Motherhood in Film & Television: Laura Petrie of ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’

Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), Richie (Larry Matthews), and Rob (Dick Van Dyke) in The Dick Van Dyke Show

This is a guest post from Caitlin Moran

Before Mary Tyler Moore tossed her beret to the Minneapolis sky as Mary Richards, she was the sunny princess of sitcom wives and mothers as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Laura Petrie was a different kind of TV mom. She was young, only 17 when she married on-screen husband Rob. She was perpetually fresh-faced, nimble-footed and smart, a perfect foil for the gangly, handsomely goofy Van Dyke. Laura was the young mother that young mothers wanted to be. I grew up watching reruns of Dick Van Dyke on TVLand with my parents, who had grown up watching it when it originally aired in the sixties, and we all could agree that Laura Petrie was the paragon of feminine charm.
Oh, and did I mention the capri pants? She wore capri pants. She not only wore them, but she rocked them. And she not only rocked them, but she was the first housewife to wear pants on television. The credit for that style decision goes to Moore, who has stated in interviews that while TV shows were constantly showing stay-at-home moms in dresses and aprons and heels, “woman don’t wear full-skirted dresses to vacuum in.” While it may be tempting to brush aside Laura Petrie’s forward-thinking style, her lack of skirt caused a minor flap with the network censors when the show first aired in 1961 (“but how will we know she’s a woman if she’s wearing the pants???” some capris-hating misogynists may have wondered). Laura Petrie’s signature look launched capris into the 1960s fashion zeitgeist, and earned her a spot in InStyle magazine’s Top Ten Most Stylish TV Housewives of All Time.

Laura and Rob Petrie had one child together, a son named Richie. Because Richie is in elementary school for the whole of the show, Laura’s role as a mother focuses on the challenges of raising a small child. She worries that he might be sick when he refuses a cupcake, and helps Rob explain why Richie’s middle name is Rosebud. (It’s an acronym for the names that their parents and grandparents suggested for the baby. Unsurprisingly, that was Rob’s idea.) In the episode “Girls Will Be Boys,” Richie comes home from school three days in a row with bruises on his face, and admits that a girl has been beating him up. After Rob’s visit to the suspected lady bully’s father turns up empty, Laura goes to the child’s house to get to the bottom of the strange beatings. After the girl’s mother insults and dismisses her, Laura refuses to leave until she’s said her piece. “You may not be the rudest person I’ve ever met,” she declares with her trademark quiver, “but you are certainly in the top two.” Door slam, and our girl storms off with the moral high ground and not a hair out of place in her perfect coif.

Laura was never afraid to stand up to her husband when Richie was involved. In the memorable episode “Is That My Boy??” Rob believes that he and Laura have brought home the wrong baby from the hospital. Laura, just days removed from giving birth, attempts to be the voice of reason to her emotionally overwrought husband and, when that fails, plants herself as a barricade in front of the cradle as Rob answers the door to let in the couple he believes took home his actual baby. The ending of the episode, of course, is the most famous of the entire series—the couple that Rob has invited over, the Peters, is black, and the surprise caused one of the longest uninterrupted laughs from a studio audience in sitcom history. Laura herself has a good laugh with Mr. and Mrs. Peters at Rob’s expense, and domestic peace is restored.

Laura pouring Richie a glass of milk

That doesn’t mean that The Dick Van Dyke Show’s treatment of Laura Petrie is without its problems. It is more or less assumed throughout the show that she is a mother and a housewife above everything else, leaving her former aspirations of a dancing career behind. In season three’s “My Part-Time Wife,” Rob is woefully unable to handle Laura stepping in as a secretary at his office, even though she performs her tasks at work deftly and still keeps up the house and supports Richie. When Rob throws a grown-man tantrum over her abilities, Laura apologizes and concedes that she has been “flaunting her successes.” Everyone groan on the count of three.

And the show isn’t exactly subtle when it compares Laura’s domestic bliss with Rob’s cowriter Sally’s romantic woes. Brash, hilarious single girl Sally’s search for a fella is a constant punch line for coworker Buddy, and a source of pity for Laura. Why oh why can’t Sally just find a nice man and have a kid or two of her own? It’s bad enough that Sally writes detailed letters about her cat, Mr. Henderson, to her Aunt Agnes in Cleveland, but does Mr. Henderson have to be named after a former fiancé? Do you have to kick her when she’s down? In many ways, The Dick Van Dyke Show is a product of its era, and its obvious glorification of Laura’s married motherhood over Sally’s career life speaks to a time before the women’s liberation movement, before NOW and Gloria Steinem and certainly before Mary Richards. The tension between career, marriage and motherhood has by no means disappeared (witness the recent debacle over Hilary Rosen’s criticisms of Ann Romney), but to see it played for laughs so openly is disheartening.
Though it has its faults, The Dick Van Dyke Show remains a monument to early-60s Kennedy-era optimism (in fact, the first episode aired on the very day Kennedy was sworn in as president), and no character represents the youthful promise of Camelot more than the Jackie-esque Laura Petrie. In his memoir Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, Dick Van Dyke describes her charm thusly: “The first time I stood across from here in rehearsal and heard her say, “Oh, Rob!” I thought, That’s it, we’re home.”
Laura Petrie is a TV mom we’d all like to come home to.


Caitlin Moran is a graduate of Boston College with a degree in English and creative writing. After spending many years battling Western New York winters, she now lives in New York City with a cat and too many books for her apartment. Her work has appeared in the Women’s Media Center, Post Road, Pure Francis, the Susquehanna Review, Winds of Change magazine, HerCampus, and other outlets.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16195801629178470295 Candice Frederick

    awwwww yeah! i miss this show!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    I just recently watched episode of wife able to beat up husband and other man while husband gets beat up in fight to protect his wife (because she knows Judo!) and was amazed by how TV programmed so much of what is going on today. Already in that episode you could see both of them wondering what the nat’l talking heads would be thinking of what was going on in their household–Laura is already talking about his male ego. So much is made of Mary being the first housewife to wear pants on TV–even in beating up episode, Rob refers to her masculinity: all I see you in is pants and shirt, pants and shirt, pants and shirt–that’s all you wear anymore. Now all a man has to do is put on a dress to be able to use women’s toilets, dressing room & shower areas. What kind of mother has only one child? Is that motherhood or a family? Or the step off to the spoiled triangle me me me tv mail Ipod society we now have? It is notable that the Mary Tyler Moore show focused almost exclusively on the office because didn’t want to show the nothing at home or the sex w/every date and abortion and contraception that fuels the working girl, “Female Liberation (from childbearing). Brit series esp modern ones tend to show the whole brassy slut walk alluded to in the Dick Van Dyke show. 50 years after this show, less than 50% of mothers under 30 are married in the U.S. and 60 million babies are dead.