How Valerie Harper Paved the Way for Today’s Sitcom Women

2 minute read
Judy Berman is the TV critic at TIME. Along with reviewing current television, she writes about the ways in which entertainment and pop culture intersect with our larger social and political realities. Her TIME essay on Ted Lasso and modern masculinity won a New York Press Club award in 2022.

Over the course of six decades in show business, Valerie Harper played dozens of roles. Even after receiving a cancer diagnosis in 2009, she kept popping up, delightfully, in film, TV and on the stage, where she started out as a chorus girl in the late 1950s. But the actor, who died on Aug. 30 at 80, will be remembered most for her irresistible performance as Rhoda Morgenstern, the mouthy, vivacious neighbor of television’s original single career girl, Mary Richards.

First on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then as the lead in hit spin-off Rhoda, Harper spent the ’70s embodying a relatable foil to Moore’s aspirational hero. Like so many young women of her generation, Rhoda–a frank, neurotic Bronx Jew with a self-deprecating sense of humor–both benefited from and struggled with unprecedented independence. Despite her outward bravado, she wrestled with body-image issues. She got married, then survived divorce in an era when such splits remained stigmatized, even as they were growing more common.

And if Mary Richards begat Carrie Bradshaw and Ally McBeal, then it was Rhoda Morgenstern who paved the way for the lovably flawed female characters who’ve ruled sitcoms for the past decade: Liz Lemon, Mindy Lahiri, Issa Dee. Harper won four Emmys for the role, but the awards won’t define her legacy. Rather, she will be remembered for the estimable extent to which she broadened and humanized the representation of women. To see her impact, just turn on your TV.

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