Female television fans are saying some hard goodbyes this month. Two weeks ago television icon Mary Tyler Moore passed away at age 80. This Sunday, Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls will debut the first episode of its final season.
Separated as they were by years and their approaches to, well, just about everything, it is easier to imagine these two actresses as poles on a spectrum from “purposefully disturbing” to “calculatingly genial” rather than as co-laborers for a common cause. And yet it’s hard to name any two women who have influenced the way television portrays single women more than Dunham and Moore.
As creator, writer, and star of Girls, Dunham has represented the unique challenges of millennial women—from reconciling high hopes in a crappy economy to understanding one’s relationship status in a hook-up culture.
Over the life of the show, Dunham has exploited HBO’s reliance on nudity for her own ends and in so doing served up a feminist critique of unrealistic images of women’s bodies. In a recent interview, Dunham recalled how her insistence on frequent nudity almost spoiled her effort to recruit series regular Allison Williams: “She said, ‘I don’t want to do nudity.’ I was like, ‘We have to get back to you. I’m gonna be naked, people are gonna be naked—that’s a big part of what this show is.’” The sexually explicit encounters on the show, however, strike me more as gritty renderings of broken dating culture than the refreshingly realistic explorations of sexuality that Dunham no doubt intended.
For all Dunham’s boundary-pushing on pay cable, it is unlikely that her show’s confrontational aesthetic will become the norm. Girls attempts to move culture like a tug boat pulls along a ship. The vanguard series has won tons of praise from the cultural elite but can only claim between less than one million and five million viewers an episode. Girls has influenced the influencers, but its niche popularity suggests that it’s no barometer for whether Americans are ready to recalibrate gender norms.
Mary Tyler Moore, on the other hand, seems to have been more deft at knowing how to nudge the machinery of culture-making in a women-centered direction. Her cheerful ’70s sitcom is widely acknowledged as a crucial pivot in our culture’s acceptance of both single and working women. From 1970–1977, The Mary Tyler Moore Show won 29 Emmys and was consistently rated in the top 20, if not the top 10 programs on television.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970 with a simple but totally novel premise: It featured a single, working woman as its main character. Mary Richards is a 30-year-old journalist who moves to Minneapolis for her career. She doesn’t live with or near any of her family, nor is she hoping to find a husband and start a family of her own. Instead she forms deep, supportive relationships with other women and her work colleagues. The show de-centers men or motherhood as the central sources of identity, conflict, or comedy for Moore’s character. In fact, Richards does not date much at all—a decision (by the writers) that closed down any need to comment on the ongoing sexual revolution.
By generally ignoring its main character’s love life, Mary Tyler Moore’s series produced seven years of episodes that all pass the Bechdel test (which requires that a story have two female characters who speak to each other about something other than men). Read the rest at Christianity Today.