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Television and the single woman

This season the single woman is one of the hottest commodities on primetime television


Just before the opening credits of ‘The Mindy Project’ materialise, Mindy Kaling as her eponymous character has a heart-to-heart with a Barbie-like doll — and moments later, gets served.

“If you don’t pull it together, no one will ever love you,” the doll warns.

Adding insult to injury, the plastic figurine notes that she “at least” has a boyfriend. “When that hot, mean doll pointed out that even she had a boyfriend,” Kaling’s character says in a voice-over, “that’s when I started to cry. ... This is not where I should be.”

From Mary Tyler Moore to Hannah Horvath, the free-spirited single woman has been a staple of TV entertainment, a lightning rod for the culture wars and a mirror for society’s shifting views about the place of a post-feminist woman. This season the single woman is one of the hottest commodities, and the abundance of prime-time single women reflects a societal reality. Barely half of all adults in the US are married (a record low), according to a Pew Research Centre analysis of US Census data. Those who find themselves tying the knot do so later in life, with the median age for brides 26.5. And if it feels like your Facebook feed is overwrought with announcements of friends getting hitched, imagine how it might look in 1960 — when 59 per cent of women 18-29 were married, compared with 20 per cent today.

The current onslaught presents the unattached female in a variety of guises — women who are neither bimbos nor pure role models but trying to find their TV feet in 2012 just as real single women are. Among them: a doctor (Kaling) with unreal romance expectations rooted in her obsession with romantic comedies (‘The Mindy Project’); a fiftysomething divorced, faded country music singer, played by Reba McEntire, who uproots her family from Memphis to Malibu (‘Malibu Country’); a twentysomething (Georgia King) raising a daughter while serving as a surrogate for a gay couple (‘The New Normal’); and another twentysomething single mom, played by Dakota Johnson, who gets reacclimatised with a childlike older brother who moves in with her (‘Ben and Kate’). “Society has always been obsessed with the single woman,” said Kate Bolick of the Atlantic, who wrote a recent cover story about her single life at 39 and how it reflects social trends — which was developed into a comedy pilot recently purchased by CBS.

The most high-profile dame leading the charge this season is Kaling. The 33-year-old leaves her eight-year stint as a writer and actor on ‘The Office’ to make her headlining debut on Fox’s ‘The Mindy Project’ starring as an unlucky-in-love gynaecologist. Kaling, sitting in her studio office in Universal City decorated with ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ posters, said she’s aware that her on-screen persona is not the most laudable figure; Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri might pray that her next suitor is superbly well endowed and takes pleasure in putting effort into date attire.

Role model

“It’s tricky because I think when you’re a woman creating a show, you become a role model in a way that kind of creeps up on you,” Kaling said. “But that translates to a feeling of ‘Well, don’t make the character something that you wouldn’t want girls to look up to and want to be.’ But I’m not interested in doing a show that is just some political statement or trying to appease people by presenting women in a certain positive or altruistic light.”

Some of her fictional single-women cohorts have other things on their mind too, like how to discipline their teen daughters or figuring out how they’ll pick up their children from school and make it to their night shift at the bar on time — just as real women do too. As of 2011, 11.7 million families in the US were headed by a single parent — of which more than 85 per cent are headed by women, according to US Census data.

Twenty years ago, fictional newswoman Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen), a more complicated version of the single working woman with her temperamental personality, drew the rage of a vice-president with her decision to have a child out of wedlock. While such a notion might be a little less shocking these days, the bulk of single mums spotlighted this season are divorcees. McEntire, who stars as a past-her-prime country star scarred by her ex-husband’s affair with her back-up singer, said underneath the comedy that lampoons her disconnect with her children is a story of a mother in survival mode.

“She’s just trying to be as strong as she possibly can for her kids,” she said. “That’s basically the same thing that a single mom has to do anywhere. She is the backbone — whether she likes it or not and whether she thinks she can pull it off or not.” Ali Adler, co-creator of ‘The New Normal,’ said that women, particularly single mums, are experiencing a “what can I be when I grow up?” point in their lives.

‘The New Normal’ showcases Georgia King as Goldie, a single mother from the Midwest who wants to give her daughter a better life and, with no money or resources, agrees to be the surrogate for a gay couple as a source of income.

“To see [her] journey out into the world and to see that motherhood isn’t the end for [her[ is something that I think is important to explore.”

Rebecca Traister, working on a book on the history of single women, said there is an immense change in what society thinks a woman’s life should look like, largely because the values of the feminist movement have become so ingrained into contemporary lives. For Dana Fox, creator of ‘Ben and Kate’ — Fox’s other new Tuesday night comedy with an unattached female lead, played by Dakota Johnson — that reality is a blessing and a curse.

“One of the things I think is interesting about our time right now is that we’re not in that ‘working girl’ moment where a woman in an office or not being married is a surprise anymore,” Fox said. “It’s not a surprise at all anymore, in fact, so there’s less of a sense of, ‘oh, we need to talk about women’s issues” — it used to be special and meaningful. In some ways, it’s almost more difficult because we feel like we don’t have to make a statement.”

Decades before the current participants joined the solo sisterhood, single-female-centric shows of the 1960s and 70s — ‘That Girl,’ ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ ‘Alice’ — pioneered a revision of what it meant to be an unmarried woman. The new archetypes were unashamed to be more focused on careers than finding Mr Right and capable of surviving solo.

‘Ally McBeal’ later gave us a leading lady sceptical of having it all. ‘Ellen,’ briefly, presented a woman unlucky with men who would eventually reveal she was lesbian. ‘Sex and the City’ showed the glossy side of single life, with women putting their female friendships above male relationships. Last season’s collection of shows — Fox’s ‘New Girl,’ CBS’ ‘2 Broke Girls,’ NBC’s ‘Whitney’ and HBO’s ‘Girls’ — drew chatter about how the single-woman archetype was stunted in some cases; in others, how it may have matured too much by pushing boundaries for no real purpose other than being able to. Many of the creators of the shows now launching cited HBO’s ‘Girls,’ about four twentysomethings trying to figure out their lives in New York, as a watershed moment for its showing of the unglamorous, messy side of sex (and life).

Pseudo males

Characters out to prove they can be one of the guys is also a modern take. ‘New Girl’ sees its heroine, Jess, rooming with three guys. And the ladies of ‘2 Broke Girls,’ ‘Girls’ and ‘Whitney’ are more brazen and, in some cases, stand in as pseudo males.

“I just remember thinking it was sort of an amazing mix of feminine and masculine qualities,” said Zooey Deschanel, who stars as Jess in ‘New Girl.’ The challenge of living through the rough economy is a subject matter also getting more exploration. Some characters are waitresses (‘2 Broke Girls’), bartenders (‘Ben and Kate’) or lowly interns (‘Girls’).

“The main thought for women — and men, for that matter — in their 20s is: How am I going to make rent?” said ‘2 Broke Girls’ co-creator Michael Patrick King. With the exception of ‘The Mindy Project’ this autumn, the majority of the portrayals are from the perspective of a white woman. One has to venture to cable for some range. VH1 offers the comedic drama ‘Single Ladies,’ which follows three racially diverse single women in Atlanta. The series is produced by Queen Latifah, who was part of a single-woman comedy on Fox, ‘Living Single,’ in the ‘90s that featured an all-black cast.

As far as viewing habits, the gender dynamics are as one might expect: More women prefer shows about single women. Last season, ‘2 Broke Girls’ averaged 5.4 million female viewers versus 4.3 million male viewers, according to Nielsen. ‘New Girl’ averaged 4.9 million female viewers (3.1 million male viewers). However, when it came to ‘Girls,’ males outranked women (660,000 versus 557,000). Go figure.