I spent way too much time during my first weeks of college feeling intimidated and scared. I grew up in the small town of Dunmore, Pennsylvania (near Scranton) and went to the very public Dunmore High School. Then there I was, in 1971, at Vassar College. At my high school, when someone said a word with more than three syllables, it was intended as a joke. Those first few weeks of college, I found myself laughing at all sorts of inappropriate times.
The first weekend of my first semester of college, I went to a movie on campus with many other students. On the way back, several of those students were analyzing what they had just seen. What did it really mean? What was wrong with the assumptions in the film and the portrayals of different kinds of people?
I had never discussed a movie with my friends in that way. I was sure I was going to flunk out.
Now I love to think critically about popular culture, and to read other people’s analyses, especially when the topic is the portrayal of single people. My most recent discovery of a wonderfully thoughtful and carefully researched book is Katherine J. Lehman’s Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture.
From our 21st century vantage point, when the median age at which Americans first get married (among those who ever do marry) is 26.5 for women and nearly 29 for men, it is sobering to be reminded that in 1960, only 7% of 30-year old women were not married. The subsequent decades were significant in part because that’s when the number of people living single began to increase markedly. That seismic demographic shift is still in motion.
Lehman also reminds us that even apart from the ways in which single women were depicted on TV, the mere fact that they began to appear in prominent roles at all, was itself significant. Before the 60s, producers worried that a single woman “would fail to carry a series and capture viewers’ loyalty.” As the number of single Americans continued to climb, though, single women (usually called “girls”) began to be cast in lead roles. Concerns about viewer loyalty were forcefully addressed by the success of series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, Charlie’s Angels, Cagney and Lacey, The Bionic Woman, and many more.
The rise in the number of singles was not the only significant change during the 60s and 70s. What it meant to live single was also completely redefined. Things we take for granted from our contemporary perch – for example, that young adults will leave home and spend substantial amounts of time on their own; that they can have a sex life outside of marriage if they so desire; that single women might want to work, and at many of the kinds of jobs that were once considered the domain of men-only – were all new trends, often provoking tremendous uncertainty and anxiety.
What stories would be told, on television and in the movies, about single women (and men) and their place in society? Would there be glamorizing or moralizing? Why are the depictions of singles in the popular media important? Or are they?
Think about those questions, if you wish. In retrospect, what do you make of the shows and movies from that era? In my next post, I will share more of the insights that Lehman offered in Those Girls.
Photo by Shaun Anderson, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.