The Evolution Of TV’s Single Woman

murphyPhoto: Courtesy of CBS.
It's basically impossible in this day and age to say the phrase "single lady" and not automatically start dancing around, demanding that someone put a ring on it. You can thank Beyoncé for that. But, now that we've gotten that out of our systems, let's sit down and have a quick talk about how our image of single womanhood has changed on that most important of mediums: television.
The foundational example upon which we base our story has to be Murphy Brown. She's an early glass-ceiling shatterer, tough as nails but rejecting — implicitly and sometimes explicitly — the idea that in order to be ambitious and successful, a woman can't be "feminine." Like Mary Tyler Moore before her, Murphy Brown was a character whose life was not dictated by romance. Both ladies had relationships, but never married, and for Brown in particular, the idea of "having it all" was a secondary concern. Did that make her more evolved than Anne-Marie Slaughter or Sheryl Sandberg? Not quite. More realistically, it made her a clear representation of the most pressing concerns of the feminists of her day.
Murphy Brown was the product of specific corner of society that viewed itself as "post-feminist." She was certainly an easily adoptable feminist icon: powerful, successful, working in a male-dominated environment but never faltering, and a single mother to boot (much to the chagrin of Dan Quayle). But, her character also highlighted the fact that the "strong woman" stereotype sometimes comes at the expense of other women who might be viewed as airheads because of their perceived girlishness (enter, Corky Sherwood). Progress for some, but not for all.
But from there, we saw many of the seminal shows that followed reacting to these ideas — and the "post-feminist feminism" she embodied.
carriebPhoto: Courtesy of HBO.
Because not that long afterward, we met Carrie Bradshaw. In the same year that Murphy Brown sang its swan song, Sex and the City bowled its way onto the scene with not one but four single women, front and center. Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda embraced sexuality, the sometimes-crass reality of single life, and the animal lust that's a meaningful piece of the romantic rat race in NYC. This show looked at the preoccupation of its day (or at least one of the preoccupations of its day) with an honesty that was nowhere near as present on Murphy Brown — or anywhere. And, that's what made the show revolutionary. Not only were these ladies not afraid to want and go after sex, they weren't ashamed to sometimes want more traditional relationships, either. Though they were all highly successful in their careers, the search for love, sweep-you-off-your-feet romance, and connection were hugely important in the gang's lives. And, the show made it clear that there was nothing wrong with that.
Arguably, the late '90s and early '00s were truly great years for single womanhood. We got more than a handful of impressive characters who, despite their many flaws, were some of the most beloved of all time. Like Carrie Bradshaw, Ally McBeal demonstrated a different brand of feminine vulnerability without giving up ground on the intelligence and accomplishment fronts. And, given that she led a workplace drama, McBeal is perhaps a better counterpart for Brown than the SATC ladies. Or, perhaps, she inhabits the middle ground between the two shows? Ally McBeal began one year before Sex & The City and its plot arcs often combine the career drama of Murphy Brown with the exhilarating romantic drive of Sex and the City. Which is a huge part of what recommends it.
Bradshaw and McBeal in particular stand out from the other women of their time because of their sheer rawness. They freaked out, they made bad decisions, they were messy and imperfect. Important in so many ways, Sex and the City is one of the few shows to ever address abortion head-on. Standing on the shoulders of Murphy Brown and Mary Tyler Moore, both Ally McBeal and SATC paved the way for treating women as fully-formed characters — now with healthy, occasionally rabid sexual appetites. All good things. Women, on TV and off, owe a lot to those two shows for the strides they made for mass-appeal feminism.
Read more about the evolution of the single lady on the next page.
lizPhoto: Courtesy of NBC.
But, today, in a different context, these shows also feel a bit dated. Certainly, all of these characters have a huge draw for modern women, even if they sometimes reflect a past phase of feminism that isn't entirely fashionable at the moment. Countless shows have tried to recreate the recipes that made these characters great. Meredith, Cristina, Callie, and Izzie of Grey's Anatomy (the Grey's that once was — not the crazy, convoluted mess we have now) are a bold attempt. That show's struggle to find a perfect balance between romance and workplace drama has been perhaps less successful. And, it is the delicate art of striking that balance that seems to be a defining factor for any show that prominently features female characters (certainly male-centric shows have plenty of romance, but it's presence is rarely present at coming at the expense of their professional lives, while women are asked to make a choice or struggle harder to "have it all").
Of course, that's not a hard-and-fast rule. Over time, some screenwriters and producers have moved away from using romance as a crutch and a raison d'être for single female characters. We have Liz Lemon, who is probably the most honest, accurate portrayal of the currently confusing state of feminism today. Her own internal battle with her career ambitions, her love life, her desire to have children, and her occasional impulse to shrug it all off as stereotypical femininity (best exemplified in the episode Rosemary's Baby) could actually be viewed as a microcosm of the same evolution that single female characters went through from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to present day. And, though 30 Rock had its last episode just under a year ago, it feels more like the pinnacle of a linear progression than a step behind some of the shows currently on the air.
So, who are the most important modern iterations of single womanhood, post-Carrie and pre-Liz?
Though she's been on the air since 1999, one of the most important examples of a single woman whose life isn't defined by love and lovers is (you guessed it) the one and only Olivia Benson. She's a single lady who's been kicking ass and taking names for years, and getting better with every passing day. Of course, the format of the show accounts for a lot of that. With such an intense caseload, and the one-off episodic style, there isn't much room for personal histories. Yet, more than any other crime show and certainly more than any other Law & Order spin-off, SVU does dive into the detectives' personal lives. It does bring in love interests for Benson, in addition to stories about her troubled family life, but we have always had the utmost respect for the show's unwillingness to rely on romance as a draw (and the stubborn refusal to make Elliot and Olivia a couple, thus maintaining that yes, it is possible for a man and a woman to have a meaningful, non-romantic relationship).
carriePhoto: Courtesy of Showtime.
And, then, there's the other Carrie. Carrie Mathison, that is. Homeland — as much as certain critics may hate it — does include romance as a very important part of the plot. But, as exciting as Carrie and Brody's relationship can be, it has never been the primary reason for coming back to the show. In fact, for many, it's been a reason to turn the show off. For us, it's been chiefly an indicator that this show is about — as Saul and Senator Lockhart discussed in one crucial scene — human error. The added, muddy layer of prioritizing love over international terrorism and counter-terrorism and espionage and CIA internal affairs only further proves the point that while wars might be fought between countries, they are fought by individuals.
Carrie Mathison is comparable to Bradshaw and Ally McBeal in that she is also openly flawed — although to a far greater degree. While the term "crazy" certainly gets thrown around for a type-A personality like Ally, it obviously means something much more real in regard to a manic-depressive CIA agent. But still, Mathison and Benson's very existence is proof of the fact that those behind the scenes and those watching them are increasingly comfortable with women whose screen time isn't dominated by or reliant upon romantic pursuits.
Now, for the elephant in the room. Of course, it would be impossible to end this article without talking about Girls. Lena Dunham's show has been compared to Sex and the City for obvious reasons, but the truth is, you can't really put it in the same category as any of the other shows mentioned here. All the women on those shows approach the question of "having it all" from a perspective that is highly dominated by career ambition — and a high level of success that they've already reached. That success is what makes them strong in their own eyes and in the eyes of the viewers.
However, the girls of Girls don't really have that, at least not in the same measure. Indeed, the show's hook isn't about having it all, about balancing ambition with love. It's about having something in a world where, despite enormous privilege, you feel empty and directionless. Dunham clearly grew up watching shows like Murphy Brown and Ally McBeal, and we'd argue that her hit show is largely based on growing up with the expectations laid down by those women and finding that real life and real humans don't necessarily wrap up in such an adorably quirky, strong-willed, skirt-suit-wearing package. Clearly, the show's success indicate that this vision of single life as a sort of grasping, gasping attempt at adulthood is a relevant, if not always accurate, interpretation of our modern understanding of what young, unmarried women are. All of which is to say that the single lady hasn't evolved in a traditionally linear fashion. Not on television, and not in real life. She's changed over time, and has always been a reflection of her time. Or at least a part of it.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series