Valerie Harper, who came to fame as Rhoda Morgenstern in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, means so much to us, both within her communities and to those of us who simply had the pleasure of watching her be utterly and authentically human on TV. Valerie Harper's true fame is being real, all the time and every time.
Does it seem odd to praise Valerie Harper for authentic humanity as art? I don't think so, and it may not be obvious at first glance. After all, aren't all people on TV human? Yes and no.
Women and girls are hammered hourly with phony images of "so-called" femininity on screen. These images present unattainable standards to those of us who are not young, rich, skinny or glib. Most of us bumble around just trying to do our best. And that was what Ms. Harper's character Rhoda was for her audience: a beloved bumbler with an occasionally biggish butt and wisecracks and zingers we wish we had the nerve to say in our own personal soap operas or sitcoms. Her bohemian wardrobe gave us all a way to hide our erstwhile flaws. You could almost smell jasmine or patchouli when she walked into Mare's apartment. Men and boys who watched Rhoda got to love the imperfect in all of us; we all had Rhoda's living within, and we were adored for it.
Harper is the first woman I can remember on a sitcom to play a flawed woman as a leading role, who wasn't just a clown-type of sidekick -- even though she started out as Mary's. Lucille Ball was important insofar as boatloads of us got to witness that women are funny and that it's OK to be silly. Lucy's sidekick Ethel was great, but she wasn't a Rhoda.
Today's television sitcoms in many ways have become ultra-segmented, instead of appealing to a mass audience. A notorious example is the sitcom ghetto that strictly targets tweens and teens, and serves up such drek (Yiddish for dirt, filth, excrement) that Nick Schager -- a Village Voice columnist and father -- recently wrote about how the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon are possibly poisoning his daughters' minds with an entertainment goulash that jacks up negative female stereotypes beyond anything he'd ever thought possible. It's worth a read and creates a longing for the days when entire families would sit down and watch sitcoms together. "I Love Lucy," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda," integrated generations, rather than separating us even more as many of today's sitcoms do, and gave us fully dimensional women instead of the loud and grating caricatures of girls and women that we often see today. Joss Whedon is famous for creating strong, complex female characters in his dramas and adventures ... but where are the Joss Whedon's of sitcom?
For decades now, I've written a late summer/early fall column in my home paper, the Pasadena Weekly, about Women's Equality Day, celebrated on August 26. Women's Equality Day marks the passage of the constitutional amendment won by women to secure their right to vote. I'm dedicating this season's column to Valerie Harper, whose birth month is August and who vividly represents Women's Equality. Having just read her autobiography, I, Rhoda, I not only want to sing its praises; I want to emphatically say how blessed we are in so many ways to have Valerie Harper as a leader.
A few months ago, I bought "I, Rhoda," when I attended Ms. Harper's reading and signing at Vroman's, a large independent bookstore in Pasadena, CA. Valerie has always been a vocal part of the communities that have mattered most to me: est, The Hunger Project, theater, and the woman's movement for equality. Although we never really knew each other as pals, we have been related through our passions -- our sisterhood, if you will.
I must admit that I wasn't eager to read "I, Rhoda," and was thrilled that I'd been mistaken. At some level, I knew Valerie to be so truly nice a person that I pre-judged and figured her book would be a big yawn. It was not, and turned out to be one of my favorite summer reads.
"I, Rhoda," has just the right balance of insider Broadway and Hollywood stories and the struggle with concerns, large and small, that clearly show nice doesn't have to mean bland. Harper is truly a mensch. And her parents are also beacons of inspiration for getting behind their kid 100% and what that can mean in the short and long runs. It's not an accident that Valerie Harper became a star. Her parents absolutely supported her dreams from the time she was a tween. And Ms. Harper is a wonderful writer: fun, easy and gracious, just as she is in real life.
Now, through a series of announcements on national television, Ms. Harper takes the lead yet again. Unless you've been under a rock somewhere, you probably know that Ms. Harper has terminal brain cancer. She said she is trying to live in the moment and had this advice: "Keep your chin up and don't go to the funeral, mine or yours or your loved ones, until the day of the funeral because then you miss the life that you have left." In a series of media interviews, she reminded us all in her inimitable way that "life is terminal and none of us will get out alive." And true to her word, she is still working! She just wrapped a movie of the week called "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."
But wait! This just in: Ms. Harper's doctors are astounded. It looks like Valerie's brain tumor is almost in remission, which gives her more time with us... and she's not wasting it. She's now signed up for Dancing With the Stars! Way to go Valerie. We are dancing with you.
Thank you Valerie, and Happy Birthday to you. Thank you for being so utterly real, all the time and every time.
NOTE: This article is an expanded and updated version of my column in the Pasadena Weekly that originally ran on 8/26/2013.