- Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture by Katherine J. Lehman
In Those Girls, Katherine J. Lehman explores images of never married, childless women primarily in film and television in the 1960s and 1970s. She argues that “the single woman was a pivotal figure in postwar popular culture who helped viewers negotiate sweeping changes in gender roles and sexual mores” (ix). Lehman uses a number of media case studies to [End Page 312] examine the ways in which single women became more prominent in popular culture. She focuses on films like Where the Boys Are and Valley of the Dolls and television shows such as That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Charlie’s Angels to successfully demonstrate that media indeed reflected, and possibly influenced, the widespread changes that were taking place in the broader culture when it came to women and their status in society. But as is nearly always the case in pop culture studies, the result of that reflection is a mixed bag. Lehman points out that portrayals of the single woman “marked her as liberated, although her actions and dialogue sometimes contradicted feminist ideals. She opened new avenues for female representation. . . . However, producers and censors often tamed the single woman’s sexuality and strength to meet industry standards and appeal to diverse audiences” (2).
Lehman’s strength is her mining of a trove of archival sources. She includes detailed treatment of various shows and films, together with advertising campaigns, newspaper and magazine coverage, and, significantly, behind-the-scenes industry discussions and debates, such as tracing script changes deliberating how to portray most appropriately (and most successfully) the modern single woman. This insider look at the development of iconic television shows like Wonder Woman grounds the work and adds an intriguing and important context.
Another strength of the book is the broad historical perspective that Lehman provides throughout, making this book particularly useful for undergraduate reading. Each chapter includes a discussion of the larger cultural trends that informed the media evolution. As such, one of the major historical developments addressed is the centrality of the urban experience to portrayals of single womanhood. The trope of the young, naive, rural or small-town woman setting out for a new start in the big city figured prominently in media images of modern femininity. This journey was often fraught and contradictory, however, and these representations repeatedly implied the question, “Was the city the source of freedom and adventure for the single woman or primarily a site for sexual and psychological victimization?” (82). Lehman provides a range of possible answers, from the sanitized life of Marlo Thomas in That Girl to the dark tragedy of the film Waiting for Mr. Goodbar, based on the real-life murder of a young woman in New York City.
Lehman traces the changes of the era with an examination of the ways in which feminism was (or was not) reflected in popular culture. She demonstrates that TV shows like Charlie’s Angels offered images that were both objectifying and empowering, as the female characters were highly sexualized yet also smart, tough, and powerful. Interestingly, the work reveals an increasing suspicion of single women that corresponded to the rise of feminism. Lehman argues that earlier portrayals of unattached women often emphasized their innocent vulnerability to external dangers, [End Page 313] but by the height of the women’s movement, depictions frequently recast the woman alone as neurotic and self-destructive.
Race factors into Lehman’s discussion, and she shows how African American single women were usually characterized in stereotypical ways, even if there were gestures made to the progress of the civil rights movement. She notes that black actresses were often cast as prostitutes, even in such programs as Get Christie Love, which had an African American lead character. In most cases, white, middle-class women played the primary roles, reflecting the priorities of the industry.
While the broad scope of the book makes it an effective history of single womanhood more generally...