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The Single Lady Onscreen - Why Singledom Is in Fashion

Are we finally moving into a new age where the single lady is aspirational? Being single has always carried a greater shame for women than for men, but the single lady onscreen today is defined by a newfound freedom and excitement. She’s single, promiscuous, and proud of it. While she may still have her challenges, the single lady has come a long way from being shunned to being celebrated.

Transcript

Are we finally moving into a new age where the single lady is aspirational? Being single has always carried a greater shame for women than for men, but the single lady onscreen today is defined by a newfound freedom and excitement. So what are the modern version of this trope’s characteristics?

- She’s promiscuous and proud of it. The single lady isn’t necessarily anti-monogamy, eventually.

“I’m only 27. What am I? A child bride? You know, I don’t know that I’ll never want it, I just don’t want it right now.” - Ilana, Broad City, 5x05

But for now, she’s enjoying her dating life, and she doesn’t have to face the same level of judgment about that as in previous eras. Being single is her choice – not some desperate last resort, but an embrace of possibilities.

Kimberly: “Are any of you in relationships?”

Bela: “Oh, no thank you, I didn’t come to college to be tethered to someone I dated in high school.”

- The Sex Lives of College Girls, 1x01

- At the same time, it’s not always a choice that’s respected or understood. Not everyone truly gets the single lady, because what she wants is different from what a lot of society tells us we should want.

- And still, in most examples, she’s only temporarily single. While there are more characters who are single for long stretches of the screen time we spend with them, they often end up settling down. It’s rarer to find stories of women who stay single as they get older and are happy about it.

While she may still have her challenges, the single lady has come a long way from being shunned to being celebrated. Here’s our take on today’s updated single lady trope, and how it shows there’s more than one way to lead a happy and fulfilling life.

‘Spinster’ to ‘Single’

First, let’s talk about what today’s positive depictions of singledom are moving away from – the dreaded spinster archetype.

This archaic term was originally used for women who spun wool going all the way back to the 1300s, but it became associated with women who were poor, single, and unlikely to ever marry. Our archetypal spinsters are characters like Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham, or Emma’s Miss Bates, older women who are resigned to a life of loneliness, who might have become bitter, detached from reality, or leaned into their annoying habits, and who we’re (at best) invited to pity. So this archetype created a cultural fear of spinsterdom which carried throughout the 20th century.

Miss Bates: “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as I open my mouth.”

Emma: “Ah ma’am but there is the difficulty; when have you ever stopped at three?”

- Emma (2020)

And it gave rise to the unlucky in love single lady. Her singledom doesn’t feel like a considered, independent choice – it’s born out of sadness and frustration. The perennially single Bridget Jones fears spinsterdom most of all, equating not settling down with a husband with a life that’s not even worth living.

“I have two choices: to give up and accept permanent state of spinsterhood and eventual eating by alsatians. Or not.” - Bridget Jones, Bridget Jones’s Diary

But while Bridget and others like Carrie of Sex and the City do eventually end up with their dream men, along the way these characters (and we) come to appreciate just how great they are on their own, and how men really shouldn’t be the answer to their gaining confidence and feeling complete.

Ally McBeal is another character from the late 90s and 2000s era who’s professionally accomplished but feels unlucky in love. She’s not only tortured by working closely with her “one who got away”; she’s explicitly haunted by visions of a dancing baby and the loud ticking of her biological clock. Still, her ending isn’t getting a man, but finding out she has a daughter from having donated her eggs ten years ago. And the satisfaction she always looked for in relationships, she ends up finding in her child.

Meanwhile, countering social expectations, there were earlier examples of single ladies who seemed anything but miserable. In the 70s, Mary Richards of the Mary Tyler Moore Show was perfectly happy in her career-driven life as an unmarried 30-something, dating men without striving to snag a husband – and staying single throughout the show (at least until the 2000 TV movie revealed she’d been married).

Iconic single lady Roz in Frasier, starting in 1993, also seemed pretty happy with her life. While Roz occasionally voices common fears about ending up alone, she ultimately finds contentment in being a single mother. And what made Roz especially trailblazing is how she openly enjoys the sexual freedom and excitement of dating life – having a lot of casual sex and being vocal about the men she finds attractive. The other characters tease her about her sex life, but Roz is never ashamed of it.

Frasier: “Sex.”

Roz: “How can I help you?”

Frasier: “What do you do when the romance goes out of a relationship?”

Roz: “I get dressed and go home.”

- Frasier, 1x17

Half a decade later, another breakthrough single lady character came in Sex and the City’s Samantha, who strongly prefers singledom and fears monogamy.

Carrie: “I saw the ring and I threw up. That’s not normal.”

Samantha: “That’s my reaction to marriage.”

- Sex and the City, 4x12

So over time, through these characters, singledom increasingly becomes cast as thrilling, fun, and full of opportunities – a defiant show of independence.

Free and Single

Maybe the most crucial thing about the free and single lady is how sex-positive she is. She’s not just staying at home; she’s getting out there, meeting different people, and having a good time.

Frasier: “Have you ever been set up on a date with someone whose name you don’t know?”

Roz: “Oh please, I’ve woken up with dates whose names I didn’t know.”

- Frasier, 11x09

Samatha Jones’ singledom gives voice to female desire. Through sleeping with a variety of people, she has the opportunity to find out more about herself, and have experiences that the other girls aren’t as open to. While other characters like the idea of falling in love and settling down, Samantha prioritizes pleasure above all else.

Like Samantha, Roz from Frasier has to deal with the reality that not everyone around her understands or respects her singledom.

Roz: “Roz is a failure at love, Roz can’t find a man.”

Frasier: “They don’t really say that do they?”

Roz: “Oh, you haven’t met my perfect sister, Denice.”

- Frasier, 9x23

But others’ disapproval isn’t enough to make her commit to the wrong guy; she likes men, likes having sex, and isn’t necessarily focused on settling down unless the right person comes along.

These characters normalized female desire in the culture, and they helped make space for characters in our era who enjoy sex without that having to be their defining trait. For Bela in The Sex Lives of College Girls, sex is one of the things she’s most excited about entering into this new environment –

“I’m super sex-positive – in theory more than in experience – and I am ready to smash some D’s.” - Bela, The Sex Lives of College Girls, 1x01

– but her story arc is most focused on how funny she is and how she aspires to become a comedy writer.

Chewing Gum centers around the exploits of Tracey, who’s determined to have sexual adventures, but as an inexperienced, religious virgin, she hardly fits any of our preconceptions of who the promiscuous single lady is.

In Broad City, Abbi and Ilana are both promiscuous, single ladies, but the beauty of that show is how it focuses on their relationship, rather than their respective quests for relationships. They find solace, value, and companionship in each other, and so maybe they don’t see the need to get this from the men in their life.

While these are young singletons, we’re also seeing more stories about women experiencing the dating scene in other life phases – whether because they’ve gotten divorced, widowed, or never married.

“As for love, well, anything’s possible.” Carrie, And Just Like That, 1x10

Grace and Frankie – about two women whose husbands leave them after falling in love with each other – explores being single later in life, showing how things like female desire and feeling sexy don’t have a shelf life and how being single can unlock these feelings.

Grace: “If anyone’s gonna sit on Ryan Gosling’s face, it’s gonna be me.” - Grace, Grace and Frankie, 1x01

These stories recognize there are still challenges that come with being single, like moments of loneliness and criticism from outside – but most of the time, these characters find comfort from within, instead of validation from without.

Staying Single

“A big part of me really wanted to have kids,/ but I guess an even bigger part of me wanted something different.” - Callie, Spinster

Many of our film and TV stories deliver romantic union as a happy ending. And there’s often a feeling that successful relationships are rewards given to characters who’ve done their time as single ladies.

In Insecure, Issa and Lawrence break up in the first season, but their personal journeys of self-discovery eventually lead them back to each other when the timing is right. Meanwhile, Issa’s best friend Molly has spent years as a modern “unlucky in love” type, who really doesn’t want to be single but can’t find the right guy. Molly’s arc requires her to stop trying to control her love life and to get more comfortable with her single self – but after she does that, she gets to find a great guy who appreciates how wonderful she is.

Peggy in Mad Men, too, is perennially single for the majority of the show, her romantic partners being more casual while she flourishes in her career. But by the end, she and Stan get together, almost like her romantic success is put on the same level as her personal success.

Many of these characters still bring positive associations to singledom because most of the screen time we actually spend with them is when they’re not coupled up. But it’s also important to see examples of characters who stay single – to remind us that relationships aren’t the be-all and end-all, and that fulfillment can come from within.

Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend at first seems determined to live out a rom-com fantasy, traveling across the country in pursuit of her dream man. But as we get to know her, the story becomes less about that and more about her mental health, and so her staying single by the end feels like a necessary, honest, and important step in her journey toward recovery.

“When I’m telling my own story, for the first time in my life I am truly happy.” - Rebecca, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, 4x17

Spinster explicitly deals with our latent fear around being single and older – in this case, 39, so not even that old – but the film challenges that fear, with its heroine Gaby deciding not to pursue a relationship, and to, instead, pursue her dream of opening a restaurant.

Even to this day, though, it still feels like there’s a pressure on creators to push characters together to please audiences – like how fans clamored for James and Erin to get together in Derry Girls or Mike and Eleven in Stranger Things. Sex and the City moved toward a place where it felt Carrie and Big had to end up together for that rom-com happy ending. Still, when it came time to reboot the series as And Just Like That, the creative team killed Big off – and this felt driven by the fact that watching Carrie as a single woman in her Manhattan playground is a lot of the fun and excitement viewers enjoyed about the show all along.

And sometimes, it is sad when people who are good for each other don’t end up together, but that’s okay too. When Alexis doesn’t end up with Ted in Schitt’s Creek, it hurts, but it’s a mature decision taken by the both of them, and we’re left with the feeling that the door isn’t fully closed.

Ted: “Can’t say that we didn’t try.”

Alexis: “I love you, Ted.”

Ted: “I love you, too.”

- Schitt’s Creek

Staying single needn’t be a tragedy, and it needn’t always be a defiant, anti-monogamous statement. But sometimes, it can just be the right thing to do.

Conclusion

For generations, relationship narratives have been structured around the idea of finding “the one”.

“I turned to a friend for comfort, and instead, I found everything I’ve ever been looking for my whole life.” - Monica, Friends, 7x24

But perhaps that’s something that we as audiences need to unlearn, too.

We don’t need stories to glorify singledom, but we can learn from stories that show the importance of paying attention to what you need – and how that’s the real path to happiness and fulfillment, not simply avoiding the “misery” of being alone.

SOURCES

Gulla, Emily. “A Brief History of the Word ‘Spinster’ and How It’s Still Used Today.” Cosmopolitan, 14 Feb. 2020, www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/love-sex/relationships/a30868873/spinster/.
Roberts, Annie. “Derry Girls Fans Thrilled as Erin and James ‘Finally’ Get Their Romantic Moment.” Wales Online, 4 May 2022, www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/tv/derry-girls-fans-thrilled-erin-23858954.