Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rhoda scholarship: a staycation post

Hulu provides only the first three seasons of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," and the volume on my computer doesn't get very loud, so I've missed a lot, even of the part I've ostensibly seen. The show continues for a couple more seasons, I think, but I'd already lost interest. Mary had begun to evolve into less of a pushover, but the overall strangeness of the show doesn't go away, an ambiguity that doesn't make the show more interesting so much as less-thought-through-seeming. Is Mary this feminist, modern heroine for choosing to be single? Is she really choosing to be single if half the episodes are about her futile quest for a husband? So I let Hulu be my guide and moved along to spinoff "Rhoda," with low expectations.

Contrary to what I'd have expected, Rhoda is almost... pleasant in "Rhoda." This is because the Rhoda persona gets shifted over to Rhoda's younger sister, Brenda, so Rhoda can't be the show's Rhoda anymore. In Brenda's hands, the self-deprecation is at least coming from an actress who actually looks (or is made up convincingly to look) how MTM's Rhoda is described (and endlessly describes herself) as looking: slightly overweight by 2011 standards so no doubt strikingly so in the 1970s, and frumpy. There isn't that same frustrating disconnect that usually comes up in these situations (see also: Liz Lemon, Grace Adler).

Also important: Because Rhoda and Brenda are sisters, there's less of a sense that Brenda is the way she is because she's Jewish and speaks with a New York accent. By default, on account of there's the two of them plus their mothah, the show presents more than one way of being a Jewish woman.

Rhoda doesn't become Mary, so much as she becomes... a non-grating version of Rhoda, appealing to men, but because they like her sassy tell-it-like-it is quality and exotic-lite good looks, not because she's like this free-floating potential wife who has yet to affix her stereotypically-feminine (crying easily, afraid to assert herself) self to any one man. So eager to please, so passive, Mary allows a man who's stalking her after one failed blind date to handcuff her to him at her office and leave with her for a restaurant where, the man claims, someone has the key. Was sexual violence not yet invented in the 1970s? Abduction? And this was meant to be a cute plotline? Oh, Mary... Rhoda's still self-deprecating, but she doesn't lay it on so thick. The way to look at it is, the MTM Rhoda gets split between Rhoda and Brenda, and each half, on its own, makes sense as a character in a way that the original sad-sack Rhoda did not.


It's not necessary to see further seasons of MTM to catch on to the startling fact that Rhoda gets married before Mary. If indeed Mary ever marries in this evidently extensive spinoff universe.

Earlyish in MTM, haughty neighbor (and, in my view, best character) Phyllis expresses, to Rhoda, her bafflement that Mary isn't married. Rhoda asks her if she's also surprised that she, Rhoda, is single, and she says no. Rhoda responds that Phyllis should go explain why Rhoda's still single to Rhoda's mother.

That Rhoda is single is treated as so inevitable as to be almost scientific fact. How could a Rhoda ever snag a man? Whereas with Mary, being single is a tentative (I say tentative, because she still ostensibly wants nothing more than marriage, but to the right man) feminist step. It means something - it speaks to Mary's own "agency" - that she's not married. Rhoda's just like that. The one time (thus far) a man - scandalously, Phyllis's brother - who's set up with Mary ends up meeting and preferring Rhoda, he's gay. Phyllis is delighted to learn that her brother likes men, because this means he's not going to marry Rhoda, her greatest fear. But what concerns us here is that Rhoda is, in MTM, the "fag hag" cliché, even long before this episode, so by the time the big (and no doubt shocking in 1970-whatever) reveal is made, it's not all that mind-blowing. We know, from her non-stop ogling of good-looking men, that Rhoda isn't single because she's gay.

So on her own spinoff, Rhoda gets married, but she doesn't go about it in a passive, Mary-like way. She asks out and, a few episodes later, proposes to her husband who, far from being a pushover, is this super-assertive, hyper-masculine dude with a ton of chest hair, as 1970s fashions don't hide. Everything, I mean everything, is dealt with in what I suppose is a pre-Reagan America way that comes across as modern and progressive to me, in 2011, more so than anything on TV lately. Birth control and premarital sex? Not non-issues, but not danced around nervously. Rhoda's dude isn't Jewish, and this kind of matters but kind of doesn't to her parents, in a way that seems totally true to life. (Although if he isn't Jewish, what are we to believe he is instead? He looks like 80% of the youngish men on the beach in Tel Aviv.)

Most of all, when Rhoda tells her dude she wants to marry him, rather than just live with him, she's both determined and, well, frank. There's no neurosis, there's no ultimatum, there are no tears. There isn't even quite fauxbivalence. She explains that she doesn't see herself as someone who'd care about this (not because she's a snowflake, but because it's the 1970s and she's in her early 30s, which in her world makes her very much feminist career woman or, depending who's asked, "old maid"), but she's discovered about herself that she does.

That Rhoda, not Mary, gets married makes me think of the Man Repeller personal-style blogger's recent announcement that she's engaged. Leandra Medine, also discussed here, blogs using a persona that's oh so Rhoda-then-Brenda. Medine is Jewish, young but well over 18, and lives in New York with her family. The ostensible point of the blog is that Medine embraces fashion not despite trendy outfits' lack of overlap with what straight men find sexy, but in full celebration of that, which is still, of course, defining dress in terms of, well, the male gaze, but which is a fun response to the irritating sort of straight man who asks why on earth women would wear things that men don't like.

On that blog, there's a great deal of Jewish-humor-inflected self-deprecation, even though Medine is, to phrase this as an understatement, conventionally attractive. If that stance makes sense coming from Brenda, some sense but not much when coming from Rhoda or Liz Lemon (not a Jewish character or actress, but what difference does it make?), it makes approximately zilch when coming from Medine. But presumably that stance alone, the choice of self-identification as hag, is enough to repel.

Competing theory: do coy self-deprecators get men not despite being like that, but because this behavior is appealing to heterosexual men? Or at least more appealing than women who are a) indifferent to their physical appearance (something men might think would be their preference, but that in practice amounts to indifference to dating men or women), or b) openly confident about their looks? Is a veneer of half-faked insecurity, ala Rhoda, ala Liz Lemon, a trait that signals a woman isn't too confident and thus threatening/universally-sought-after, but also that she isn't too pathetic, because she is amused, rather than in a funk, about her imperfections? Is this persona, assuming the right note is hit, basically the personality version of the sexy woman in a men's dress shirt and nothing else?


Nicholas said...

I am tempted to suggest there might be a meaningful difference between 'coy self-deprecation' and 'half-faked insecurity,' if only because my immediate response to your suggestion that the first one might be attractive to heterosexual men was 'duh, and not just to them.' If you happen to be one of the people on the far right tail of the distribution in beauty, intelligence, height (for men, I assume), social standing, etc, it's pretty foolish to act as though you aren't. But to be coyly self-deprecating is to show that you recognize this fact but are more than just this one particular quality.

The insecurity thing is more tricky, because it would be (on this definition) acting as though you are not what you manifestly are--the Liz Lemon/Tina Fey problem. Rather than "I may be amazing in this one particular way, but really I'm a normal person otherwise" it's "I may be amazing in this one particular way, but I'm a mess in other aspects of my life." It sends the signal that a woman isn't threatening, but that's not the only signal it sends.

Phoebe said...

There's a difference, but I'm not sure how great of one. I'm not assuming knock-out beauties, just women who are within normal limits, attractive to some men and not unattractive, but not so attractive as to make all self-deprecation come across as a joke. (The "I'm so awkward and clumsy" remarks every supermodel is contractually obliged to make.) On MTM, Rhoda looks a lot better than she describes herself as looking, but is less conventionally attractive than Mary, who always happens to be standing right next to her. On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon looks like Tina Fey, which is to say, not disastrous, but she doesn't look like Ceree/Siree (sp?), the hot blonde assistant.

Point being, for women of this ambiguous level of attractiveness - which is to say, most young and youngish women - you will feel attractive some days and not others, will look attractive to some and not to others. You will not go through life discriminated against on the basis of your looks, so that's a kind of privilege, but nor are your looks opening doors. If this is how you look, you can either choose to think of yourself as spectacular (on 30 Rock, Jenna, on MTM, Phyllis), or you can... round down. Rounding down means faux-insecurity, but it's not entirely faux. It's self-deprecation, but there's also a genuine element of uncertainty.

Anonymous said...

"She asks out and, a few episodes later, proposes to her husband who, far from being a pushover, is this super-assertive, hyper-masculine dude with a ton of chest hair, as 1970s fashions don't hide."
Funny you should say this. The actor David Groh was Jewish and, according to his NYT obit, appeared in "Victory at Entebbe". AND he was a Fulbright as well as a Rhoda scholar.


Phoebe said...


Somehow it doesn't bother me at all that Rhoda's portrayed by a non-Jewish actress. It's like Hugh Laurie playing an American - it works, so there's no reason to question it. But it does bother me that we're supposed to think Ida Morgenstern finds it self-evident that Joe Gerard isn't. It's really an if he's not, then what is he kind of question. I suppose he could be Italian, Greek, unspecified Mediterranean, but then there's this bizarre 'meet the parents' scene where his parents are basically the Halls from Annie Hall or the Rosses from Seinfeld. How's that supposed to add up? There was an opportunity for a gender-reversal of the usual "shiksa" scenario, but it doesn't happen when the non-Jewish husband comes across as at least as Jewish as the Jewish wife.

Britta said...

Ok, this is a somewhat challenging issue, even for people who are more than just on the attractive side than average but still short of internationally renowned beauty, because 1) women are taught to be self-deprecating, and relatedly, being conceited is obnoxious in any gender, and 2) beauty is subjective, and just because one conforms to cultural beauty norms doesn't necessarily mean that everyone finds them beautiful (plus women in particular are taught to focus on their flaws and imperfections, and beauty standards are asymptotic, so no one can ever completely conform).

I mean, there has to be a line between saying, "no, I'm hideous" or "OMG I'm so fat" (especially when you're not), and saying things like "wow, I'm pretty flawless. I think I'm super hot." There is also pressure, if you are conventionally pretty, to downplay it with other women to show that you're not conceited, or that you have your own issues, like as Phoebe points out with models. Where that line is is hard. I think there's something to be said for shifting a focus to body acceptance rather than shared commiseration, but that's also difficult.

Though, I do think that ego is a feminist issue when it comes to the ideal that men seem to want which is a super hot woman who has no idea that she's good looking (and thus feel totally grateful for being hit on.) Maybe why this is offensive because it's a kind of condescending "discovery" of some woman. It's like eminently condescending the pickup line, "did you know you're beautiful?" which either let's the woman respond "yes" and sound like a jerk, or instead blush and flutter because (presumably) some guy has finally discovered something in her she didn't find, even after 20+ years of looking in the mirror. The idea that the woman is flustered because it's a rude question with no good answer isn't then an option.

Phoebe said...


I think the answer is that comments about one's physical appearance ought to drift towards zilch as one gets past, I don't know, high school? College? It's always odd to me when I hear a woman my own age or older say anything about her face/hair/body, positive or negative. But I suppose it does come up in more subtle ways - some women, for example, will refer to how they simply can't step outside without getting asked out. Such women are typically attractive enough, but not so much so that this is plausible. Others will maintain a Rhoda-esque can't-get-a-man persona while being in serious relationships, and getting hit on all the time.

But this milling of anecdata is making me think that the can't-get-a-man persona really does attract men, and for the "did you know you're beautiful?" reason you mention. Women who aren't extremely attractive or extremely unattractive basically get to pick how attractive they want to identify as. What's interesting, I think, is that traditionally, women have been instructed to be or at least seem confident about their looks. When in fact, if the goal is attention from the opposite sex (not everyone's goal, not at all times in every woman's life...), the opposite might be the way to go. If men who follow that "game" nonsense are fond of the "neg" - subtly insulting an attractive woman in a way that makes her take notice - this is perhaps a far more effective female equivalent, a kind of self-neg, as it were.