Dynamist Blog

Mary Tyler Moore, Oprah Winfrey, and the Power of Unintended Glamour

In honor of Mary Tyler Moore, who died yesterday at 80, here's an excerpt from The Power of Glamour:

Taken as a guide rather than the literal truth, however, glamour need not entail disappointment. By pointing toward real avenues of escape and transformation, even its most improbable sources can channel inchoate desire into personal fulfillment. Growing up impoverished and abused in the largely segregated South, Oprah Winfrey glimpsed a distant, more perfect world on TV: a beautifully gowned Diana Ross singing on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sidney Poitier arriving at the Academy Awards, and, oddly but most influentially, the TV newsroom of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A series whose comedy was largely based on embarrassing situations, the show wasn’t intended to be glamorous. But the right audience can always edit away the flaws. For Winfrey, the sitcom provided an intensely alluring portrait of friendship, collegiality, meaningful work, personal safety, and economic independence. Its protagonist was smart, pretty, stylish, and respected by her colleagues. For all their quirks, the characters lived interesting, fun-filled lives without significant hardship. The setting—the idea and ideal of the characters’ lives—was far more important than the details of any particular plot.

“I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore,” Winfrey recalls, equating the actress with her character. “I wanted to be Mary. I wanted to live where Mary lived. I wanted Mr. Grant in my life. I wanted my boss to be like that.” Following Mary’s example, she pursued a career in television news, eventually finding her niche as a talk show host. One of the highlights of Winfrey’s triumph as a TV star in her own right was recreating The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s opening credit sequence, with herself in the leading role. Instead of showing the character Mary Richards driving into Minneapolis to find a new life, this version showed Winfrey coming to Chicago and, like Mary, ending a sequence of joyful scenes by exuberantly tossing her hat in the air. “Whenever I’m having a down day,” she told her audience in 1997. “I just pop that [recording] in. I love that!” She had projected herself into a glamorous fiction and, with a few adjustments, made it come true.

For more on glamour and career choices, read my Libertine article here.

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