Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Let's not rush into things": The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the idea of progress

After making sure Bisou had had enough exercise to prevent her from going nuts at home, I found myself incapable of doing much last night other than curling up with the sleepy poodle in front of the computer-as-TV.  But plucky, "spunky" Mary Richards proved more compelling than expected, and it was only during the third episode that I fell asleep definitively. Today I caught up a bit more. But this is in no way a post about the entire series, let alone its many spinoffs, even if I've probably seen much (most?) of this at some point in my I promise oh so intellectual life thus far. I'm only counting the last 24 hours.

And, if I'd had to pick a term for what I expected from the show, it would have been: "dated." I expected the show to feel dated, but I wasn't sure in what capacity. The clothes and hairstyles would look early-1970s, that much I imagined and was readily confirmed. (And I want Mary's nude-colored low-but-not-kitten-heeled pumps. And most of her dresses, Rhoda's dresses...) But the gender norms, that kind of thing, I imagined would seem different. But different how? More progressive or less?

The answer is, alas, both and neither. The second-wave-feminism sense that a woman doesn't need a man is combined with the ever-present sense among the characters who, after all, did not spring to earth in 1970, but had grown up in the postwar years, and who are still under immense pressure to get married. They're also living at a time when "married" still meant (in principle, and often enough) chucking one's identity for that of one's husband, when it meant no longer having a career. This is the "married" that the women of my mother's generation and older warn the women of my generation and younger about, the one that accounts for the younger end of the window-of-opportunity, for 20-something women and teenage girls being warned against getting too serious with a guy because think of your education! your career! The idea hadn't yet caught on, and perhaps given social norms for male expectations couldn't yet have caught on, that one could be a heterosexual woman in a long-haul relationship and have that not be the only aspect of one's identity, that one could be married and also work, etc.

But enough of that. Back to the show.

The basic premise, the sob story that brought protagonist Mary Richards, 30, back to Minneapolis (from I'm not sure where? did I maybe nap more than I care to admit?), is that her boyfriend of two years had promised they'd get married when he was done with medical school, but then, upon graduation, said to her, "Why rush into things?" Imagine, an upper-middle-class couple, with one still in school, not marrying after two years! (Yes, I'm thinking of the most-recently-announced-on-my-Facebook-feed engagement - a college friend will be marrying a guy she started dating senior year. Most such announcements are along those lines.) But it's more than that. Mary wasn't simply dead set on a ring, or else. Mary was effectively dumped. But it's more than that. She was dumped not because sometimes people in relationships change their minds, but because (cue Caitlin Flanagan, Kay Hymowitz, etc., etc.) the social contract had broken down. Good men, nice men, boring men, Charles Bovary-ish doctors from Minnesota, even, no longer felt they had to marry the nice girls they were with. Cows giving away their milk for free and all that. The women, meanwhile, were screwed. Or not. Is Mary happy to be 30 and single? Pretty much! And her married but same-age friend Phyllis doesn't seem so delighted with her own situation. But Mary also feels she must lament the fact, often with her same-age and also-single friend Rhoda. (More on Rhoda later, of course.)

There are some pitch-perfect observations about gender and dating that are not dated in the least. In the second episode, Mary - feeling especially 30 and desperate, and at the behest Rhoda - goes out with a guy she'd dumped years before, because he'd been too into her, too clingy, too enthusiastic. And, after dude spends the evening going on and on about how beautiful she is, what a good cook she is (and, as is noted, she hasn't cooked anything!) and otherwise praising her incessantly, he brings up marriage. Where you are primed to think this is going is, he's the just-as-bad opposite of her commitment-phobe ex. But no! Dude then starts agonizing - as though Mary had been the one to bring up marriage, when she had in fact been trying to get rid of him before they'd even met up - about how he needs his freedom. He keeps insisting that she desperately wants to marry him, apologizing that he can't be that man for her. All the while she's assuring him that it's just fine he doesn't want to marry her. According to my anecdata, this dynamic exists to this day - men starting from the assumption that all women want marriage ASAP, and that any women willing to spend an evening with them are hoping and praying for marriage ASAP with them. Men giving entirely unsolicited monologues about how they need their independence, to women who were hardly trying to take that independence away from them, but merely trying to slip away politely from a bad date.

As with "Sex and the City" (sorry, sorry), there's a bit of fantasy going on in terms of how much male attention a 30-year-old woman receives on a day-to-day basis. While I'm not with the evo-psych crowd re: it being physically impossible for a man to be romantically interested in any woman old enough not to pose as bait on "To Catch a Predator," I think it's fair to say (and I know Britta will disagree, but that's what comments are for!) that the kind of male-gaze attention one gets from strangers walking down the street peaks at maybe 14 or 15 (and thank god), and that having a seemingly never-ending supply of available partners is something that's true (for men and women alike) only, if ever, while still in school. Part of this is because TV is TV, sitcoms are sitcoms. As was notoriously the case on "Seinfeld," new characters need to be brought in somehow, and dates, if the leads are single, are the obvious choice, even if that means ridiculously unrealistic social lives for not especially glamorous 30-somethings. And with TV as well as movies, there's always this ambiguity about how physically attractive we're meant to think the character is, as versus the actress portraying her. So if a date tells Mary she's beautiful, are we supposed to think he's saying Mary Tyler Moore the actress is attractive, in which case tell us something we don't know, or that Mary Richards, a charming everywoman, has caught this man's eye? But I don't think 1970, 1995, 2011, changes things.

Oh, Rhoda Morgenstern! I guess that after George Costanza, Liz Lemon, and (in biographical respects only) Penny from "Big Bang Theory," she's the TV character I most identify with, thus confirming my suspicions that I belong to an earlier generation of NY Jews, and was born too late. (I did have a grandfather born in the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century, which may help explain this.) But the self-deprecation about her weight is grating as all get-out, because she's thin, if not quite as thin as Mary who looks, in "Daily Mail" terms, "worryingly thin." This is a problem on "30 Rock" as well, and one I will discuss more in another, no doubt also-too-long, post. The word "Jew" has yet to come up, but even though Valerie Harper, the actress who played Rhoda is, famously and contrary to what one might imagine, not Jewish, it's there. And fundamental to her dynamic with Mary. And to be discussed in painstaking detail another time.


Britta said...

Ha! I guess I will make use of the comments section :) I agree that the number of creeps who hit on women go down as women pass the obviously jail-bait territory (which, contrary to ev-psych people, is not the highlight of a woman's life), but when it comes to 20s-30s, I find it very hard to believe that a beautiful 34 year old doesn't get hit on a lot and more than an average looking 22 year old. I'd imagine that men who care about more than scoring much younger women (which would be most of the men out there) look for physical features they find attractive and/or a sartorial signal the woman is cool or interesting, and not markers of age. Also, men might not hit on someone gray haired and wrinkly, but between, oh, 24-36, it can be hard to determine how old people are. Some people look 'old,' others look 'young,' and the way people carry themselves or how they dress or wear their hair can play into how old people look. I have yet to meet a person who has guessed my age accurately, and I have problems determining the ages of people I am in grad school with, beyond the basic ball-park figures. In that sense, I don't see how a man can look at a woman and "know" she's 22 vs. 26 or 28 in the way that ev psych people assume. Finally, I imagine the amount of street attention a woman gets is somewhat in her looks, but also in how she dresses and carries herself. A 'hot' 30 year old who dresses in a way which shows off her body and walks with confidence would, I imagine, get much more attention than a nerdy 15 year old with a backpack.

Also, I have a huge problem (as you already know) with the narrative that we go from nubile beauties to haggard and desperate old maids by 29. Many people's teens and early 20s are extremely awkward periods, marked by bad skin, bad hair, lack of knowledge of basic grooming techniques, awkward features, baby fat, etc. I'd imagine that there are almost as many women for whom their late 20s - early 30s are their "best" times as there are women who peak at 18, or 22, or whatever.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I always think it's tough to tell age, that my own cohort looks the same as we did at 18. Then I walk around a college campus and see all these 12-year-olds. Except that they're not 12, but 18-22. Aging is not some radical sudden shift. 26 does not look radically different from 25. But does 25 look 18? Often enough, only in the mind of the 25-year-old who hasn't seen real-life 18-year-olds that recently.

"A 'hot' 30 year old who dresses in a way which shows off her body and walks with confidence would, I imagine, get much more attention than a nerdy 15 year old with a backpack."

As a former nerdy 15-year-old with a backpack, I have to doubt this. Men, or at least the ones bothering girls/women on the street, find meek-seeming young girls an easier target. A good-looking 30-year-old will have an easier time at finding a relationship or husband, thank god, than would a geeky 10th-grader. And individual women certainly do often look better at 30 than they did at 15 - I'd even venture to say most of the time. But walking down the street? Add a school uniform to the mix and there's especially no question, but even without one (and I didn't have one past age 13), that's how it tends to go. It's not beauty that's getting the attention, generally speaking, but vulnerability.

I think the issue here is, we need to distinguish between catcall-type attention, age-oriented-older-guy type attention, and viable-mate-type attention. The first category is about power, about unnerving the target, etc., and thus a schoolgirl is the usual choice.

The next is about any number of things - the guy wants a woman young enough to have his kids, or wants a woman so young that she won't yet be thinking of marriage/kids, or for whatever status or aesthetic reason thinks old=ick - and targets, in different ways, women of all ages for which there exist much-older men. This still leaves 23-year-olds (and if 23 isn't immediately apparent, there are cues, like the woman discussing roommates, college...) with more of that sort of attention. A 30-year-old looking for younger will want 23, but so will a 40-year-old, etc. Will they come up with lines about how they genuinely thought the 23-year-old was closer to their own age? Yes. Will these "lines" sometimes be truthful, because men have been so socialized to think youth=beauty that they really will consider it plausible that a 23-year-old in a business suit is just an especially good-looking 40-year-old? Perhaps. It's hard to say how much of a preference for 23 over 40 is about what men think they should want, what they do want (which is itself based in part on socialization). But even if this phenomenon gets exaggerated, and descriptions of it fail to account for exceptions, I think it's denying the experience of most women to say that attention at 40 is at the level it was at 23.

But the third type of attention - from men interested in marriage or relationships that may head in that direction - probably does peak more like 25-35, in part because it's understood that women younger and older than this are less likely to want that, and in part because it's also men at this age who want to settle down.

For this reason, I think the amount of power, of transferability, I suppose, that's attributed to the appeal of the 15-year-old is vastly overestimated. Let's say men are looking at you constantly as you walk to middle school, high school. Are you using this to get ahead in life in some way? So in a roundabout way, I guess I end up agreeing with you. I only disagree in terms of, I think we can say that plain youth turns more heads than middle-aged beauty, without using this as supporting evidence of some evo-psych framework that would have that it's a man's mission to make several of those 15-year-olds his wives.

Flavia said...

Just weighing in to say that I totally agree with Britta, and not just because I was, personally, more attractive at 24, and more so at 32, than at 15, and consequently got much more random male attention at the latter two ages (but it should also be noted that I was not walking down city streets at age 15). The same is true of virtually all my female friends, though, interestingly, not as true of my male friends; it's been noticeable at every college and high school reunion: the women look better and better, while the men, after whatever improvements happened in their mid-20s to wardrobe, personal hygiene, etc., look more or less the same except for the thinning hair and the softness developing around the middle. And despite the ev-psych conventional wisdom, the single men tend not been doing as well as the single women, dating- and sex-wise.

So while it may be true that truly random male attention, of the proverbial construction worker variety, peaks in one's early/mid-20s, if the issue for educated, professional women is (as you note) finding appealing & appropriate mates, plenty of women around age 30 might indeed have more sexual partners, dates, etc. than they did in college. My anecdata suggests that somewhere in the neighborhood of 28-35 most professional women are suddenly getting a lot more attention--of the sort they choose to entertain--than previously.

This doesn't mean that the volume of male attention that an attractive real-life 30-something woman gets is anything like what her t.v. counterpart gets, of course. But allowing for some fantasy and exaggeration, I'm not sure it's not representing some version of reality.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think it is quite important for this question, anecdata-wise, that you didn't walk around a city much at 15. I tend to think my own anecdotal evidence of this might tell a bit more, because I lived in the same city, walking around the same parts of that city, except while at college, at 13, 15, 22, etc., until at 28 I up and moved somewhere where there isn't sidewalk. I've never looked like a supermodel, but also never had much acne or been overweight. I am, as much as anyone might be, an ideal case for this, allowing for the possibility that I for whatever reason peaked at 15, which photos of me at that age (not to mention a glimpse at my massively pathetic love life - lack thereof! - at that age) will tell you was not the case. Anyway. From maybe 13 to 16, constant street attention. Not early 20s. "To Catch a Predator" age. Like I said to Britta, it's about vulnerability, not "nubile," not "beautiful." The men who do this pick up on the disconnect, in a girl of 14, between her body and her self-awareness, and exploit that.

From only 17-18 on, some attention of a less ridiculous variety than, for example, a man running up to me in Union Square, where I was walking with my mother, and incessantly proposing marriage. Than walking down the street on the Upper East Side with scraped knees from rollerblading and having a man tell me I'd been spending too much time on my knees. But also, 17-to-recent-college-grad-age, there was this kind of overenthusiastic, what-luck-a-younger-woman's-talking-to-me attention. I'm sure this could, in theory, still be happening at 27, 28, but suspect that I get that kind of attention less now that I'm married. This attention, we have to remember, is largely based on the idea that a younger woman won't want a serious relationship. So it doesn't make sense when evo-psych types, or even just social conservatives, urge younger women to take older men up on their offers. What are they offering? Often enough, something more casual than same-age guys wish to provide.

But I met my now-husband at 23, and when I think of when friends and acquaintances met their spouses or likely-soon-to-be spouses, it's generally somewhere between senior year of college at early 30s, and this assessment is probably tilted young merely because I'm 28 and thus don't know as many people who met at 35 and married at 40, or if I do, I wasn't going to bars in Prospect Heights with them back in the day.

So, to rephrase what I said to Britta, I don't think we need to lose sleep over (or deny) the extent to which girls and very young women get more male attention, in order to accept that it's actually women who are somewhat older, who've figured out how to style their hair and clothes, who've figured out what they want from life, who are themselves prepared to enter serious relationships, who get pursued for serious relationships.

Britta said...

Hmmm...maybe being blonde skews my experience, but I grew up in a city and got plenty of attention from skeezy men as a teenager, and, to the extent I venture off the UC campus, I still do. I have noticed that the amount of unwanted and creepy attention depends in part on how different I look from the average. So, the more I stand out, the more attention I get, factored in with cultural attitudes towards street harassment (e.g. I have experienced much more harassment in Southern Europe than China, but relative to other people in China I have been harassed much more). I'm sure women with atypical noticeable physical traits, like having really large breasts, or being really tall, might have similar experiences. Again, maybe this goes back to how I specifically look, but my experience in the US is that men who harass me on the street and or preposition me for one night stands in a bar are generally not looking for a serious relationship.

It's also true that I am better looking at 28 than at 17, not because I was ugly or fat or had acne (also none of the above), but more because I know how to dress better, got contacts, discovered tweezers, and my face has thinned out slightly in a way which gives me defined cheekbones. It's not a huge difference but it's enough that I think that guys who wouldn't have hit on me at 17 (or 21) might notice me now.

Britta said...

Oh, also, funny story. Several years ago, my aunt, who at the time was about 61, was at a bar with my uncle, though I guess it wasn't obvious they were together. Anyways, she gets chatted up by two much younger men, and they discover they went to the same high school. My aunt asks the guy what year he graduated, and he said 2005, and then he asks my aunt. She just starts laughing, and finally says "1965," at which point the guys looked kind of horrified and ran off. My aunt looks good for her age, but she certainly does not look 22. Anyways, it doesn't happen to her on a regular basis, but contrary to ev psych opinion apparently 20-something year olds do sometimes hit on 60-something year old women in bars occasionally.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


If the point is, sometimes society's preference for Nordic (one that extends internationally, and isn't just about standing out - it's a fair bet that darker women are not chased through Scandinavia/Minnesota by blond male cat-callers) trumps its preference for 15, I don't doubt it, but I'm not sure where that leaves us. An exception that proves the rule? Evidence that sometimes one non-PC, not to mention upsetting-to-the-vast-majority-of-women-who-won't-measure-up, factor can cancel out another? I mean, "atypical noticeable physical traits" could be a third arm... or they could be qualities such as being blond, slim-yet-curvaceous, etc., that the just-telling-it-like-it-is evo-psych types would celebrate. I don't think it's telling them off, that is, to say that even 60-something ethnic Scandinavians (assuming, that is, that your aunt shares this background with the other relatives you've mentioned) get hit on by 20-somethings at bars. I don't think this leaves us with a viable feminist message - everything will be just fine for the single 50-something, assuming she's Swedish.

But once again, if the issue is who gets attention from potential serious partners, things do start to look much more equitable, without imposing any PC standards or wishful thinking. Women in the 25-35 range, and women of a much wider variety of ethnic backgrounds (although there's still discrimination), are getting attention from likely future spouses. Obviously blondness, bustiness, unlike extreme youth, don't disqualify someone from getting this type of attention. My point is just that getting chased through the streets and having potential serious boyfriends to choose from are not the same thing.

And finally, in terms of looking better in one's 20s or 30s than one's teens, like I've said above, if this is indeed true for most of us from a beauty standpoint, when men are looking for vulnerability, it's if anything a plus if a girl has a bad haircut, pudgy cheeks, braces, etc.

Britta said...


You're right that there's nothing really liberatory (or revelatory) about noting that blonde women get attention. I guess my point is, I can only speak from my own experiences, but I don't get less attention than I did at 17, and the quality of the attention is only slightly different (I still get hit on by creeps, maybe not because of age, but perhaps because of hair color?) which directly contradicts the ev psych view. I hope it didn't sound like I was saying that "well, I get lots of attention, so things are great for everyone"

Back to the more general point, what is so repugnant about the ev psych argument (and general way of thinking in general) is the idea that a woman should appreciate *any* male attention whatsoever. You're right that men who prey on vulnerable go for very young, much like and including pedophiles and rapists. However, anyone would be crazy to argue that women should mourn the fact they're less likely to be kidnapped and raped as they get older, since it means they're ugly hags, and I feel like this argument is only slightly less better (watch out girls! soon you won't be sexually harassed by creeps as much!). Like I said, this attitude underlies the idea that women have no agency in attraction or desire, but that they exist merely as objects to be desired, and they should be grateful and willing recipients of male desire, regardless of who that man is. This viewpoint is not only repugnant, but also completely scary, since it highlights in a someone extreme way the attitudes of male sexual entitlement which underly violence against women.

Britta said...

*someWHAT extreme way...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, agreed, part of what makes evo-psych interpretations a mess is that they think the kind of attention one gets at 15 from creepy old dudes is something primal, to be celebrated. I'm not sure they precisely think that 15-year-olds should be more appreciative of it. More that society as a whole needs to recognize that the age at which girls are most hollered at is the True and Definitive peak of female attractiveness.

Whether we pin that age at 13, 17, 20, the fact is, hollering is not mostly about appreciating beauty, let alone about offering one's self up as a possible husband. It's about at worst intimidation, at best pursuing a woman whose relative youth means she probably doesn't want to settle down soon. Indeed, the question of when women are most "beautiful" ends up being beside the point - women are most appealing as potential spouses at the age at which women and men are on the verge of ready to get married.

My argument in this thread, then, has been that if our goal is pointing out the ridiculous of the evo-psych interpretation, we don't need to claim that women are as swarmed at 35 as at 15. We can also agree that 15-year-old girls are swarmed, but interpret it differently.

The only conclusion I can come to re: anecdotal evidence here is that it's rarely going to tell us much. People often move to big cities in their 20s, and thus experience far more interaction of all kinds than then did at 13 or 14, when they still needed their parents to drive them everywhere they went.