Television takes a lot of heat from its critics -- for its excesses, for its lack of subtlety -- but no one can deny that it is a true reflection of the ever-changing times we live in. So as part of our ongoing celebration of Women's History Month, we decided to explore the evolution of single women on TV -- a cultural time capsule that not only reveals this remarkable journey, but has also given us plenty of laughs.
I started thinking about this a few weeks ago, when I was asked to present an award at a dinner honoring Linda Lavin, the gifted actress who starred in the hit television series "Alice." As I did my research about Linda and "Alice," I began to see how they perfectly fit into the colorful -- and historic -- transformation of single female characters on television.
Those were radical times for women on TV. Until then, women's characters were primarily housewives, wearing gingham aprons and permanent smiles. I was just breaking into TV at the time, and as a young actress I felt the sting of those limitations. Whenever I was lucky enough to land a job on TV, I'd either be playing someone's wife, or someone's secretary, or someone's daughter.
Then I read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and thought, Wouldn't it be great if we could see a show where the girl was the "someone?"
ABC was brave enough to green-light my idea as a new TV series called "That Girl." My character, Ann Marie, would be an aspiring actress living alone in New York who was independent and ambitious -- and had the courage to utter the earth-shattering words (usually to her protective father): "But I don't want to get married!"
Although network researchers didn't think a single girl had a chance in prime time, "That Girl" found her audience -- because there were millions of That Girls in homes across America. We were not our mother's daughters. We were a whole different breed.
But even with our success, women still had a way to go. Yes, Ann Marie was a revolutionary figure -- but she had a fabulous wardrobe right out of an Audrey Hepburn movie, and you could've landed a 747 in her apartment.
And when Mary Tyler Moore came along a few years later, as one of TV's first single women in the workplace, her first job on the show was pretty high-end -- a television news producer. For many women in America, TV was still in fantasy land.
Then in 1976, in walked Linda Lavin's "Alice," who gave TV viewers a true dose of reality -- as a widow and single mom, living with her son in a small apartment in the Phoenix desert, and slinging hash at a greasy diner. Her dream was not fame or success or the big corner office. It was simple survival.
From then on, this amazing transformation would continue, as women across the TV dial passed the baton to one another in their depiction of the modern single woman.
Linda Lavin's single woman would eventually clone herself into a twosome -- in shows like "Kate and Allie" and "Laverne and Shirley" -- doubling the impact women were having on TV, while pointedly illustrating the enduring potency and warmth of sisterhood.
Bonnie Franklin's Ann Romano in "One Day at a Time" -- like Alice, a single mom, but with two daughters -- would deliver dependable laughs each week, but the show also pushed the envelope in exploring serious social issues, including teen runaways and teen suicide.
Candice Bergen would a introduce a more complicated version of the single working woman in the character of Murphy Brown, a temperamental and tough-skinned TV journalist who thought nothing of berating her boss (would Lou Grant have ever tolerated that from Mary?); and whose seismic decision to have a baby out of wedlock (imagine Ann Marie doing that!) would not only rock television viewers out of their La-Z Boys, but also have a thunderous impact on that year's presidential election.
And the once taboo topic of sex -- which for decades had made the boys at the networks squeamish -- would be confronted head-on in a host of women-driven shows -- from "Will and Grace" to "Ellen" to "Sex and the City." In fact, sex was not only discussed but flaunted among the quartet of sassy seniors in "The Golden Girls," as the ladies continued to reject the notion that their life was over, just because they'd reached the golden age.
And now the latest member of the club is "New Girl"'s Zooey Deschanel. Like her predecessors, she's quirky and big-hearted -- but this time, our single girl is rooming with three guys. Is her character once again redefining women on TV? Put it this way: Ann Marie wore Halston in "That Girl"; Zooey wore a dominatrix outfit in a recent episode of "New Girl." 'Nuff said.
But seeing is believing. So take a look at this slide show we put together, which will remind you of those television programs that helped chart the course for women in the latter part of the 20th Century. To paraphrase the "Laverne and Shirley" theme song, "We did it our way."
From 1966 to 1971, "That Girl" broke ground as the first comedy series to focus on a single young woman, living on her own and going after her dream. The character of aspiring actress Anne Marie represented a new breed of independent young women emerging in feminist-era America. Her exploits and storylines were often light and funny, but her independent lifestyle inspired millions of American girls and women.
In 1968, "Julia" broke ground as one of the first TV series to portray an African American woman in a non-stereotypical role. Julia Baker was a widowed single mother who worked as a nurse while simultaneously raising her young son, Corey. Despite being criticized by some as an unrealistic depiction of the black experience in troubled times, the show remained on the air until 1971.
Mary Richards first strode onto the small screen in 1970 as a young woman forging a new life for herself in Minneapolis after fleeing a broken engagement. When she landed a job as producer at the WJM TV station, she found a new family and a new beginning as a never-married, independent career woman in her thirties. Though that may seem unremarkable now, at the time, it was a very modern idea.
Rhoda Morgenstern was originally a supporting character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show until she decided to move back to her native New York, and her spin-off series ran from 1974 to 1978. The brassy, weight-conscious window dresser was a big hit with viewers as she juggled her, work her family relations and her romantic life. Her eventual marriage to 'Joe' broke television records.
From 1975 to 1984, independent, divorced mother and feminist Ann Romano struggled to balance her work life and the trials and tribulations of raising her two teenage daughters, Julie and Barbara. The sitcom tackled numerous social issues during its run including premarital sex, birth control and teenage runaways.
Originally introduced as secondary characters on "Happy Days," roommates and best friends Laverne Defazio and Shirley Feeney got their own series in 1976. Set in the late '50s and early '60s, the broad comedy was filled with slapstick humor as the single girls continually got themselves into trouble. The crazy hijinks continued until 1983.
Based on the 1974 film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," this sitcom followed the recently widowed character of Alice Hyatt, who sets out with her son to pursue her dreams of a singing career in LA. When her car breaks down in Phoenix, the single mother gets a job at Mel's Diner, and it was there that her story as a working-class, single mother unfolded from 1976 to 1985.
When childhood friends, Kate and Allie, decided to share a brownstone in New York's Greenwich Village after their respective divorces, they formed a new type of TV family. The characters decided to share expenses and raise their families together, providing a new model for strong, independent, single mothers working together. The show ran from 1984 to 1989.
From 1985 to 1992, "The Golden Girls" followed the storylines of four older women sharing a house in Miami. With its all-star cast, the show was an immediate hit and maintained high ratings throughout its run. The show broke new ground by depicting the older women as vital, active, sexual beings with individual careers and busy social lives. The show also tackled a variety of social issues including ageism, Alzheimer's disease, impotence, same-sex marriage, homelessness and even HIV testing.
Over forty, single and a recovering alcoholic, Murphy Brown was another new kind of female character for American audiences. The smart and sharp-tongued television journalist and news anchor, kept audiences entertained from 1988 to 1998, and during the '91-'92 season, Murphy became pregnant and decided to have her baby and raise it alone. The storyline generated a political controversy that culminated during the 1992 presidential campaign when then-Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech denouncing the fictional character and her choices.
Will & Grace debuted in 1998 and ran for a total of eight seasons. For audiences, Grace Adler was a new kind of character on television in that she was extremely neurotic, but had found stability and love in a platonic relationship with her gay best friend Will Truman. As a professional interior decorator, with a solid circle of friends, Grace dated regularly, but often ended up questioning which relationships were most important to her, as she sought out true happiness.
The cultural phenomenon that was "Sex and the City" debuted on HBO in 1998 and ran through 2004, breaking ground by upending traditional notions about sex, friendship, aging, promiscuity, careers, relationships and femininity in general. Based on Candace Bushnell's book of the same name, the show followed newspaper columnist Carrie Bradshaw and her three closest friends - all in their 30s and 40s - as they navigated the concrete jungle, the minefields of life and the glitterati of New York.
Liz Lemon -- a modern-day bundle of neuroses and inner conflicts -- is the central character of "30 Rock," which debuted in 2006. The show was created by its star, Tina Fey, and is loosely based on her own experiences as a comedy writer at NBC. Though hapless and goofy at times, the character of Liz Lemon is a strong, funny and resilient example of today's modern single woman as she negotiates both her personal and professional relationships and the outsized egos of those that surround her.
From "That Girl" to "New Girl." This series premiered in 2011 and follows the character of Jess Day who moves in with three male roommates she found on Craigslist after a messy breakup. Bright and bubbly, the twenty-something's character traits include a tendency to break into song.
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