Where are the positive portrayals of single people in the media and popular culture? I was asked about that in a Facebook Live event a few months ago. Then, more recently, I was interviewed for an Australian radio show, and the same question came up.
I take it as a positive sign that people want to find stories in movies, TV, and books that are not just the tired old romantic plots. More people are single than ever before, and even those people who do marry are typically waiting longer than ever to do so for the first time.
Many single people are embracing single life. I honor them with the title of this blog, “Single at Heart.” Even single people who aspire to be coupled do not always want their lives to be defined by a romantic quest. They want to live their single lives fully, getting as much out of those years as possible. Just “marking time” until you find The One is such a waste of a potentially wonderful time in your life.
What makes for a positive portrayal of single people? Here are some criteria I would suggest:
- The single people in the movies, TV shows, or books live their single lives without being totally preoccupied with trying to become unsingle. Better still if they embrace single life, and romantic themes have no place at all in the storytelling. It is fine if the single characters are flawed people (if they weren’t, they would not be human), but they should not be portrayed as pathetic.
- Relationships other than romantic ones are prioritized. Friendships, for example. Or meaningful relationships with relatives, mentors, neighbors, coworkers; there are so many important people in our lives other than romantic partners.
- The single people are pursuing something that matters to them, such as work that they love or a great adventure, or, say, saving the world. Or they are leading a life that might not sound special, but it is one that is meaningful to them, and that makes it special. Or they are struggling with whatever life throws at them, and they may be doing so with more or less success, but they do not look to romantic partnership as a magical solution.
I needed help with suggestions, so I asked the Community of Single People to nominate movies, TV shows, and books with affirming portrayals of single people. Thanks to Adriana Kohkemper, Amy Martin, Lisa, Vicki, and the dozens of other people who made suggestions but did not want to be thanked by name.
Here is a sampling of some of their suggestions, plus a few of my own. The suggestions from the community members include many that I have not seen/read myself. When a description is in quotes, that means that it comes from someone in the Community of Single People and not from me.
Spy (“did an amazing job subverting matrimaniacal tropes;” note that it is “violent as well as raunchy”)
The World According to Garp (“the Glenn Close character was independent and never needed a man to be happy”)
Under the Tuscan Sun (“the ending of that movie: She is single and happy.”)
Wonder Woman (though, as USA Today asked, “Filmmakers gave Wonder Woman a perfect boyfriend, but did she really need one?”)
My Louisiana Sky (“Juliette Lewis portrays a single woman in the 1950’s. She is from the city, works, and has her own apartment. There is absolutely NO romantic storyline.”)
Brave (the princess is single at heart)
Frozen (“Sisterly love is central to the movie, while traditional/idealistic romantic love is mocked. Elsa, the big sister, is single and happy to live on her own and be free.”)
For the friendships:
Bridesmaids (“the relationship between two childhood friends as the heart of the movie” and other Melissa McCarthy movies that are raunchy but celebrate friendship)
Mary Tyler Moore
Being Mary Jane (lots of romantic themes, but Mary Jane really cares about her career and she’s great at it; she also cares about her family and friends)
The Bionic Woman
That Girl (“she had a boyfriend, but lived alone”)
Rhoda (she does get married but doesn’t stay married)
Greenleaf (Grace, one of the lead characters, is a strong single woman)
Scandal (this is a complicated one: Olivia plays the stereotyped role of the other woman and there are many romantic plots, but she “lives alone, and given the chance to marry her love, the president, and become First Lady, she leaves him and moves back to her apartment, on Christmas Eve, no less. The final scene of Season 5, Episode 9, she is sitting in her apartment, alone, drinking wine and has a look of deep contentment on her face.”)
Kung Fu (“Kwai Chang Caine was single”)
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (widower; according to Wikipedia, “Eddie’s matchmaking efforts were the theme of the movie, but gradually became less central to the storylines in the series.”)
The Odd Couple
For the friendships:
Sex and the City (yes, there were too many romantic plots but the friendships among the four women were the real emotional heart of the show)
Grace & Frankie
Living Single (the 1990s sitcom)
If someone says, ‘You complete me,’ RUN!, by Whoopi Goldberg (discussed here)
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, by Kate Bolick (discussed here)
Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, by Stephanie Rosenbloom (discussed here)
Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and other books by Bella DePaulo (apologies for the self-reference)
Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, by Eric Klinenberg (discussed here)
Table for One, by Kinneret Lahad (discussed here)
Live Alone and Like It, by Marjorie Hillis (discussed here)
The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, by Joanna Scutts
The New Single Woman, by E. Kay Trimberger (discussed here)
Quirkyalone, by Sasha Cagen
It’s not you: 27 (wrong) reasons you’re single, by Sara Eckel (mentioned here)
The Spinsterlicious Life, by Eleanore Wells
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (discussed here)
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
Sue Grafton’s alphabet series (for Kinsey Millhone)
The Paperbag Princess
Harry Potter (“the Harry Potter books have four characters that never marry and who for the most part seem perfectly happy with their single lives: Charlie Weasley, Sirius Black, Rubeus Hagrid, and Albus Dumbledore.”)
Finally, here’s more about singles in popular culture, including some critiques.