Austen and MTM: Pleasantly Subversive

When the news came recently that Mary Tyler Moore had died, I joined millions of others in feeling a deep sadness at the loss of an actress who had lit up television during a relatively bland era. Before she was done, Moore won seven Emmy Awards and two Tony Awards, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Comedy Awards, and was in the Television Hall of Fame.

In taking embarrassment into the form of high art, she found a way to make a case for all women to be treated with respect, whether the woman in question was a suburban housewife caring for her family or an enterprising single woman making her own way in the world. She proved her serious acting chops in the movie “Ordinary People” and many other films.

As I—along with many, many others—replayed some of the best clips from both “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I kept thinking that there was another connection to be made, but I couldn’t figure out what it might be until I was watching an hour-long retrospective. Early critics savaged Moore’s show for having a pug-ugly male lead—Ed Asner—a strange supporting cast, and a lead that no American audience would ever accept—not only a woman, but a “spinster.”

 Then it hit me: Mary Tyler Moore was the Jane Austen of our era.

 Think about it. At their height, Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards in her TV series) and Austen (as a novelist) were single woman in their thirties, hitting their professional stride in a world weighted against women and thwarting them in a variety of ways big and small. Both experienced might-have-been relationships in their personal lives that at times brought reflection over loss—but never stopped their quest to move ahead alone.

In a time of great social tumult, both were quiet supporters of a better way. While some contemporary women were tough, intellectual advocates of better treatment for women (Mary Wollstonecraft in Austen’s day, Gloria Steinem and others in Moore’s day), Austen and Moore used gentle humor and social satire in their renderings of ordinary life. They made many of the same points as did the advocates, but in a way that was easier to accept because, in ordinary life, the injustice perpetrated was so palpably wrong.

Jane and Mary adhered to most social norms while subverting them.

Mary Richards, for example, was the only cast regular who called Lou Grant “Mr. Grant” instead of “Lou.” Her respect and deference were the basis by which she would haltingly question Mr. Grant. Step by step, she would walk him down some male-centered policy until his own logic proved he was wrong. In a similar fashion, Austen did not preach a moral as many of her sisterly novelists did. Instead, Austen let people like Mr. Collins and Mrs. Elton simply speak and act, demonstrating their selfishness and vanity objectively—aided at times with the gentlest of authorial irony.

The approachability of Jane and Mary, and their handling of ordinary domestic life and work, led readers and viewers not only to identify with them but to feel that they had their own personal relationship. Fans automatically spoke in terms of “my Jane” and “my Mary”—sister, aunt, BFF. One actress, who played a character who was mean to Mary on the show, received death threats. One suspects a similar reaction should anyone trash-talk Austen in front of Janeites.

Austen influenced numerous women authors in future generations—as well as men—while Oprah Winfrey and a generation of female journalists praised Moore for showing them how to achieve success while remaining themselves, how not to succumb to anger or despair while persevering. Putting a good face forward was not a way of swallowing pride at insult and disrespect but of subtly gaining ground while antagonists—male and female—were busy preening.

 Jane Austen of the 19th Century and Mary Tyler Moore of the 20th Century: Sisters at heart!

 What do you think—are these reasonable parallels? Are there others I missed? Who else might be the Jane Austen of our world?

P.S. I may be slow to respond to comments. I’m in Australia this week to deliver a series of talks to the Jane Austen Society of Australia in Sydney, Newcastle, and Brisbane, with a lot of travel and a huge time difference!

2 thoughts on “Austen and MTM: Pleasantly Subversive

  1. Excellent and creative brainstorming, Collins, there certainly is a parallel along the lines you outlined! For me, it’s not a parallel all the way down the line, because I do believe Austen was actually more radical than Wollstonecraft, whereas I would be surprised to learn that MTM was more radical than Steinem or Friedan. But nonetheless, that does not detract from your main point, which is that furthering the worthy and as-urgent-as-ever cause of feminism need not be explicit and overtly polemic.

    And good luck in your Australian barnstorm, I will look forward to hearing all about it when you return!

    Cheers, ARNIE

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