In the early ’90s, Nick at Night played hours of Mary Tyler Moore reruns each evening, which I looked forward to throughout my childhood with the fervor most kids saved for Saturday morning cartoons. Long before I understood the jokes, I understood the premise—Mary had done something incredibly brave in the pilot. She’d foregone the life she’d been told she should want—marriage, kids, a yard—and chosen dates, a newsroom, and a studio apartment instead. However, I somehow missed the fact that when Mary got to that studio apartment, there was already someone in it. Valerie Harper’s Rhoda, the wisecracking sidekick who was already living the independent life Mary was trying for . In the pilot, Mary takes Rhoda’s apartment and becomes the star of the series.
It wasn’t until years later, during the fight scene in Romy in Michelle’s High School Reunion, when the two female leads argue over which of them is Mary and which of them is Rhoda that I realized there were two central female figures to the story. The fact that it was possible to be “the Rhoda” had never even occurred to me.
“I’m the Mary,” Michelle’s character screams at Romy’s in the movie. Romy is horrified.
“That’s ridiculous, Michelle, you’re the Rhoda. You’re the Jewish one,” she replies.
But Michelle means “cuteness-wise,” she’s the Mary.
And goddamn it, Mary was cute. Mary Tyler Moore’s character was the effervescent, plucky, determined-yet-polite career woman I wanted to be. She looked amazing in a plaid pantsuit and did an important job in a big city. Her life was a choice, and she was living it to prove something to herself without obsessing too much over how that choice might look to other people.
In the movie, Romy is the Rhoda—the antithesis of the Mary. Deeply insecure, worried about the way her life appears from the outside—unmarried and struggling in an unimpressive job—exactly the way Rhoda was in the series. Mary and Rhoda are living very similar lives, except Rhoda is never quite sure if she has made the right choices and wonders out loud if she’s going to make it after all. She’s constantly comparing her life to Mary’s, worried that it doesn’t measure up.
“You have the kind of job Gloria Steinem wants us to have,” she tells Mary in an episode where she’s visited the newsroom on a break from her job as a window dresser at a department store. Charming, brave-yet-vulnerable Mary was aspirational; Rhoda was the reality of the insecurity built into living a life that didn’t quite fit the trajectory of the life one was supposed to have, even if it was the one she wanted.
When news of Valerie Harper’s death broke on August 30, I thought a lot about Rhoda, the show’s underdog, the one neither Romy nor Michelle wanted to be. And I watched the Rhoda-centric episodes I remembered best: her sister’s wedding, the beauty pageant she enters after losing 20 pounds, and the episode in which she outs Phylis’s brother. And I realized I’d been remembering her character incorrectly. Harper didn’t play Rhoda like a loser. She played Rhoda like someone being honest about feeling adrift at 32, uninterested in settling yet scared of what happens to women too stubborn to smile while accepting less.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that Harper was beautiful, talented, and incredibly charming because she played Rhoda the loser, cracking sarcastic jokes while hidden in a caftan, so well. On the show, jokes were often at Rhoda’s expense, about her weight, her perpetual singledom, the monotony of her job, and those punchlines were many times delivered by Rhoda herself. In one episode, Mary castigates Rhoda for her constant negative self-talk. “I’m just saying it before anyone else can,” Rhoda tells Mary.
It was easy to see why audiences loved Harper in the role. According to the New York Times, by season two of Mary Tyler Moore, there was already talk of a spin-off (which makes me wonder if the weight-loss plot lines weren’t for the purpose of getting her leading-lady ready). Harper won three consecutive Emmys for best supporting actress for playing Rhoda, perhaps because audiences understood things about Rhoda that I didn’t quite get as a girl—she was every bit as brave as Mary, but she was also flawed. She told Mary’s secrets when she felt threatened by Mary’s career success and attempted to flee her younger sister’s wedding rather than explain to her parents that being unmarried didn’t actually bother her as much as her traditional family thought it should. Mary would never do those things, but Rhoda would, and so would most of the rest of us. As a single thirty-something woman watching the show now, I felt a kinship with Rhoda because of her flaws and wanted more of her running commentary on the realities of living a life that other people think needs fixing, making all the jokes before anyone else can.
When Rhoda finally got married, 52 million people, over half of American viewers, tuned in to watch her get her traditional fairytale ending. But I think I can understand why Jill Lawrence, commentary editor for USA Today wrote to writer/producer Charlotte Brown to rant about a new Rhoda who was no longer focused on advancing her career. Instead, the show seemed to be moving her backward into a role more like Mary Tyler Moore’s own in The Dick Van Dyke show, cooking and cleaning in a world defined by domesticity. I wanted a different life for Rhoda, one where she finally loved herself the way she was—a cookie-eating loudmouth who was living a life that might not have pleased either Steinem or her parents but at last pleased her. I suppose maybe we had that with Mary, but as someone who has now realized she was a Rhoda, I wanted that for her, too, and, by proxy, myself.
In Michelle’s dream sequence, the two friends go to their deathbeds each insisting that they’re the Mary. But all the things they imagine for the “Mary,” that cuteness, bravery, and brass, Rhoda by way of Valerie Harper had in spades along with an honest vulnerability that was every bit as essential to the show as Mary’s charming optimism or Lou’s exasperated swagger. Being the Rhoda means having the freedom to be the imperfect star of your own story with a closet full of caftans and no idea what you’re doing. Not to quibble with the timeless wisdom of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, but there’s nothing wrong with that.