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Why Are Single Women Portrayed So Negatively?


Hollywood tells us that single women must be miserable. Whether it’s an actress or a fictional character, her worth is measured by her relationship status. Here, we compare real life and fiction.

By Jane Ganahl

oor Tina Fey. America’s comedy sweetheart has enjoyed wholehearted support from fans since 2000, when the actress/comedienne burst onto the scene as a regular anchor of the popular “Weekend Update” segment and lead comedy writer on Saturday Night Live. Since then, she has received seven Emmy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, four Screen
Jennifer Aniston is the patron saint of single women over 40.
Actors Guild Awards, and four Writers Guild of America Awards. The Associated Press, who gave her their AP Entertainer of the Year award, singled her out as the performer who had the greatest impact on culture and entertainment in 2008.

But now, it seems, a certain segment of the population has fallen out of love with Fey — single women, a group whom she has represented on screens both small and large in the past decade.

Her character on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon, is easily one of the country’s most prominent icons of single womanhood today. Yet Lemon herself is a mess: fussy, neurotic, sneaky, grossly insecure and prone to binge eating. (And of course, she can also be endearing and very, very funny.) She didn’t do single women any favors, either, with her film role in Baby Mama, playing a stereotypical type A executive who wants a child so desperately she hires a sociopathic surrogate to have one for her. Perhaps the final straw was her appearance in April 2010 on Saturday Night Live, where she played a lonely teacher lusting after a teenaged student (played by a skittish Justin Bieber) in one skit; in another, she portrayed a single woman longing for a husband you could bake from a box of chocolate brownie mix. (The commercial’s tagline: “The perfect blend of rich fudge and emotional intimacy.”)

Enough was enough. The knives came out in various media outlets across America: from Salon.com to Newsweek, from op-ed sites like Shakesville to Slate — not so much to eviscerate Fey, but to dissect why she felt compelled to make single women look so bad in most of the scripts and characters she’d created. Was Fey a hater? Or was she just poking fun at the ridiculous images our culture still propagates in the media of the cat-hoarding, lonely spinster?

This isn’t the first time we’ve been through a round of hissing at a character that was the opposite of the smart, capable, unmarried woman. When Bridget Jones became a bestseller, then a movie, we rolled our eyes at Bridget’s embarrassingly desperate moves in an attempt to get any man’s attention — as well as her unfortunate choice to slide down a fireman’s pole in a short skirt.

Then, as now, the protests seemed a bit “too little, too late.” Historically, single women have never been treated kindly by Hollywood — especially those roles for women approaching 40 and beyond, like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon. Hollywood apologists would almost certainly argue that they are simply reflecting certain stereotypes that our culture expects to when it comes to portraying unmarried ladies. But at some point, it’s hard to tell which came first — the chicken or the egg.

When Sandra Bullock (another “America’s Sweetheart” — even our military agrees) split from her husband, she was initially portrayed in the media as a tragic figure: her Oscar win soured by the painful scandal, Sandra was suddenly a new mother whose husband cheated on her and lied about it before they could even announce their newborn son’s adoption to the world. It was almost strange to see the photos in People magazine of Bullock shortly after the scandal broke, grinning ear to ear with her darling months-old baby, Louis, saying how happy she was, regardless of her impending divorce. Happy… and single? Is that even possible?

Jennifer Aniston is the patron saint of single women over 40 in the sense that she came through her ugly split with Brad Pitt with her dignity and humor intact. In the years since, every magazine article about her seems compelled to note how “unlucky in love” Aniston is — despite the fact that she’s dated some of the hottest guys on the planet: Gerard Butler, John Mayer, Tate Donovan and Bradley Cooper. I think many of us wish we had her “bad luck” in love.

On the small screen, Courteney Cox, Aniston’s best friend and former costar, doesn’t help dissuade the viewing public from viewing single women as hapless creatures, either. Her show, Cougar Town, is certainly funny — but it also has more than its share of jokes about hormones, shifting body shapes and desperate sex trysts with younger men. Jenna Elfman, star of the canceled series Accidentally On Purpose, didn’t fare much better as an entertainment journalist with a messy personal life who got knocked up after a one-night stand and decided to keep the baby.

Mariska Hargitay of the long-running show Law & Order: SVU portrays a slightly more realistic single female character — Olivia
Famous single female characters have included so-called “bunny boilers”.
Benson, who seems to be a strong, well-put-together and savvy woman. However, the show’s plotline seems to indicate that her ongoing inner turmoil over the dark chapters in her family’s history have ultimately kept Benson single and incapable of maintaining successful long-term relationships. Even more damaged is Holly Hunter’s titular character in the darkly entertaining (but canceled) series, Saving Grace; her exploits included having sex in public restrooms with strangers while intoxicated.

Well, ladies, it seems we’ve come a long way since The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Or have we?

On the big screen, famous single female characters have included so-called “bunny boilers” (Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction), ice-pick wielding killers (Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct), psycho nannies (Rebecca de Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), infatuated stalkers (Jessica Walters in Play Misty for Me and Ali Larter in Obsessed) and even former Nazis with dark secrets (Kate Winslet in The Reader).

OK, so those examples are a bit extreme. And, in truth, it seems that things might be looking up based on recent, successful films with unmarried women as their main characters. In 2009, two wonderful roles were at the center of some huge box office hits: It’s Complicated starring Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock’s The Proposal. Both characters had nuance, style, humor, smarts and substance (though Bullock hit some too-worn notes as a controlling executive). And both stars carried the movies they were in with top billing in the films’ respective marketing campaigns.

Could this be a sign? Might better, smarter single female characters become the standard in Hollywood? Female audiences have longed for characters and storylines that actually reflect all aspects of a “normal” single woman’s life; we are neither desperate cougars nor lonely spinsters, hapless geeks nor ticking biological clocks — but we often find ourselves in a place somewhere within the Venn diagram of overlapping stereotypes.

One can hope, but only time — and a few box office successes — will tell.

Perhaps Fey’s problem is that she has no idea what single life is really like for women these days since she’s been happily married for years to 30 Rock’s composer, Jeff Richmond. I invite Fey to ask her single friends to regale her with positive anecdotes about their lives. I suspect she would find her single friends’ lives to be significantly less pathetic than she’d like to joke that they are… even if it does make for good TV.


Jane Ganahl is author of Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife, editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age, journalist of two decades, and codirector of San Francisco’s Litquake literary festival.
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