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To be or not to be: conflicting messages on singlehood on popular tv shows

November 21, 2009

Television has significantly shaped my life. Who can remain untouched by television? My generation learned our ABCs and numbers on Sesame Street, how to share on Barney, and how to play from Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. Television is also responsible for promoting ideologies about womanhood and the social expectations for them.

Living Single Sitcom

Ideologies are ideas and beliefs generally accepted by everyone. But prominent theorists like Louis Althusser and John Fiske don’t simply characterize ideology as a set of ideas imposed on one group by another (in this case, society controlling ideas about its women). It is the process by which ideas are reproduced through practices endorsed by ideological state apparatuses (ISAs).1

ISAs are institutions like the family, schools, and media like TV shows that “produce in people the tendency to behave and think in socially acceptable ways.”2 ISAs are the way that people develop a sense of the world, themselves, their identities, and their relationships with others in the society. For women, we develop our understanding about relationships from ISAs and we learn being single is the last thing you want to be. However in the 90s, shows like Living Single and Sex & the City made singleness fashionable.

Growing up watching Living Single, I was enamored by the independence and power the four African American women exhibited. Khadijah is the laid back owner/editor of Flavor Magazine, Synclaire an aspiring actress, Maxine an attorney, and Regine, a fashionista extraordinaire and stylist. My favorite characters are Khadijah and Maxine because they were powerful, quick-witted, confident, and unapologetic about how they lived their lives. Unquestionably, they are the most dynamic and characters. They made living single look sexy and Sex & the City did too.

Sex & the City show garnered popularity because of its candid discussions about sex, sexuality, promiscuity, and female liberation. For many viewers, the women of Sex & the City are prototypes of female liberation: Carrie, a sex columnist, Samantha a publicist, unafraid to explore her sexuality, Charlotte, the prim and proper art curator, and Miranda, a lawyer and pessimist about relationships.  They defined their own existence and challenged everything society teaches women, especially on TV: don’t be too career-focused, don’t be single and happy, don’t be promiscuous, and don’t be a bitch. Or so it seemed.

Both shows lack a discourse on individuality and singleness. In both Living Single and Sex & the City, more focus is placed on finding a “soulmate.” And this preoccupation with coupling serves to only reinforce traditional messages of womanhood that link a woman’s identity to a man.

Many episodes of Living Single explore Regine’s search for wealthy male companionship. She devoted all her efforts to strategically trapping a man for marriage, using her body (read: BREASTS) as bait. Also, her mother constantly questioned Regine’s singleness, fearful she would end up alone, old, and unhappy. This fear of singleness is then projected on Khadijah and Maxine, who don’t have difficulty dating, but internalize the messages, as exhibited through their competitive behavior in episodes like “Love Thy Neighbor” where they vie for the attention of their new neighbor Patrick.

For the duration of the show, all women are either single and looking or romantically connected with a man, but never depicted as single and satisfied. In fact, Synclaire maintained a monogamous relationship with Overton for the entire series, eventually leading to marriage. She was never really single during the series. Even before they officially claimed that status of a couple, there was an unspoken contract between them.

In contrast, Sex & the City does celebrate the character of Samantha who enjoys her singleness. She pursues men for only sex and frowns upon emotional attachment. Even as the oldest character, she refuses to be defined by social expectations . However, towards the end of the series Samantha’s frequent sex with a waiter named Smith develops into a relationship. Reluctant to even admit she was in a relationship,     Samantha maintained the status and stayed with him into the follow-up Sex & the City Movie, where she amicably breaks up with him. Otherwise, Samantha is the only character who enjoys her singleness. Even though she does pursue men, for sex and not love, she does reject ideologies about womanhood. All others, are heavily invested in the idea of a “Prince Charming,” especially Charlotte. In fact, what the show suggests is that the sum of all women’s efforts should be devoted to avoiding loneliness at any cost.  Even with the ladies of Living Single, the series ended with the women finding their “soulmates.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love both shows but I would have loved to see a show with more Samanthas and fewer Regines. What the world really needs is more individuals challenging the ideologies of womanhood. More single women who are happily single and not looking. More single women who don’t wake up hoping to meet prince charming. The world needs a consistent rhetoric of singlehood and independence that doesn’t fly in the face of women who actually enjoy it.

1. Fiske, John. “Culture Ideology, Interpellation, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, p. 1269.
2. Fiske, p. 1269

One Comment leave one →
  1. M Coleman permalink
    December 11, 2009 11:30 pm

    I really like this article as it is very similar to what I did my research paper on. But what I want to add to your critique is what role the professions of these women play. For example, on Living single the majority of the show is portrayed within their apartment, emphasizing the domestic nature of the women rather than their respective professional environments. We do frequently see the characters at work, but not nearly as much as they are portrayed at home. Thus, I think that if the women we see presented on these shows that are supposed to emphasize female independence were shown in more scenarios (such as at work, traveling, at social events like concerts, etc.) we would be able to see them enjoying their singlehood more. Instead, we see them sitting at home talking to each other about their problems and their desires for life rather than their actual activity. I think that this would make a big difference in how we perceive single life from television.

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