Sheila Moeschen: I’m The Rhoda: What Valerie Harper Did for Women and Television

When I was a grad student living in Washington, DC, my roommate and I liked to frequent the bars and clubs in Georgetown with their old, brick facades and young, hot clientele. She was a petite, attractive girl with classic, doll-like features. I had less conventional looks. Inevitably, we would meet a couple of boys and I would quip, “I’m the funny one, she’s the cute one.” I stopped just short of saying “I’m the Rhoda,” because, well, I was 23 and pretty certain I would score no points with these boys over my love for and knowledge of classic ’70s sitcoms. But the implicit sentiment remained: I’m the sidekick, the quirky friend, the runner-up. At the time, I meant it as a deflection from what I perceived as my shortcomings, but I would not make that mistake today.

Decades before Lena Dunham bravely bore herself to viewers, supposed flaws and all, on “Girls,” there was a smart, sassy, brash Jewish girl named Rhoda Morgenstern. A single girl making it work in the long, cold lonely Minnesota winters, Rhoda weathered life’s ups and downs with a little help from her BFF, Mary Richards. The Mary Tyler Moore Show introduced viewers, unwittingly, to two feminist icons: Mary, played by Mary Tyler Moore, a career-driven young woman whose television genetics can be found in characters ranging from Murphy Brown and Angela Bower to Liz Lemon, and Rhoda, performed by Valerie Harper, who recently went public about her battle with terminal brain cancer. In many ways, Rhoda served as a classic sitcom foil to Mary — full-figured, Jewish, flamboyant and brassy — but in the hands of Harper’s gifted abilities, Rhoda quickly came to signify something else for viewers.

For the first time, Rhoda was not the necessarily frumpy Ethel Mertz to Lucy Ricardo; she was a smart, funny, outgoing and outspoken “every girl” whom many identified with and aspired to emulate. Suddenly, a generation of women awoke to the notion that their perceived “less than” status was a lie, a designation based on arbitrary factors. “As a chubby, opinionated, smart and mouthy teenager in Akron Ohio in the early 1970′s,” writes blogger Meg Riley, “I had never seen anyone on television who remotely resembled me, anyone I might be someday, or anyone who might be my friend. Rhoda changed that.”

The popularity of Rhoda earned Harper her own namesake spin-off, which ran from 1974 to 1978. No longer the partner-in-crime, Rhoda graduated to lead status, bringing the same kind of charm and wit to bear on the new series. Yet, it was her original turn as Mary’s best friend, her capacity to make second fiddle an enviable position, that changed the way women were portrayed on television and ushered in a new era of icons that resonated significantly with female fans. “Friends’” Phoebe Buffay, played by Lisa Kudrow, is one character who bears the genetics of Harper’s Rhoda. Kudrow gave us a kooky, wise and earnest woman who often orbited just outside the romantic plotlines of her cohort that won fans’ adoration and drove ratings. Despite this, Phoebe is best remembered and celebrated for staying true to her inherent differences, for embracing her originality unapologetically (who can forget her homespun dollhouse with its aroma room, candy slide and ghostly inhabitant?), for honoring her Rhoda-esque essence in her self-possesion and in keeping the integrity of a model of beauty and femininity that eschewed the conventional looks and body types of her co-stars, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston.

On contemporary shows, Rhoda’s influence persists in surprising and innovative ways. Both “Parks and Rec” and “New Girl” invert the Rhoda by endowing their leads, Leslie Knope played by Amy Poehler and Jess Day played by Zooey Deschanel, with traits traditionally assigned to Rhoda-type characters. Jess and Leslie share a kind of quirkiness, whether it’s breaking out into song or judging a beauty pageant based on contestants’ “Knowledge of Herstory,” and their characters maintain high levels of outspokenness and conviction in their beliefs. Though Poehler and Deschanel are attractive women, Leslie and Jess are less concerned with maintaining standards of beauty than they are about staying true to their characters. Leslie might fret over which pantsuit to wear to an interview, but she would never go on a fad diet or attempt more than the ill-fated perm to alter her appearance. Leslie would never introduce her bestie Ann Perkins as “the cute one” while dismissing herself in the process. Viewers get the sense that these two women love and accept themselves the way they are, which makes them all the more relatable and which makes it all the more significant that Poehler and Deschanel are, essentially, their shows’ leading ladies.

The resonance of Rhoda in these and other shows speaks to Harper’s legacy as a comic actress and illuminates her ongoing influence on women currently navigating a landscape rife with negative media about self-worth and self-image: There is nothing less than or not good enough about being a different type of girl. Be proud to be the Rhoda.

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I am from the past, have knowledge of our future but reside in the present…a gift to us all.

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