What Lena Dunham and Girls owe to the Mary Tyler Moore show

Many modern stars were inspired by TVs single career woman who died last week

When Mary Tyler Moore jauntily slung her blue hat up in the air for the opening credits of her 1970s television show, she could not have thought that, decades on, her death would be mourned by generations of women for whom she was an emblem of independence.

Mary Tyler Moores humour, style and vulnerability have had a profound influence on me as a television creator and on every woman I know working in television to upend expectations of traditional femininity, Lena Dunham, the creator of the show Girls, said last week on hearing of Moores death at the age of 80.

Moore has been hailed as an exceptional trailblazer. Yet a succession of women have shaped American viewing, and particularly American sitcoms, proving effective at altering the assumptions of their audience or at least at provoking debate.

Dunham herself is about to present the sixth and final series of her own darkly comic contribution to the parade. Girls, which follows the lives of four middle-class friends coping with low incomes and low self-esteem in New York, was regarded as a shocking blast of cool air when it was first broadcast in 2012. Now, as the show prepares to bow out, its frank approach to nudity and to the female psyche seem more like an inevitable step in a long march towards treating on-screen women the same as men.

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Lena Dunham in the final series of her TV show Girls. Photograph: Home Box Office

For Dunham, it was Moore who lit the way. Her remarkable presence and ahead-of-her-time ability to expose the condition of single working womanhood with humour and pathos will never be forgotten, she told The Hollywood Reporter.

Appreciations last week highlighted the way that Moores best known character, single journalist Mary Richards, drank from a deep pool of perky optimism. At the same time the show acknowledged the characters loneliness and the income inequality she faced in the newsroom. The late Nora Ephron, who wrote When Harry Met Sally and also mentored Dunham, felt comforted by Moores show.

It meant a lot to me the second time I was single and home alone on Saturday nights to discover that Mary Tyler Moore was home, too, she once said. When Moores show ended in 1977 it had won 29 Emmys, setting a record unbroken until Frasierwon 30. Just as significant though was the fact that Moore had become a powerful television producer, creating distinctive shows such as the influentially dry spin-off Rhoda, starring Valerie Harper, that, in its heyday, attracted almost 30million viewers.

For the British comic actress and writer Helen Lederer, it was watching comic star Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy as a child in the 1950s and 60s that opened up a world of comic possibilities. I loved the domestic setting and the way her character had power through being witty, she said this weekend. In Britain we have always lagged behind. There is much less acceptance of wit in women. It is misunderstood and distrusted here somehow. Theres an unease which I passionately wish would change.

Ball, who portrayed a disruptive whirlwind of a wife to her real-life husband Desi Arnaz in the long-running show, became an American institution. Today, unabashed female satirists, such as Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, also ride justifiably high in the entertainment stakes in America. But it is sitcoms that still get to the parts that standup comedy and political sketch shows cannot reach.

Tonight the actor Lily Tomlin will be honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the annual Screen Actors Guild ceremony in Los Angeles. At the age of 77, Tomlin, who first appeared in 1969 in Rowan and Martins Laugh-in, is still appearing in a hit sitcom, Grace and Frankie, co-starring Jane Fonda. The series, which is nominated for an award tonight alongside shows such as Orange is the New Black, tells of two elderly women forced together when their husbands fall in love.

Grace and Frankie is also up against the acclaimed Veep, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a hapless vice-president. The show, written by Armando Iannucci, is an ensemble piece, but Louis-Dreyfuss charismatic and funny performance is the main draw. The foul-mouthed, ambititious politician she plays has by now nearly overshadowed her first great sitcom achievement, the self-absorbed and neurotic Elaine Benes from Seinfeld. The actors progression to the White House shows how audience expectations of women have shifted, but it is those women who have written their own parts who have had the biggest social impact.

Two such towering presences have managed to become part of the American conversation in a way rivalled only by chat show host Oprah Winfrey. First came Roseanne Barr, whose eponymous show dared to show a family that, while functional and warm, bore little relation to the aspirational American dream. The surprise was not just that Barrs matriarch was feisty and witty, but that, like many a man, she was not bothered about seeming nice. Modelled on her own life, the show, Barr felt, should credit her as its creator, rather than head writer Matt Williams, who was eventually eased out.

Some feminists now criticise Barr for adopting stereotypical male characteristics on screen in order to take the entertainment citadel. For a long time, there was pressure to seem like… you were cool, Amercian comedy journalist Elise Czajkowski has said. You were one of the guys.

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Ellen DeGeneres used her sitcom to come out as gay in 1997. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

The other great American small screen presence of the late 20th century is Ellen DeGeneres, whose comedy, Ellen, began in 1994 and was superseded in 2003 by her talk show, still filmed five days a week in Los Angeles. Her sitcom made social history in 1997 when she used it to come out as gay.

Along the way, other women sitcom characters have made their mark on the landscape, from Cybill Shepherd in Cybill, Rhea Perlman in Taxi, Loretta Swit in M*A*S*H and the waspish Bea Arthur in Maude in the 1970s. Arthur went on to co-star in The Golden Girls, a show still regarded by British comedian Bridget Christie as a shining televisual light. It just seems so exotic to me. The Americans seemed ahead of us at doing womens humour so very well, she said this weekend. Perhaps it is just because it is a bigger industry out there, so there are more shows and also more people in the writing rooms. But often they seemed to have women in major creative roles too.

Yet few of these sitcoms broke through into the real world in the way that DeGeneress decision to come out did. The exception, perhaps, is Candice Bergens show Murphy Brown. This became the centre of social controversy in 1992 when the real vice-president, Dan Quayle, attacked the show for portraying a heroine who had decided to have a child outside marriage.

Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong, Quayle said. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesnt help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomises todays intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.

In the past 30 years other female-focused shows, such as Grace Under Fire with Brett Butler, or Fran Dreschers The Nanny, have addressed womens place in the class system, or have simply created water-cooler talking points, like Amy Poehlers Leslie Knope in Parks & Recreation and Tina Feys Liz Lemon in 30Rock. But after the box office triumph of the feature film Bridesmaids in 2011, things were to go up another gear. The film, co-written by its star Kristen Wiig, made a profit of $250m and reminded TV producers it was worth taking risks with womens stories, told by funny women.

A commissioning surge followed. Notable results include The Mindy Project, starring its creator Mindy Kaling, Broad City, created by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, 2 Broke Girls, in which Kat Dennings plays a waitress with a strong line in banter, and the youth hit New Girl, in which Zooey Deschanel plays a woman who moves in with three men. Some critics of these shows have questioned the obsessions and frailties of the characters arguing they do not represent women fairly, but their defenders say there is no need now for female characters to represent their entire sex. As Liz Meriwether, creator of New Girl, has said, deliberately developing a role model is the death of comedy. I think women respond to honesty. Women respond to all the things that men respond to in characters, and I dont think men only like to see men portrayed in a positive light, she said.

And, as Dunhams Girls takes its final curtain, boundaries are still being pushed elsewhere. Controversially, in the first episode of 2 Broke Girls, Dennings character, angry with a male customer who has clicked his fingers at her, replies: You think this is the sound that gets you service, I think this is the sound that dries up my vagina.

It may be not be a line envisaged by the writers of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, with its reassuring theme song promising, You are gonna make it after all but it certainly puts over a female perspective.

GROUNDBREAKERS

Lucille Ball I Love Lucy, in which Ball was the talkative wife of a band leader played by her husband Desi Arnaz, ran for six years in the late 50s and was constantly repeated.

Mary Tyler Moore After playing a kooky wife to Dick Van Dyke in his show, in 1970 Moore bloomed into American TVs favourite single career girl.

Roseanne Barr As a tough but loving mum in Roseanne, Barr updated the image of the average US family in 1988.

Ellen DeGeneres Starring in her own sitcom, DeGeneres, above, came out as gay with maximum impact in 1997.

Lena Dunham Mental health, love and thwarted ambition have been the tragi-comic themes of Dunhams Girls since 2012.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/jan/29/women-tv-comedians-mary-tyler-moore-lena-dunham

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