All the Single Ladies on TV and in the Church
How will you make it on your own?
This world is awfully big, girl this time you’re all alone
But it’s time you started living
It’s time you let someone else do some giving
Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can have a town, why don’t you take it
You’re gonna make it after all
In 2015, these lyrics ask a question foreign and somewhat offensive to the ears and minds of single women. They illicit a defensive reaction: “Why would I not be able to make it on my own?” Today, it is the norm, not the exception, that women will most likely establish some sort of household and spend time on their own as an adult, even if they do eventually marry. This was not the case, however, in 1970 when, with these words and the carefree toss of her tam, Mary Tyler Moore introduced American pop culture to a revolutionary concept: a woman who chose to walk away from the proposed American Dream in order to pursue a different vision for herself.
Character Mary Richards was a new kind of protagonist for television. She was independent, single, and at 30 years old, an “old maid” by the standards of the day. And yet, there was a spirit to her that projected confidence and hope, a take-it-or-leave-it approach to dating and love, and a strong personality that kindly but consistently reminded all around her that she was going to be alright. For a generation that had been raised on sitcoms that centered on traditional families, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was revolutionary in its portrayal of feminism lived out in daily life. In a subtle way, however, the show also revealed internal conflict of the modern woman, schooled in the ways of June Cleaver while immersed in the writings of Gloria Steinem.
The setup scene in the second episode of the series demonstrates this as Mary and her new neighbor, Rhoda, bemoan their single lives:
Mary: “If there’s one thing that’s worse than being single, it’s sitting around talking about being single. So let’s change the subject to something a little more pleasant, like, uh, pollution?”
Rhoda: “There are plenty of single women who have lived filled lives. I’m getting a pencil and a piece of paper, and I’m making a list.”
Mary: “No Rhoda, I’m not sitting around making a list of single women.”
Rhoda: “We’re not. I’m making a list of single men… to go out with.”
Upon that foundation, the episode unfolds before the audience. The next twenty minutes are filled with one liners poking fun at the stereotypes of single people: There are jokes about beauty, singleness after 30, there’s a caricature of a desperate single man (if anyone over 30 is still single, they’re single for a reason, after all), and Rhoda is played as the unlucky-in-love target of many of those jokes.
The opening credits give the viewer a sense of hope and anticipation that this single girl in the big city really is “going to make it after all.” But despite this reality, that Mary really is making it on her own quite successfully, there is a brilliantly subtle undertone that her success and contentment just isn’t quite complete. The thought planted in one’s mind is, “Yes, this is great, for this situation. But imagine how much happier and more fulfilled Mary’s life would be if she had a man to share it with her?” The 1970 viewer was left to genuinely wonder if Mary would make it, because her situation was not yet common enough to the average viewer for them to be confident in her independence or in her desire to be so.
Throughout the remainder of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the single woman in the sitcom normalized. Shows such as Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company, and Who’s the Boss? continued to push the boundaries of the varieties of situations in which people found themselves living. Singleness in America was not always seen as the last option for the unlucky few, but as a rite of passage for young adults who were delaying marriage in order to enjoy the carefree life of being financially independent before being “tied down” to a spouse and family.
Family life was not completely abandoned, as the conservatism of the 1980s was reflected in a revival of family-centric shows. As a result, singleness in television experienced somewhat of a downturn. The families in the 80s, however, were remarkably different from those portrayed in the 1950s and 60s. There was the hippie co-parenting of the Keatons on Family Ties, a stay-at-home dad and a corporate power lawyer mom on Growing Pains, and two African-American parents, both working outside the home, on The Cosby Show.
One particular show successfully intermingled these two demographics. Capitalizing on the growth of the “single again” market, Who’s the Boss? introduced America to a divorced, working mom who employed a live-in male nanny and housekeeper. The role reversal was more than a Hollywood gimmick; women in the workforce were increasingly balancing work and home life, often managing both on their own. The growing number of women who were both divorced and college educated professionals allowed for this family arrangement to not be so far fetched. In the matter of a decade, Americans went from wondering if Mary Richards could make it on her own to watching Angela Bower not only make it on her own but also provide for her family as well.
Women in television, particularly single women, experienced a renewed focus in the 1990s, but the tone and perspective changed again. In the 20 years since the beginning of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Americans delayed marriage by an average of 3-5 years. This delay created a new demographic of young professionals, and shows such as ER, Friends, and Seinfeld filled the need for shows that reflected and/or projected the lives of people who were learning how to navigate life as singles in their late 20s and early 30s.
Much like television in the 1980s reacted to the conservative political shift experienced in America, the church responded with a conservative shift as well. The evangelical church in the United States has a longstanding reputation for reacting to culture, not necessarily creating culture. This reactionary response is seen particularly in commentary concerning gender roles. For some vocal evangelical Christians, the complementarian perspective on marriage has evolved over the past 30 years into a broad statement on gender roles in general. In both secular culture and in the church, there has been an underlying desire to seek marriage. Even in ensemble shows like Friends, Sex and the City, and Grey’s Anatomy, there was the unspoken assumption that, when true love struck, marriage was inevitable. Often, the main story line of a show was following the relationship of two characters who were destined to be together: Ross and Rachel (don’t we all still hope that, somewhere down the line, they made it work?), Carrie and Mr. Big, Meredith and Derek.
That same assumption has found its way into the church as well. The assumption for Christians, particularly Christian women, has been that marriage is the end goal. An emphasis on Paul’s statement that the marriage relationship is an illustration of the mysterious relationship between the church as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:32) has led to such a focus on marriage that the church has forgotten that Paul also said that he wished all could be single as he was in order to reduce distraction from the work of Christ (1 Cor. 7:1-11). The boom of the last 20 years in women’s ministry and studies centered on womanhood are an incredible blessing to women who desire to follow in the steps of another Mary. Not Mary Richards, but Mary of Bethany who desired nothing more than to sit at the feet of Jesus to learn the Word.
For all of the advantages gained by women through the first two waves of feminism, Christianity, at times, used those very advantages to reinforce the doubt felt in the 1970s: Could a single woman really make it on her own? Is it even God’s will that women be content in their singleness, or should the pursuit of marriage be the ultimate goal? Are women who are not married somehow inherently incapable of wholly displaying the Imago Dei?
Often, one extreme is presented as an attempt to combat the other, and the battle between third wave feminism and evangelical patriarchy has become, at times, volatile. As is so often the case, however, this false dichotomy leaves women without a complete picture of biblical womanhood. The term Biblical Womanhood has become synonymous to marriage and motherhood, while the number of single women in the church, in seminary, and in the culture at large, continues to grow. And within the culture, singleness as an end unto itself has become one of many acceptable life choices.
Two of the most popular shows on network television demonstrate this well. Both critically and popularly acclaimed, Scandal and The Good Wife portray marriage as broken. The majority of the main characters are not only single, but they also express an open aversion to commitment and marriage. One of the hooks for Scandal has been the affair between Olivia Pope and Fitzgerald Grant. For four seasons, the “will they or won’t they?” tension has kept viewers oddly hoping for the destruction of a marriage for the sake of true love. But when Fitz finally leaves his wife and Olivia openly enjoys the President’s bed, she balks at the idea of being in an openly committed relationship with him. Love is messy, confusing, and generally self-seeking.
The story lines of The Good Wife are quite similar. There are Alicia and Will, star-crossed lovers who can never get the timing right for their true love to work out. Even after Will’s untimely death, Alicia is in an open, political power marriage, and with the exception of one partner at their law firm, the characters prefer the single life. Love and sex are separate entities; one does not necessarily assume the other.
On the other hand, two other wildly popular shows have portrayed Christianity as family-focused and centered on marriage. Both Duck Dynasty and 19 Kids and Counting have continued to reinforce the idea that, in order to be “good Christians,” marriage at an early age and focus on family life are the center of Christianity. Controversy has surrounded both families to one degree or another in recent months, but the cultural thought remains; to be worldly is to be single and to be married is to be godly. Or, at least, that’s the overly simplistic dichotomy portrayed on television.
There is, however, a balance; one does not have to choose between being Olivia Pope or one of the many Duggars. It is possible for a woman to be single and to be a faithful and content Christian. It is possible to fulfill the role of helpmate without being married. It is possible to honor the institution of marriage without being in one. It is possible to be contentedly, sufficiently single and fully display the Imago Dei. There are principles behind the cultural prescriptions of Scripture that can be applied today.
- Be a Helper. Yes, Scripture specifically discusses wives helping their husbands. Eve was created because a suitable helper could not be found in all of creation for Adam (Gen. 2:18-20). Helper, however, does not mean one is subservient. In fact, the word is used most frequently in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship with humanity. To be a helper is to come alongside and serve in whatever way is necessary for the success of another person. Women who serve in volunteer positions are helpers. Those who teach others skills needed for a better life are helpers. Female CEOs who mentor other women who are moving through the company ranks are helpers. When God-given gifts and talents are used for the benefit of others, women are helpers.
- Be a Lover. Not in the sexual way that word is so often used, but be a woman who actively loves others through both word and deed. Titus 2:3-5 is an oft-quoted passage regarding biblical womanhood, and in it, older women are told to teach younger women how to love their husbands and children. In the cultural context, husbands and children are those with whom women would have the most contact, but love is to be shown in all situations, to all people, even toward those with whom we are the closest. Those who are closest are often also those who are the most difficult to show love, but biblical womanhood is a life of love.
- Be a defender of marriage. Not your own marriage, but marriage in general. As a single woman, one of the most helpful (and fun!) ways to protect marriage is to be the “fun aunt.” Offer to babysit for married friends free of charge. Provide date nights so that those who are married have the opportunity to strengthen their marriages without the additional burden of finding and paying for child care. Take every opportunity to protect the marriages of married friends and family members.
- Be an Image Bearer. The Imago Dei is complex. No one person, gender, relationship fully embodies the image of God. In the consistency of God being “both/and” and not “either/or,” it is not the human individual nor the human relationship which fully images God. It is, rather, humanity, in all of its complexity and diversity, working in and through every relationship set before us which gives the fullest picture of the Imago Dei. If single people were incapable of being full image bearers of God, then the fullness of God could not have been found in Christ, as is stated in Colossians 1:19. By exercising our gifts and talents, by being creative, emotional, rational, relational, the image of God shines through humanity, and that is not limited by marital status.
The revolution of womanhood, within both the church and culture, has been dizzying, confusing, conflicting, and at times, contradictory. In the 45 years since Mary Richards “conquered” Minneapolis, singleness in society has emerged from a worrisome oddity to the accepted norm. As society has moved farther away from a traditional understanding of gender roles and relationships, the church has held fast to norms that are socially traditional but not necessarily biblical absolutes for being a godly woman. Within the last two to three years, a growing number of female authors are digging beyond marriage and motherhood to the foundations of what it means to be a woman seeking Christ. When a follower of Christ is seeking Him, allowing the fruit of the Spirit to be manifest in her life, then that femininity inherent in women will transcend social norms and marital status. Sufficiency is not found in any relationship with any other person, and the woman who is seeking to understand biblical womanhood must, first and foremost, understand her relationship with and identity in Christ before her relationship with any other person will be rightly aligned.
Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.
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Amen. The disconnect between society and the church is a chasm and more and more people are falling into it.
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