Monday, March 18, 2013

"More than anything embrace yourself. Know you are perfect, even with all your flaws and all your pettiness. Include that. Say, 'I am a fool and I'm also magnificent.' We're the whole deal. Leave nothing out."*

   By this point, anyone who could possibly give a shit knows that Valerie Harper is dying. Rhoda Morgenstern has a rare form of brain cancer and maybe only months to live. Shit.

   I think it’s great that her outlook on life is so positive and reassuring. She says things like, “We’re all terminal,” and “None of us are getting out of this alive” as precursors to things like “We all need to live in infinite possibility,” and “Don’t go to the funeral until the day of the funeral. Live this day.”

   But I’m so sad.
Rhoda and Mary. (Photo Source)

   As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up watching Valerie as Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And no, I didn’t grow up in the 70’s, but I did grow up watching—predominantly—reruns. This kept my parents from worrying about Ousia and I hearing the f-bomb or seeing boob shots. TV shows couldn’t get away with anything that wasn’t subtle back then, so you had to have life experience to understand any kind of tacit sexual or drug reference. I was little, so I understood neither. Not until I re-watched Season 5 of MTM a few months back did I grasp that these girls weren’t the saintly knitters and coffee drinkers that I thought they were. Seriously. I didn’t even get it 5 years ago. I’m a moron.

   But the thing about Rhoda was this: she was the girl you could maybe someday be, even if you didn't happen to be beautiful and flawless.

   I never felt pretty—then or now (I know, it’s crazy, right? I’m sooooo beautiful)—and Rhoda was always depicted as pretty Mary’s funny, dumpy sidekick. And men always ignored Rhoda to talk to Mary, to ask Mary out on dates, to flirt with Mary. I remember one episode in the first season where Rhoda introduces herself to Mary’s date, Howard Arnell. She says, “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m another person in the room.”(Meanwhile, Rhoda's date consists of a man she hit with her car and his wife, whom Rhoda didn't know existed when she asked the guy out.)

   But Rhoda was so much more real than Mary. She had neither the poise nor the self-control that Mary had, but she was interesting and funny and smart and inventive. She made me believe that the funny friend could be just as awesome, if not more awesome, than the pretty leading lady. At least, sometimes she could. I was hopeful.

   Quick aside: Valerie/Rhoda wasn’t the ug-o that everyone on the show pretended she was. It wasn't super apparent, especially when they dressed her in tablecloths or curtains or bulky sweatshirts or caftans. When they actually let her dress in nice clothes, you could see that she had a banging body. And her face was (and still is) beautiful. But, when you’re watching a good sitcom, you just blindly accept whatever they tell you. Mary’s the Mary and Rhoda’s the Rhoda. Mary has it going on, Rhoda is a comedy of errors. Mary will marry a crown head of Europe, Rhoda will eat 300 peanut butter cups and die.

   What does it mean to be the Rhoda? On The Mary Tyler Moore Show it meant constant bad dates, incessant failed diets, annoying, prying parents, a dead-end job and endless self-deprecation. But it meant something different to me (and a buttload of other people, I'm sure). Rhoda always turned a terrible situation into something tolerable or even funny. She dressed only to please herself and looked amazing as often as she looked insane. Rhoda talked to her houseplants and painted her apartment fuchsia and kept different flavors of Manischewitz from her mom on the shelf in the kitchenette. To me, Rhoda was much more interesting than Mary: she had character and chutzpah and she was always, always funny, even when she was down.** And she messed up all the time. Sure, Mary messed up, too. But with Mary it was always so adorable. With Rhoda, when she messed up, you got the feeling that she was going to go to the 7/11 and buy a huge supply of garbage and go eat it out of her lap. It seemed so much more realistic than going to bed at 9:30 in shortie pajamas, after allowing oneself only a moment or two of shame.

   As I’m writing this, I’m feeling a painful bump on my chin, which will most likely erupt into a huge zit sometime tomorrow. That shit never happened to Mary. But even if it did, Mary wouldn’t mention it. Rhoda would enter the room proclaiming it. 
Rhoda finally gets into Lotus position...then can't get out of it. (Photo)

   I make fun of myself a lot and have referred to myself as "a Rhoda" in the past. I think that’s a good thing, though I hadn't intended it as such. It's hard to have friends that are exquisite looking and disciplined and successful when you are none of those things. It takes courage to be okay with being...hmmm...unique? (I'm searching for a word somewhere between "special" and "pathetic.")’s to the ladies who don’t have it all together, don’t look exactly perfect, and don’t feel too bad about it, either. Sometimes celebrating the imperfections make those same imperfections look pretty sort-of amazing. Rhoda did that for the ladies, and I think it television, in literature, in movies and in life. 

   As for Valerie…she will be missed. She was responsible for Rhoda, after all. I talk about Rhoda like she was an actual person, but that's just because Valerie is and was such a great actress. But I won’t talk about it anymore, since she ain’t dead yet, and I'm not supposed to.
*The title quote is Valerie Harper.
**Did you know Valerie isn't Jewish? It SHOCKED me. Mostly because she was my first idea of what it meant to be a Jew. And now, having known a lot of Jewish people, I realize that she did it pretty authentically. Nice.

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