Valerie Harper: The Un-Bethenny

442px-Valerie_harperIt’s amazing how standing in line at the grocery store can create a defining moment.

As I glanced over at the magazine rack, I couldn’t help but be struck by the juxtaposition of two covers: one of Bethenny Frankel’s impending divorce, the other of Valerie Harper’s own devastating terminal cancer revelation.

One is a woman whose ‘life as a shambles’ is documented on a reality show providing a voyeuristic characterization of a woman having it all; the other a TV actress whose character spoke volumes about women on the verge of a feminist movement.

It’s been about 40 years between these TV shows; yet, we sure haven’t come a long way, baby.

Before we had reality TV and reality stars like Bethenny, the rise of strong TV female representation began with 1970 sitcoms. There was That Girl” Marlo Thomas. And there was also Valerie Harper, so familiar to most of us as Rhoda Morgernstern.

Rhoda – as we knew her — was the first opinionated, openly Jewish, boho chic (before it was chic) TV character I, and the rest of the viewing public, had ever seen. Valerie Harper burst onto the popular Mary Tyler Moore show in 1970 – just as the decade was about to usher in second-wave feminism – better known as Women’s Liberation.

I was quite young at the time and did not really understand what feminism was all about – but I understood Rhoda. Ms Harper’s portrayal of her embodied my eventual definition of the term. Her real life support of the women’s movement and the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment cemented it.

Rhoda was the antithesis to Mary Tyler Moore’s gosh-darn-golly-gee good girl character from Minnesota. She lived alone in a studio apartment with hippie beads for a doorway, wore colorful head scarves, had a creative job and dated. A lot. She was everything I wanted to be: a headstrong, funny, independent career girl. With a cute boyfriend.

Turns out a lot of women wanted to be like Rhoda. She was so appealing that CBS gave Ms. Harper her own show. Rhoda debuted in 1974 and immediately set a record by being the first and only television series ever to achieve a number-one Nielsen rating for its premiere episode.

Ms. Harper’s character spoke to women and girls of the early 70s; she was vulnerable, body conscious and agreed to live with her devastatingly handsome boyfriend, Joe (played by David Groh), during a time when it was unheard of. Her wedding broke TV viewing records and captured the imagination of a nation: people even held ‘wedding parties’ to celebrate the fake nuptials.

Even though sitcoms are truly contrived scenarios, Rhoda did more to honestly portray, through comedy, what a feminist could look and act like, more so than any reality TV show featuring women today. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find any show that would have a positive female role model. When I asked my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter if there were any such role models on TV that she could relate to, she snickered, “The Real Housewives!” Then she sat there for a full minute before answering, “No, mom. There aren’t any.”

While TV sitcoms are not the be all and end all of forwarding the women’s movement, you need to go where the people are — in front of their televisions and computer screens and standing in the grocery check-out line. Now that Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon is gone, what’s left? Groups of women who are artificially thrown together, most of whom have rich husbands, fabulous houses and lots of booze.

We’ve gone from “you’re gonna make it after all” to “having it all.” And as far as the media’s portrayal of women is concerned, I’m not sure the “all having” direction is the one we want to go in.

Guest contributor PR consultant Elissa Freeman brings more than 25 years of communications experience to the pages of The Broad Side. Named one of Twitters Top 52 PR pros and Top 75 Bad-ass Females, the Toronto, Canada-based Freeman is also a contributor to PR Daily/PR Daily Europe and is a guest columnist at Canada.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @elissapr.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License

  • This is an excellent piece. The MTW show was hugely influential on me. Of course when I got my first apartment one of the first things I did was get a big initial letter with my first name to put on the wall. Rhoda’s clothes were always amazing and I really liked her fake apartment, but more important the show focused on the women. Certainly there were some stereotypes (dumb blonde Georgette and the randy Sue Ann Nivens) but it was really the first show on television that focused first on women, smart intelligent women in the work world. Thanks for this piece.

    • Elissa

      Thank you, Bernadine! When I was young, all I knew is that I was going to buy a great big ‘E’ for my very cool apartment (which I did) and wear my hair in a flip (which my naturally curly locks wouldn’t allow). Those shows had enlightened writers and actors – can’t necessarily say the same about this decade.

  • Great and thoughtful piece. I’m still thinking about whether I can think of any mainstream shows that have female leads that are not fluff. Sidekicks yeah, but lead… not so much. Perhaps Claire from Modern Family? She’s less than perfect, despite being a size 0… Except she’s unrealistically imperfect.

    I’ll have to think about this more. Meanwhile I get to hear about the Kardashians. I had a convo with my 16yo the other day. She was appreciating Kim’s “Work Ethic” and telling me I couldn’t knock the girl – she works so damn hard. I acknowledged this, and said hard work is admirable, but honestly, what is she working FOR? How does she make this world a better place?

    • Elissa

      Ciaran, I went through the same thought process – and I couldn’t think of any! And the Kardashians? It’s AMAZING the influence they wield over the teen/tween set. From the nail polish they buy to how they define ‘work ethic.’ Really disturbing, actually.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    Elissa,
    I was a young newlywed when The Mary Tyler Moore Show first appeared. Frankly, as a Christian from an intact mother/father family with a stay-at-home mother, I had never embraced Feminism. I followed in my mother’s footsteps and, although I was a college graduate, was thrilled to be able to stay at home with my three children while my husband supported the entire family.
    I know this isn’t possible for everyone but I find the current rate of single motherhood very disturbing. It is the greatest predictor of poverty in our nation. It is sad that we don’t put at least as much emphasis on the benefits of the lifestyle I enjoyed as a very good alternative to being the woman who feels unfulfilled if she isn’t a high powered executive.
    I have spent my life volunteering in a variety of political and community activities and have contributed much to the betterment of my nation. I hope feminists are open to seeing my choice as a valid option to being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
    The breakdown of the family is at the core of many of our society’s problems. Gang members regularly say that they don’t feel they belong in their own broken families and choose to see the gang as their alternate “family”. The prisons are full of young men from broken families where they had no male role models to emulate. Putting more emphasis on family structure where both mother and father are committed to their marriage and their children will solve many of the issues that government tries, with limited success, to resolve.

    • Elissa

      Thanks for your comment, Beverly. I think women can make all sorts of choices – some out of need and some out of free will. However, I’m pretty sure you can be a stay-at-home mom and be a feminist at the same time.

    • Diagonotter

      The whole point is equal opportunity, and the ability to choose the life you lead. As mom you can shape the aspirations of your children, not what they do but the belief that they can try what ever they like, both girls and boys, that is feminist work.

      As you posted you comment in reply to the One Day At A Time comment, understand representation is so important. While you might think we should be showing and encouraging “intact” families, it’s more important for people to see themselves. People of Color, of different sizes, different walks socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, specialities and gender identity.

  • Shows like Rhoda and One Day at a Time pushed the women’s movement forward. Worried about what will do that now. Thanks for making me think about it.

    • Elissa

      I LOVED One Day At a Time – I think it was the first show of its kind to feature a single mother as the main character. Well, there was also Shirley Partridge….

  • This piece brought back great memories. I was definitely too young to appreciate the show real time, but I know I felt a real sense of self and self-worth when I started watching Mary and Rhoda when I was older. I didn’t see them as “the first” because I was already living in a time where I felt empowered and knew of smart working women, but I knew they were something special so much so that I think of Mary’s theme song often as I now live in NYC living my dream.

    Great revelation and comparison.

    • Elissa

      Thanks, Ella. You raise a good point – I didn’t realize the importance of their characters either – until I took a look back and compared it to today. And yes…I do hum the “mary” theme song too!

  • I loved Rhoda; much more relatable to me than Mary. I also loved Ann Romano; she felt real, and had red hair like my mom did back then. I didn’t realize it until I read it today here, but we do need better role models on TV other than ‘quirky, funny” gals.
    Estelle

    • Elissa

      It’s so true, Estelle. Click around the dial – most female TV characters are neurotic, angry or drug-addicted. Not alot of choice for role models!

      • Claire

        Shoutout to Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec! Funny, earnest, bright, socially conscious, and a terrific female TV character role model.

  • Another powerful and crucial show was called JULIA– Check out the clip

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