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As Seen On TV– Or Not

69% of homicide victims on tv are single women


“What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” Don Draper



You’d have to be headless not to know that what we see on TV influences our attitudes and behaviors.



That’s kind of the point.



Why are soap operas called soap operas? Right. You get the picture.



How about the picture you don’t get, literally? What we don’t see on TV is just as persuasive as what we do.



The media re-enforces dominant cultural expectations. Emphasis on enforce. Common sense tells you that. So do countless studies.



Which explains the current and, hopefully, on-going focus on the lack of good role models for girls on screens small and large.



“If she can see it, she can be it.” Geena Davis



Oscar winner Geena Davis founded the Institute for Gender in Media whose research documents how women are depicted in film and on TV, and it’s not as CEOs or scientists.



For now, the media is listening and at least reporting on the need for more female characters a) in general and b) in STEM and other powerful jobs. The theory, and (male) scientists agree, is girls will see engineering as a viable career if they see it on TV.



But do you know what other characters girls and everyone else don’t see starring in primetime?



  1. Single women
  2. Single women whose lives are about more than men and marriage.
  3. Single women over 40
  4. Women over 50



Yes, there are some single women on television, and even a few leading actresses, though one or two became single when their husbands got murdered and they covered it up.



However, researchers at the University of Albany counted single women as the victim in 69% of television homicides. Yikes. Needless to say, if you are dead, you’re not in the picture.



And if you are not married, death might be preferable to enduring the declarations that frequently appear in scripts that “you will die alone” if you don’t toe the wedding party line.



Between the hyper-inflated crime statistics and the oft-repeated tale of the unmarried becoming post-mortem pet food, single on TV is scarier than nuclear annihilation.



It doesn’t have to be that way, just like it doesn’t have to be that women are cast as wives and stay-at-home moms, teachers, nurses or any other stereotypically female profession.



It also doesn’t have to be that a woman’s sole confidante is her spouse.



What happened to shows about the relationships among women? Mary Tyler Moore had Rhoda and Phyllis. Kate and Allie had Allie and Kate and Cagney and Lacey had Lacey and Cagney. The Golden Girls had the girls.



As far as I can tell, only TNT has a program for grown-ups centered on female friends and co-stars, Rizzoli and Isles. Of course, Rizzoli and Isles also centers on murder.



What if there was a show about the real (not “reality”) life of a 40 or 50-something single woman? She would have an ensemble cast of friends. It would be called “Thank God I Showed Up” because that’s what she does. Shows up. Saves the day. Picks up the check.



Or maybe it would be called “Thoroughly Modern Auntie Mame,” where Auntie makes her own money so the backstory doesn’t require a dead or ex-husband.



Why can’t there be a sit-com with the predictable quest for “the one” as an occasional story arc, instead of the subtext of every episode, and a protagonist who is a blogger desperate to get published in mainstream media instead of desperate to get a man?



Ok, that last part might just be my delusions of autobiographical grandeur but seriously, where can you find tales of the trials and triumphs of the one in five women over 40 who have never been married, or the one in five who don’t have kids, or both?



There is endless material in the single woman’s search for financial security and how she gets lost along the way.  One in five houses are purchased by single women- imagine all the single-handed home repair conquests.



This is the stuff of comic legend.



Perhaps screenwriters’ imaginations truly are limited to writing what they know and they don’t know that the lead in stories can easily be a 48-year old single woman.



Who is a CEO or scientist.



Instead of a side-show—the bumbling (or slutty or bitchy or unconventional- looking) single woman the audience simultaneously fears, loathes and feels superior to.



Who they see doing what on television limits girls (and women) and subtly convinces them only certain jobs are appropriate and aiming for the top or actually loving math are anti-feminine and impossible.  On TV, being different is rarely better and always comes with struggles.



But don’t we similarly limit girls (and women) when all they are shown is married or wanting to get married women? Girls are taught early and often that the road to happiness goes down the aisle and the primary plot of every girl’s life is getting there.



The thing is, in real life, nearly half of adults are single now and 27 percent of Americans live alone. The Pew Foundation predicts that one in four people who in their 20s today will never marry. Clearly, being single is not so different and not so scary if so many people are doing it.



These downward trend in marriage rates will likely continue. With no role models, a girl is left as unprepared to take care of herself for a lifetime as she is to run a clinical trial of a breath-through cancer treatment she might have invented…



If she saw it on TV.



Television establishes what is acceptable in America. TV can help us all learn a bit of acceptance for what is simply another lifestyle, single, whether it was chosen or not.



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