The Moments That Defined Single Women in Pop Culture and Politics

By
Share:

Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies , out this week from Simon & Schuster, is part social and cultural history, part anthropological and journalistic investigation, part memoir, and total investigation into the phenomenon and political power of single womanhood. Like Kate Bolick’s Spinster, it examines the benefits of a solitary life for women in a patriarchy. But unlike that book, All the Single Ladies goes beyond the personal to look at the widespread social phenomenon of singledom in America, arguing that even delayed marriage, unmarried cohabiting, close friends, and other arrangements that upend traditional marriage models constitute a transfer of power and enable social progress for more than one group.

Although Traister’s book is more of a look at politics and personalities than pop culture, the latter arena is constantly driving and reflecting changing ideas about women’s place in society. Traister spoke to Flavorwire about many pop culture figures, moments, and ideas that have been crucial in the rise of the single woman figure the last half-century. Here are her thoughts on ten cultural and political milestones, from Mary Tyler Moore to Bernie Sanders’ campaign:

19th-century “marriage plot” novels by Austen and Brontë

The origins of retro models for how women’s stories should end date back hundreds of years. For centuries, the marriage plot used to be the only happy conclusion available for fictional females (the other option: death). “The drama of those books that inevitably conclude with marriage is, in part, because women’s lives needed to conclude with marriage,” says Traister. “It’s not just about the choice an artist or author was making but the paths and options that were open to women.”

In All the Single Ladies, Traister writes about Charlotte Brontë’s own marriage, which lacked the stormy passion of her characters Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester — and demonstrated the fate that many women had to accept. “Charlotte Brontë is a terribly sad example. I quote her letters in the book,” Traister says. “She ends up marrying a curate, someone she didn’t love, for economic security for herself and her father. In doing this, she’s very clear-eyed and realistic, and loses some liberty of expression with friends, makes her friends burn letters because her husband doesn’t want her saying all these things. She tells other women, ‘Wait before you marry,’ and then she dies, probably pregnant.”

That Girl

America’s first single-girl sitcom, which debuted in 1966, was created by a future radical feminist. But first, Marlo Thomas just wanted to tell a different sort of story from what she typically saw: “She said, all the roles are somebody’s wife or daughter. So when talking to Hollywood executives, she gives them a copy of The Feminine Mystique, and That Girl is born. For such a revolutionary show, it’s really peppy and candy-colored and sunny,” Traister says. “Marlo Thomas would go on to be radicalized, and a big part of women’s movement. But the part I love the best is that executives and producers wanted to end it with her getting married to her boyfriend and Thomas says, ‘I don’t want to give the impression that women’s stories end with marriage.’ So it ends with them trapped in an elevator on the way to women’s liberation meeting.”

Murphy Brown vs. Dan Quayle

A few decades later, a popular TV sitcom character’s choice to have a baby without a husband provoked derision from vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle. As Traister sees it, “The funny thing about Dan Quayle’s Murphy comment is that ire expressed towards figures like Murphy Brown, Sandra Fluke, and Lena Dunham — the most privileged version of single womanhood — is often an expression of aggression stemming towards less privileged single women. At the time, Quayle had been talking about race riots, leaning on classic conservative rhetoric which targets the social disruption or violence of poverty and pathologizes women-led households as being the root of problem. Today you hear all the time from Rubio, Bush, and their ilk that marriage is a cure for poverty. As with Murphy Brown, Quayle was using a symbol of privileged single womanhood as an argumentative tool in what was really a huge amount of punishing rhetoric aimed at less privileged populations.”

Sex and the City‘s “Big” ending

Even decades after Marlo Thomas’ show wrapped and years after Murphy Brown gave birth, many women’s stories still end with marriage, even when they shouldn’t. “I wasn’t a Sex and the City watcher,” says Traister. “But it was impossible at the time to not know what was happening. When Carrie ended up with Big, I had friends who were so passionate about that, so pleased and so horrified. But I have actually seen the two movies, and I think it’s so interesting, particularly in the second movie, that they have to leave their husbands in order to drive that narrative and love story between the four of them. To return to their liberated and independent lives, they literally have to go to Abu Dhabi!” she notes. Even creator Darren Star eventually spoke out and admitted that Big and Carrie’s ending betrayed the show’s initial single-and-proud ethos. “Big was the guy you hope your fried doesn’t marry,” Traister adds.

The Obama presidency

“You know, it’s interesting: Obama is the son of single mother, Bill Clinton is the son of single mother, Bernie Sanders has a child with woman he never married,” says Traister. “So single parenthood shaped lives of the men who have been our presidents and our candidates for president.”

As for how that change affects policy and rhetoric in the Obama era. “Obama is always very careful, a the son of single mother, to talk about single mothers with great respect. That’s no small thing, and it sets him a part,” she continues. “He’s been, perhaps, extra critical of men in a way that suggests a pattern of single parenthood is automatically bad, but he’s been very strong policy-wise. Healthcare reform, while imperfect, is a tremendous step. It got rid of extra-high prices for living in bodies that do the work of reproduction, evening out the economic playing field when it comes to healthcare.”

Today’s TV friendships, from Grey’s Anatomy to Broad City

But despite the progress we’ve made in the last decade with healthcare and gay marriage, “pop culture is helping to provide some recognition that policy doesn’t offer — recognition of women’s role in each others’ lives,” Traister says. “Take Meredith and Cristina in Grey’s Anatomy —it’s an evening soap opera in a hospital. So the format is not about female friendship, but through it all they’re each other’s ‘person’: which means the intimate, the person with whom you share your hopes, your fears, your health insurance problems, your issues with your parents. Mary Tyler Moore and her relationship with Rhoda was fundamental to this paradigm, too, in the past, and obviously now Broad City and Girls explore similar themes. The critique of these later shows is that they’re juvenile spoiled brats — but, of course, lots of married people are also spoiled brats on TV.”

As for whether social policy should catch up to these shows, that’s something Traister gets at in All the Single Ladies. “You know, we just won the fight for gay marriage,” Traister says. “But for so many women, the person who should be their next of kin, get visiting privileges at the hospital, is likely to be another woman with whom they may not be sexually or romantically involved. This person is their partner, but we don’t have any social policy that accounts for that.”

Beyoncé

“Her incredible talent, drive, and ambition are beautiful characteristics that, in women, we have a hard time celebrating and feeling positive about,” Traister says of the singer whose 2009 anthem inspired her book title. “She’s always unapologetic, and she gets full credit for exploring the relationship between economic power and women’s disempowerment, and for being open about trying to keep her marriage equal.”

Traister acknowledges that her using Beyoncé for her book title might be seen as appropriation by some, but it inspired her to try to make the book about more than just one subset of single ladies. “It really matters that she speaks to and about black womanhood,” Traister continues. “I see criticism of the idea of ‘Beyoncé feminism,’ meaning a feminism that’s interested in popular culture, and takes a pop figurehead as its symbol. But what is so thrilling is that — even though the women’s movement itself has been powered by diverse women across classes and races — the pop culture vision of what empowered womanhood looks like hasn’t always done that, and that’s how we get Sex and the City whiteness, Lena Dunham whiteness. But Beyoncé is a woman of color speaking directly to other women of color.”

Call Your Girlfriend, Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow’s long-distance “bestie” podcast

Throughout All the Single Ladies, Traister follows the lives, friendships, careers, and relationships of several “single ladies” in her social circle and beyond, ranging widely in age and vocation. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s friendship is one those real-life stories that thread through the book, but what makes their tale interesting is that they turned their cross-country connection into a wildly popular podcast.

“I was a listener and loved it, then I was on it talking about Hillary Clinton and I heard from people across the country, people I don’t hear from when I write a big article,” says Traister. “They’ve begun to take their relationship and help other women give voice and shape to how they feel about the women in their lives, and their social connections to other women. It’s the lord’s work. They’re demonstrating a beautiful, public framework, pragmatically, for how female friendship can be an important core of female adult life.”

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the 2016 election

“What we’re seeing about single women as a voting bloc is, they vote left,” says Traister, whose first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, followed the 2008 campaigns. Over the course of two election seasons, Traister has become perhaps the definitive voice on Hillary Clinton. “It’s a mistake to read [single women’s progressive orientation] as a diagnostic about how voters feel about feminism. Bernie is offering a leftward lean, and I would interpret it less as a rejection of Hillary and more that Bernie is offering a less pragmatic and more aspirational vision. For women, the choice is: Do you follow person who says, ‘Let’s go there right now’? He’s appealing to unmarried women, young women, but no matter which of them wins the primary, single women will vote disproportionately for that person.”

One of the reasons why both candidates are placing a new emphasis on Nordic-style social policy is that recent changes in American lifestyles haven’t been met by a change in social structures. “Our social policies were designed for a citizenry made up of married units, where one was an earner, the other was a domestic laborer who supported that person,” Traister says. Everything from the school calendar to vacation and sick leave policy is designed for a bygone era. “We don’t live that way anymore. We’re not marrying at the same rate, or we’re marrying later. Women are earning money, and there’s no one home to do domestic work without pay.” Thus, the rise of single women as a political force is “not just a trend,” Traister says. “It has fundamentally upset the systems that are meant to support the citizenry.”

Today’s “chick flick”

Traister hasn’t seen How to Be Single, the extremely mediocre new rom-com that ends with its heroine on a solo hike in the Grand Canyon, but she likes the idea that staying single can become its own form of cheesy ending. We need new clichés for a phenomenon that’s’s becoming ever more common, she says: “Staying single is becoming a new norm, creating all kinds of new pop culture reflections that are telling stories about how world works now instead of how it used to work.”