The real deal

The real deal

Valerie Harper was an inspiration to baby boomers struggling with image

By Ellen Snortland 08/26/2013

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Valerie Harper, who came to fame as Rhoda Morgenstern in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” means so much to people within her personal and professional communities, as well as those who simply had the pleasure of watching her play an authentic human being on TV. Much of the actress’ fame stems from her ability to be real all the time, every time.

Does it seem odd to praise Harper for presenting 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 onscreen of “so-called” femininity. 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 Harper’s character, Rhoda, was for her audience: A beloved bumbler with an occasionally biggish butt who uttered wisecracks that we wished we could have said when we were in similar situations in our own real-life soap operas and sitcoms. Men and boys who watched Harper at work got to love the imperfect in us all.
Harper is the first female sitcom character I can remember who played a flawed woman in a leading role, one who wasn’t just a clownish sidekick — even though she started out that way with Mary. Lucille Ball was important insofar as generations had the pleasure of seeing how women are funny and that it’s OK to be silly. Lucy’s sidekick, Ethel, was great, but she wasn’t Rhoda. 

Modern television sitcoms have come to serve 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 and other young girls 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 further separating us, as do many of today’s shows.

For decades now I’ve written an August “Consider This” column about Women’s Equality Day, celebrated on Aug. 26, marking the passage of the constitutional amendment that secured a woman’s right to vote. I’m dedicating this column to Harper, who was born in August and 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 to have Harper as a leader.

A few months ago, I bought “I, Rhoda,” when I attended the author’s reading and signing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Harper has always been a vocal part of the communities that have mattered most to me: est, the Hunger Project, theater and the women’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 to find out that my apprehension had been misplaced. At some level, I knew Harper to be so truly nice that I pre-judged and figured her book would be a big yawn. It was not, turning out to be one of my favorite summer reads.
“I, Rhoda,” has just the right balance of insider Hollywood stories and the struggle with concerns, large and small, that clearly show nice doesn’t have to mean bland. Harper is a truly great person. And her parents are also beacons of inspiration for getting behind their kid 100 percent. It’s not an accident that Valerie became a star. Her parents absolutely supported her dreams from the time she was a tween. And she is a wonderful writer — fun, easy and gracious, just as she is in real life.

Now, through a series of announcements on national television, Valerie takes the lead yet again. Unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere, you probably know that she has inoperable and 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 interviews, Valerie reminded us all in her inimitable way that “life is terminal and none of us will get out alive.” And she is still working! She just wrapped a movie of the week called “The Town That Came A-Courtin’.”

Thank you, Valerie Harper, and happy birthday. Thank you for being so utterly real, all the time, every time.  

Ellen is a writing coach in Altadena. Contact her at snortland.com

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