So many little girls wanted to grow up to be Mary Richards, and I was one of them. Only I was a boy, and such thoughts were really confusing and seemingly inappropriate.
Yet there I was on many occasions, sitting on the couch late at night, dressed in women’s clothing, watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and wishing I would grow up to be Mary.
I loved Mary’s look and her clothes, of course. But my affection for the character and the actor went much deeper. She was, in many ways, something of a feminine ideal, especially for transgirls like me. She carved out a niche where she could be fully who she was, even when that meant exposing her insecurities, navigating embarrassing situations, being imperfect. Beneath it all, she was confident, centered, and full of meaningful self-knowledge. She was always gloriously herself, and showed that full self to the world.
Mary Richards sometimes seemed to long for things, but it never diminished her. She was self-aware, and, even though sometimes reserved, unwilling to let the world tell her who she could and could not be. She did not hide herself, and I always envied that. Even when circumstances might have made her want to crumble, she did so in a way that told you she was showing you who she was deep inside. I never got to do that then, and I still don’t.
I’ll never forget putting it together that the same actor had also played one of my other favorite TV women. The Dick Van Dyke Show had been running in syndication during the afternoon for just about as long as I could remember. And Laura Petrie was another example of confident femininity that was formative for me.
Unlike Mary Richards, Laura walked in someone’s shadow, and yet she never cowered, or allowed that shadow to obscure how fully-formed she was as a woman. Even though much of her life revolved around her husband, she was still her own person — and fully her own person. She wore her femininity like a beautiful dress, even when she was in capri pants!
This all means that I’ve spent a whole lot of time looking at Mary Tyler Moore and wishing I could be her in one or the other of her incarnations. It’s not exaggerating to say that she created two of the prototypes which laid the groundwork for my understanding of what it means to be a woman.
When we spend a lot of time watching actors, we start to think that we know them. But it isn’t true. What we know of Mary Tyler Moore through the characters she created is very hard to quantify. When I have seen or heard her interviewed, I always got the sense that she was neither of those women, even while encapsulating both of them within herself.
And though it’s certain that she had insecurities, personal demons, and benefited significantly from Hollywood magic and from the wonderful words written by others for her to say, she always had the same air of self-awareness and deeply pure femininity found in both Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. I think it’s likely that, just as she animated those characters in the beginning, they ultimately came to animate her.
I would like to have known her.
If I had ever met her, I would have wanted to say thanks, but probably would have tripped over the “for what” part of that. For the laughs. For the many hours of entertainment. For giving herself to those roles. For caring about story and character, and for being generous to her costars. For being feminine — for not being afraid to be feminine — at a time when the role of femininity was changing. For forging a modern femininity and then embodying it. For being herself, and revealing herself.
But also I would have wanted to thank her for helping me locate the woman within myself. She didn’t set out to do that, but it happened. She was, in many real ways, a midwife to my (still ongoing) birth as a transwoman. And I am forever grateful to her for that most personal of gifts which she never knew she gave me. (It is not coincidence that my female name derives, in part, from one of her characters.)
I will carry her influence with me always.