Where Mary Richards was the girl next door, Rhoda Morgenstern really was the girl down the block.
Never before in TV Land had I heard someone TAWK like Rhoda.
That voice, those dropped “r’s” so familiar, a constant in my “LawnGuyland” neighborhood and in my family could now be heard emanating on Saturday nights from my RCA TV. She sounded just like my friends. And me.
Suddenly in 1970 in a sea of demure, blue-eyed wasp-waisted WASP housewives there appeared this brash Noo Yawk woman. A Jewish woman to boot.
Here front and center was a loud, quirky, sassy woman with an eye for fashion. Sporting exotic headscarves, here was a real life girl, a relatable girl, a self depricting girl who worried and struggled with her weight. “The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food,” she quipped.
To a 15 years old girl struggling with body image and weight, who spent her entire school year of 1970 jumping on and off a Deteco bathroom scale, Rhoda was a revelaton to me.
Played by Valerie Harper to perfection, that fictional Bronx born beauty the daughter of Ida and Martin Morgenstern was unabashedly Jewish.
That was a big deal.
At the time networks insisted that American TV viewers would not accept series characters who were 1) divorced 2) from N.Y. 3) Jewish 4) have mustaches. The Mary Tyler Moore show broke barriers with Rhoda. Though the producers changed Mary Richards from being divorced, with Rhoda they overrode the network on two other counts.
With that, the “Mary Tyler Moore” show was an original and Saturday nights were never the same.
In 1970 in the midst of the bourgeoning feminist movements, and my teenage bourgeoning consciousness as a female, CBS introduced Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern to TV. Suddenly Saturday nights became must see TV, truly proving she could take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.
Sure by the mid 1960’s there had been some independent career girls on TV before. There had been Marlo Thoma as “That Girl” and Dianne Carrol as “Julia” the first African American woman who was a widowed nurse making it on her own. But generally career girls on TV and the media in general were pictured primarily as husband hunters. No girl one wanted to end up a spinster and smart single gals knew a job could be a Space-age launching pad for snaring a husband.
But both Rhoda and Mary had escaped their hometowns to explore an independent life. Mary was a kind of stand in for a new American female. When Mary Richards, single and gasp…30, moved to Minneapolis and started working as associate producer at the WJM-TV, she did something that no female character on television had done before.
She had left her fiancé, put her job before romance and made it clear that she would rather spend evenings alone than in a series of bad dates.
What made Mary Tyler Moore Show so original was that it was the first sitcom where a female character’s primary relationship was with neither her family nor her male love interest but her friends and co workers. A female perspective was crucial to the shows success so its no coincidence that the show was also one of the first shows to employ a stable of female writers.
There had been TV female duos before.
Lucy and Ethel had long been the gold standard of TV gal pals but they seemed bonded by plots, and schemes and even competitiveness, less by true intimacy.
But Mary’s and Rhoda’s friendship was supportive, substantial and affirmative. “Mare” and Rhoda had genuine feelings that they discussed openly. The girls often fretted over their weight and appearance. But for the first time ever, these women were real. They had hopes, dreams, and ambitions.
It was this winning combination of girl next door and spunk that made it easy to embrace to introduce TV viewers to feminist consciousness and many were happy to see Mary and Rhoda embrace their own power more fully as the show progressed. Whereas Maude another 70’s feminist icon was abrasive, gritty and in your face, Mary was both easy on the eyes and easy to digests. Feminism light, but no less important or powerful.
She proved to a whole generation of girls myself include “you can have the town why don’t you take it. You’re gonna make it after all!
RIP Valerie Harper
RIP Mary Tyler Moore