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You know that feeling when it suddenly dawns on you that something you think of as normal and natural strikes most of the rest of the world as strange?

Most of us have that at some point in adolescence, when we discover that the quirks of our families aren’t universal. But it doesn’t stop then. Now, when we have new guests, I’m reminded that most people don’t eat ice cream out of coffee mugs, and wouldn’t think to. Their loss; coffee mugs are the perfect size, built for extreme temperatures, and come with handles. But I digress.

When I was a kid -- say, eight to eleven or so -- I used to watch a lot of syndicated reruns on one of the four channels we had on tv. This was back when M*A*S*H was on about as often as Law and Order is now. But I loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Bob Newhart Show.  

In retrospect, Bob Newhart is easy enough to explain. Anyone who knows me, and is familiar with him, can spot the affinity. It’s unintentional, but striking. And that’s fine with me; he’s funny, and he seems like a decent person. One could do worse.

But Mary Tyler Moore isn’t as easy. 

Yes, the show was funny. Ted Baxter was a great character. Georgette was vaguely unsettling, but in a sweet way. I saw a bit of my grandfather in Lou Grant. And Mary was likable.

I didn’t know it was revolutionary. Honestly, it just didn’t occur to me at the time. I just thought it was a funny show about basically likable people, and it had a catchy theme song. Every so often, as in the Chuckles the Clown episode, or nearly any time Ted spoke, it would be laugh-yourself-stupid funny. That was about as much thought as I gave it.

I kind of filed it under “fondly remembered childhood tv,” along with the Electric Company, Mork and Mindy, and the Muppet Show, and didn’t give it much thought until I heard about her death. 

For the next few days, the interwebs were laden with pieces by women my age or younger, writing about how validating they found Mary’s character. The happy single woman with a professional job and her own apartment struck them as aspirational. They identified with her and wanted to be her. They held her model in mind. Several of them drew a line from Mary to Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock.  

That’s when I had my ice-cream-in-coffee-mugs moment. You mean, that was unusual?

I guess it was. I mean, I know consciously that it was -- Mary was nothing like June Cleaver -- but at a visceral level, it just always felt normal. 

Part of that was having the Mom I had. The “70’s strong educated professional woman” didn’t strike me as odd, because one was raising me. Mary’s character wasn’t a Mom, and mine didn’t work in tv, but they were close enough that it didn’t occur to me that either was unusual. They were both smart midwesterners making their way in demanding jobs. They occupied the same recognizable universe. 

Looking back, though, I have to wonder. 

We hear a lot about the importance of role models for girls and children of color, and I assume it’s mostly true. But there’s something to be said, too, for the effects on boys and majority populations from seeing sympathetic role models who don’t look like them. It can feed a more progressive sense of what’s normal. And when you win the battle for defining “normal,” you win. 

Putting that show on when they did, in the way they did, couldn’t have been easy. But they made it look easy, and did it so well that fourth-grade me never thought to question it. Well done, Mary Tyler Moore. You won the battle before I knew anybody was fighting.


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