When I heard that Mary Tyler Moore died it hit me hard. Like so many women who grew up watching her, including Sybil Wilkes, journalist Andrea Mitchell and Robin Roberts, she opened up our minds to the possibility of becoming journalists. But more than that, her ground-breaking show made little girls of all races look at single, career women a different way.
Whether you watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show during its first run in the 70s or in reruns that still come on today, it doesn’t really matter. Many of the workplace issues are still relevant. Women are still trying to get equal pay for equal work, still trying to find their voices in male-dominated careers, and seeking the balance between assertiveness and bitchiness when they’re in authoritative positions.
Women who have grown up to be bosses themselves credit Moore, the co-founder of MTM Studios, and Mary Richards, the character she played as their inspiration. Oprah Winfrey says Mary Richards was her mentor even though she was on TV and lived a life that couldn’t have been more different from hers. Later Moore the mogul taught Oprah that she could own her own TV studios and network and produce multiple hit shows.
I blogged a couple of years ago about how TV’s female role models/mentors from back in the day compare with today’s shows like Being Mary Jane and New Girl. Of course, it had a lot to do with the times and what was and was not acceptable to show on television back then, but Mary Richards’ high moral standards influenced girls of that era’s ideas on dating and sex.
So what about now? Being Mary Jane features a single woman (Gabrielle Union) who juggles career issues and sex partners weekly. My only hope regarding my then 17-year-old daughter watching Being Mary Jane was that she did recognize that Mary Jane was doing too much. In her words, “How can Mary Jane be so smart and make so many mistakes?” The real answer is to that is “Keep living.”
As I was putting down my thoughts about Moore’s death, I got the news that the star of the detective series Mannix, Mike Connors, died the same week.
As important as Mary Richards was to shaping my future career ideas about women on the job, Gail Fisher, who played Mannix’s African- American secretary, Peggy Fair, was right up there too.
Peggy Fair, along with Julia on the self-titled show, played by Diahann Carroll, was the first professional Black woman many young girls ever saw on television. She was well-spoken, well-dressed and she had an amazing work ethic. A widow (her husband was a cop) raising a young son, it was clear that Joe Mannix could not run that office without her. She started out in a very small role, but eventually she was a major part of several storylines, distinguishing her from other minor TV characters.
Even though Peggy Fair came years before characters like Lt. Anita Van Buren of Law & Order, the two had a lot in common. Actress S. Epatha Merkerson who played the role from 1993 to 2010 once called herself “the highest paid extra on television.” Even though she was the boss, she would only have two or three lines and It took a while for us to get to see story lines showing her as a lieutenant, woman, wife and mom and the complexities of trying to do it all.
Thanks to more shows being produced and written by African-American women, in particular, over the years, we all got to see more well-rounded, three-dimensional female characters like the women of the Showtime drama Soul Food and the amazing Queen Sugar, which airs on OWN.
Some of my other favorite female-driven TV shows are ones with diverse casts like Parks & Recreation starring Amy Poehler where both Rashida Jones and Retta were integral parts of the story lines and The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick as a Deputy Chief of Police, go to show how women of any color rock when they’re cast as strong, intelligent and real.
Gail Fisher died back in 2000 but her online bio calls her one of the first Black women to play substantive roles in American television. Her groundbreaking part on Mannix won her two Golden Globe Awards and an Emmy. She was the first Black woman to win either award in the dramatic category paving the way for:
Regina Taylor, Taraji P. Henson, Debbie Allen, Tracee Ellis Ross, Alfre Woodward, Halle Berry, S. Epatha Merkerson, Queen Latifah, Diahann Carroll, Isabelle Sanford (first Black actress to win an Emmy for a lead in a comedy) Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson, (first Black actress to win and Emmy for best lead in a mini-series) Lynn Whitfield, Beah Richards, Uzo Aduba, Loretta Devine, Jackee Harry, Mary Alice, Olivia Cole, Esther Rolle and Regina King,
Kudos to the late Mike Connors for sharing the screen with Gail Fisher and kudos to the boards of those awards shows who recognized the same thing that I, a little Black girl from Compton did – that the world is a much better place in color.
PHOTOS: AP, CBS promo