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Skimpy Attire But Strong Messages: Single Women in Popular Media in Past Decades

charlie's angelsIn my last post, I began to discuss Katherine J. Lehman’s book, Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture. Lehman draws on scholarship and popular writings, as do many media critics. She goes a big step further, though, and tracks down original scripts and proposals, and discovers how they were often trimmed and tamed by industry censorship and by societal concerns about how single women should behave.

So what did Lehman learn about the storytelling about single women in 1960s and 1970s movies and television? Would single women who ventured into the city discover that they really could make it on their own, or would they find that they were courting danger? Would single women who wanted to pursue sexual experiences be glamorized or punished? What should we make of the heroines of series such as The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels? Should we mock them for their skimpy and silly attire, or admire them for modeling single-women strength in arenas typically dominated by men?

The answers considered in Those Girls: All of the above. Different shows aired different perspectives, and even when just one show was considered, different critics offered different appraisals. In the Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example, viewers already knew from the opening theme song that Mary was going to make it on her own, and that there would be some glamour to the single life. Looking for Mr. Goodbar, in contrast, offered a cautionary tale of desperation and danger.

Here’s Lehman’s bottom line about single women in 60s and 70s popular culture:

 “…it is high time to reevaluate the image and importance of the ‘single girl.’ Historically, media have associated the 1960s—1970s young single woman with girlish femininity and a commercialized singles scene. As many of these singles embraced female beauty culture and eschewed feminism, they rarely are included in official histories of second-wave feminist activism. This book argues that single women, regardless of their feminist stance, were essential to processes of social and political change. As young single women dared to move away from their families, delay marriage, obtain birth control, and make their way in the workplace, they may have been following their individual desires. Yet they advanced the cause of women as they entered patriarchal professions, sought sexual pleasure on their own terms, and spoke out about sexual assault. In addition to consciousness-raising groups and protest marches, young women’s life experiences helped spur changes in laws and social attitudes.”

Although Those Girls is not about contemporary popular culture, in the Epilogue, Lehman reflects on Mad Men, a TV show airing in our era, but about an advertising agency in the early 60s:

“More than mere nostalgia, this series serves as a sobering reminder of the important role single women played in creating social change, and the discrimination they faced in their professional and personal lives prior to the rise of second-wave feminism.”

I’d add the qualification that singlism still persists even now, and single men as well as single women are targets of that stereotyping and discrimination. (Twenty-eight authors, experts, and activists joined me in documenting and discussing contemporary instances of singlism in the book, Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.) I’d also note that there are many ways in which second-wave feminism neglected the single woman (as explained in Essay #4 of Singlism).

It will be interesting to see how single women and single men make their mark in popular culture as we begin the year 2012.

Happy New Year, everyone! Thanks for reading this “Single at Heart” blog.

Photo by Evelien DeBruyne, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Skimpy Attire But Strong Messages: Single Women in Popular Media in Past Decades

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2012). Skimpy Attire But Strong Messages: Single Women in Popular Media in Past Decades. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Jan 2012
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