That Time "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" Advanced LGBTQ+ Representation

By Ed Martin Report Archives
Cover image for  article: That Time "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" Advanced LGBTQ+ Representation

I usually write about The Mary Tyler Moore Show during Women's History Month. After all, who better to represent strong, independent women than the star of the show herself and the trailblazing character she portrayed for seven seasons (1970-77), the not-unhappily-single Mary Richards? What you are about to read, however, is a MTM column about Pride.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is often praised for its at-the-time groundbreaking portrayal of a single, 30-something career woman who liked men (and even spent the night with a few of them) but did not need one to make her life complete. This had been an unheard-of concept in the still-young medium of television. In another first -- one for which it rarely receives credit -- it was the first sitcom to feature a character of color (Gordy the weatherman, played by John Amos) who never came across as a stereotype or comic relief of any kind.

And then there's this: In the 17th episode of season three (which premiered January 13, 1973), TMTMS quietly but quite literally challenged every preexisting obstruction that had largely eliminated LGBTQ+ characters from television narratives. Gay characters had been seen, of course, but not directly identified as such, and even when it seemed rather obvious, they were usually included as comic relief or as somehow miserable, menacing and almost always lonely.

In this landmark episode, though, Mary meets Ben (played by Robert Moore), the brother of her friend and landlady Phyllis (Cloris Leachman). Ben is a smart, cultured, successful composer of music in commercials. He comes to Minneapolis (from New York City) to visit his sister, who immediately sets out to fix him up with Mary.

To Phyllis' horror, Ben prefers to hang with her frenemy Rhoda (Valerie Harper). Mary doesn't mind, but Phyllis can't cope. Rhoda, on the other hand, has a great time with her new pal, and takes great delight in ribbing Phyllis about it, at one point calling her "sis."

If it isn't, the climactic sequence -- which plays out in one of Mary's legendarily problematic parties -- should be known as one of the most memorable in television history. The party is going just fine until a distraught Phyllis finally confronts Rhoda, demanding to hear the brutal, awful truth about her "relationship" with Ben. Rhoda tries to explain that they are just friends, but Phyllis is so certain that they are lovers that she doesn't let up. Rhoda finally shuts her up by telling her that they are planning to be married.

Minutes later Phyllis dissolves into tears, her sobs bringing Mary's party to an abrupt halt. Everyone clears out -- including Ben, who heads downstairs to Phyllis' apartment to fix her "the biggest slow-gin fizz she ever saw," and Mary, who follows him, leaving Rhoda and Phyllis alone.

In an effort to calm Phyllis, Rhoda gently asserts that she isn't going to marry Ben. "He's not my type," she says.

A stunned Phyllis suddenly turns defensive. "What do you mean he's not your type?" she demands. "He's witty. He's attractive.  He's successful. He's single!"

"He's gay," Rhoda replies. (This prompts one of the loudest and longest laughs ever from any of the show's studio audiences.)

It takes Phyllis a minute to compose herself. Then she says, "He's what?"

"He's gay," Rhoda repeats, in a very matter-of-fact manner. "I thought surely you knew. We're not getting married."

"Oh, Rhoda," Phyllis exclaims. "I'm so relieved!"

This exchange was startling at the time, but it was also very funny, and not at all condescending or offensive.

I consider every episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to be essential viewing, but this one sits high up on the list and true standouts.

Fun fact No. 1: This episode randomly introduced the character Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel), who would go on to date, marry and have a family with pompous anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight).

Fun fact No. 2: Ben had never before been mentioned and was never mentioned again -- not even when Phyllis became a widow two years later and relocated to San Francisco (the setting of the second TMTMS spin-off, Phyllis).

All seven seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are available to stream on Hulu.

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