Single Women in Tv History

updated 06/01/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2001 01:00AM

THAT GIRL
1966-71

MARLO THOMAS

"It was a revolutionary idea that a girl would not get married when she moved out of her parents' house," says Thomas, the model for struggling actress Ann Marie. "It was the beginning of feminism, and That Girl caught that wave." Now 63 and wed since 1980 to former talk show host Phil Donahue, the daughter of comedian Danny Thomas used her pull to push the show's fashion boundaries—"I was totally into the Mary Quant/Twiggy look," she recalls—but the series didn't totally capsize convention. Ann and longtime boyfriend Donald Hollinger (the late Ted Bessell) "could neck, but that was as far as it was going to go," notes Thomas, who has played Jennifer Aniston's mother on Friends. "Everybody in the world was having free love and sex except on television."

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW
1970-77

MARY TYLER MOORE

Sure, she turned the world on with her smile. As Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore also broke a TV barrier. Single and independent, working for an irascible boss (Ed Asner, left) as the producer of a Minneapolis news show, Mary was the first sitcom character to take the Pill. Demure though she was, it was gently implied that she spent the night with a man without benefit of marriage. "The timing of the show was closely connected to what was happening in society," says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema and Television. "The women's movement was clearly taking its stand in public." Mary Richards, of course, wouldn't have been caught dead burning her bra. Her feminist statement was subtler and more enduring.

CHARLIE'S ANGELS
1976-81

KATE JACKSON, FARRAH FAWCETT & JACLYN SMITH

With Angels, creator Aaron Spelling ushered in the era of Jiggle TV. "We just threw away the bras," says the show's costume designer Nolan Miller. But the series was also a landmark in its portrayal of strong women. "We always tried to show that they were in dangerous situations, but using their intelligence and wit to come out on top," stresses producer Leonard Goldberg. Kate Jackson, the show's straight-shooting Sabrina, agrees. Despite a wardrobe of "primarily bell-bottoms and platform shoes," she says, "you could run in those shoes. You didn't have to go tippy-tip and yell 'Freeze!' "

THREE'S COMPANY
1977-84

Based on the British series Man About the House, Three's Company revolved around the antics of coed roommates John Ritter and Suzanne Somers (above) and Joyce DeWitt. The trio pretended Ritter was gay. "It was the only way the network could justify the living arrangement," says Somers, 54, who calls the show "pretty racy stuff for the time."

MURPHY BROWN
1988-98

CANDICE BERGEN

Oh, baby. Cranky, loud, a veteran of rehab, ace TV journalist Murphy Brown was "a very flawed human being," admits her creator, Diane English, and "a real product of the '80s. She put aside everything to devote herself exclusively to work." At least until the fourth-season finale, in 1992, when Murphy gave birth to son Avery, whom she would be raising alone. Held up by then Vice President Dan Quayle as a poster girl for crumbling morality, TV's new single mom set off a national debate on the meaning of family. All along, "we tried to blend fiction and nonfiction to the point where you couldn't distinguish between the two," says English, "but that was our crowning achievement."

LIVING SINGLE
1993-98

Four friends—from left, Kim Coles, Queen Latifah, Kim Fields (and Erika Alexander, not shown)—were "bodacious and bold," says creator Yvette Lee Bowser. "They weren't playing dumb to get a man."

CAROLINE IN THE CITY
1995-99

While Caroline Duffy (Lea Thompson, above) worked out of her loft and frolicked with a string of Mr. Wrongs, "nobody made a big deal of the fact that she was a successful woman cartoonist," says coproducer Michael Sardo.

FRIENDS
1994

Today, TV pals often function as a surrogate family. Monica, Phoebe and Rachel—Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow and Jennifer Aniston (above)—"are contemporary women," says series co-creator Marta Kauffman. "None of them define themselves by men."

WILL & GRACE
1998

Now in her third year of wacky hijinks with gay roommate Will, Grace (Debra Messing, above, with Eric McCormack) "is kind of postfeminist," says producer and co-creator David Kohan. Like the pals he modeled her on, she's "neurotic, highly intelligent, funny and fun."

ALLY McBEAL
1997

CALISTA FLOCKHART

A lovelorn lawyer for the new millennium, McBeal "exemplifies some of the conflicts career women face," says coproducer Pamela Wisne of the series, which devotes as much time to the trials of courtship as it does to courtroom trials. Because McBeal is skeptical of having it all, Wisne says that "what makes the series unique is the attempt to show a balance between the different aspects of her life." That, and the show's unisex bathroom.

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