.)

Marlo Thomas, daughter of already successful Danny Thomas, wasn’t quite 30 when she was approached by an ABC executive. She had screentested for a pilot that wasn’t picked up, and the network wanted to feature her in her own project. As she recalls, they gave her several scripts to review but “they all focused on a woman who was either a traditional girlfriend, wife or secretary.” She had something else in mind. In fact, her initial suggestion for the series title was “Miss Independence.”

What made That Girl so groundbreaking was that Anne, as cute and hapless as she sometimes was, never let the men in her life (overbearing father, conventional boyfriend) tell her what to do. She was single; she lived on her own; she pursued a career that she was passionate about, not a stopgap job on the way to an MRS degree. Thomas played an active role in series decisions (eventually earning a credit for her company Daisy Productions). Even though Anne and boyfriend Donald became engaged for the last season of the series, it was Thomas who insisted that they not end the show with a wedding. She believed that would send the wrong message to young women. She didn’t want “happily ever after” to be synonymous with getting married.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Four years later, another character chose her own fulfillment over more traditional domestic happiness. Mary Richards left her fiancé and moved to Minneapolis at the beginning of one of television’s all-time favorites. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran seven seasons, earned 29 Emmys, and inspired three spin-offs (Rhoda, Lou Grant and Phyllis). The series remains surprisingly fresh and relevant. In 2013, TV Guide ranked it the seventh greatest show of all time while a similar list in Entertainment Weekly that year ranked it fourth.

Mary, who the familiar theme song told us “could turn the world on with a smile,” landed a job as Associate Producer for the WJM six o’clock news. She worked hard, struggling at times to be thought of as a professional first and a woman second. She centered a group of colorful characters (MTM was very much an ensemble piece), and demonstrated every week that you could bring your heart into the workplace and not only wouldn’t it get in the way of the work, it would add to your success and that of your team.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was often funny (arguably much funnier than most of the programming we have today). But, it didn’t shy away from serious and timely topics: divorce, infidelity, drug addiction, women’s liberation, premarital sex, homosexuality, and more. According to a Time magazine piece in 2007, it was “ a sophisticated show about grownups among other grownups, having grownup conversations.” The series also explored myriad interpersonal relationships in a more dimensional way. Rhoda and Phyllis, Mary’s best friend and landlady, never really got along. But, with Mary bonding them, they became an unikely and pro-feminist unit, founded on the precursor to the “girl code” championed by today’s Real Housewives (but with dialogue more genuine than what comes out of those so-called “real” mouths).

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  • Deborah Harkins August 22, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks, Alex! All these shows encouraged me with their themes showing that loving your work while remaining unmarried wasn’t a dead giveaway that you were a loser. This was a startlingly new concept in the fifties and sixties. Those old shows were indeed inspiring to young women way back then. (I remember being thrilled that the writers had made Mary – ulp! – 30 And she wasn’t a wife!)