Is TV Really Ready for a Single Woman Who Doesn't Want a Man?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Aug. 23 2012 1:18 PM

Is TV Really Ready for a Single Woman Who Doesn't Want a Man?

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Who should play Kate?

In recent years, lots of magazines have tried to get into the spinoff game, selling their feature articles into movie or television development. But few pieces have intrigued me more for a network TV adaptation than Kate Bolick's "All The Single Ladies," which ran in the Atlantic last November and sold Wednesday to CBS. (Disclosure: Kate and I share several friends.)

It's early in the development cycle, and there's no guarantee the show will ever make it onto the air. But just as Bolick's piece called for treating demographic changes as an opportunity to re-evaluate our expectations for relationships and marital milestones, a show based on her article, if the show truly ends up being "about a woman who turns down her boyfriend's proposal and instead embraces singledom," could be a fascinating shift in network television's parameters for female characters.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman on television is on the hunt for a man, or getting over a man, or stumbling into the Right Man Who Appears When She Least Expects It. Yes, recent television has featured at least some intriguing variations on the theme. On Bones, Aspergian anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan applied her academic theories to her dating life before asking her best friend and partner to donate sperm so she could have a baby with him. But then she fell in love with him. In TBS' late, lamented sitcom My Boys, sportswriter PJ Franklin concentrated her social energies on her tight-knit circle of friends, in which she was the only woman, with her male pals providing insight and acting as obstacles to her dating life. But the idea of a sitcom where the heroine is committed to staying single, not merely attempting to shed that state, would be something new. (The "groundbreaking" Girls is surely not breaking ground in this regard.)

Procedurals like Bones have done better than sitcoms on this score, in part because their heroines have a lot more than love on their minds for much of every episode. On Law & Order: Special Victims Unit it took until the ninth season for one of Detective Olivia Benson's relationships to become a major plot arc, as opposed to something that spiced up a single, occasional episode. And on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Alexandra Eames' decision to carry a baby for her sister was a far more significant plotline than any romantic or sexual relationship she had outside of work. But even procedurals like Drop Dead Diva and The Closer use work as a way to foreground relationships by making the main characters' love interests close colleagues, using cases as a way to suss out chemistry.

So what would a show where the female main character has genuinely set aside relationships, at least for a time, look like? Some shows, including NBC's swiftly-canceled Best Friends Forever and FX's The League, have pulled off viable male-female friendships between a married man or woman and a single person of the opposite gender, but it would be nice if one-half of those friendships didn't have to have a ring on it as a guarantor the dynamic would stay platonic. It would be nice to see single women and men who are simply, comfortably friends became a rule on television, rather than an exception. (New Girl is definitely the exception.)

Similarly, it would be nice to see a single woman's job take precedence and not merely be a vehicle for her to meet a fellow. I was hugely excited for Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project, based in part on Kaling's mother's experience as an OB-GYN, because I thought it was a fascinating profession to put on television. But the pilot's much less interested in delivering babies and having sex talks than in showing Kaling hook up with one hot doctor colleague who is obviously wrong for her and spar with another hot doctor colleague who is obviously right. Women hold jobs that are fascinating and important to them even when they aren't solving murders or saving lives, and a more vigorous focus on a character's career could both take up the space formerly occupied by dating and help break the television cliche of the workplace romance. 30 Rock is a rare beast. Liz Lemon may have thought Jack Donaghy was going in for a smooch in the first season and later ended up accidentally married, but the show's always been clear that Liz and Jack are a nigh-endangered species in television-land: opposite-sex colleagues who aren't attracted to each other.

Finally, in place of tending to a relationship, I'd be fascinated to see a female character's attempts at tending to herself and her hobbies taken seriously, rather than just used as character shorthand. In pop culture, strippercize signals sluttiness and cats red-flag loneliness. But if FX can make a successful show about a fantasy football league or NBC thinks it's got a shot at a whole show about a guy going to a bereavement support group, what about a recurring plotline where our single lady trains for a 5k race? Or works at a food co-op? Or starts a small business (for real, not just on the side a la Will and Grace)? It's a big world out there, and network television ignores most of it. If CBS, traditionally a somewhat conservative network, has the courage to put aside the marriage plot and follow our heroine out into the rest of her life, the adaptation of "All the Single Ladies" could be worthy of its source material.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.

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