When it comes to how women are portrayed in the media, we've certainly come a long way since the days of The Donna Reed Show and its "happy housewife" trope — but even in 2018, it's clear that we still have a *very* long way to go. According to a new study of over 1,200 adults conducted by advertising agency Hill Holliday in conjunction with Match, 56 percent of single women aged 30-45 feel that they're unfairly represented in TV, movies, and other media. And who can blame them? Think of all the movies or shows you've seen where the female characters are either happily married with kids, actively searching for their fairytale ending, or else they're perpetually single — and bitter about it.
"When we spoke to single women in focus groups, what we commonly hear[d] is that they are often portrayed as hyper-sexualized, lonely, desperate to marry, and/or lamenting after having children," Jess Lloyd, VP of Planning at Hill Holliday, tells Bustle. "These stereotypes are perpetuating an antiquated belief that single women are incomplete and that they’re living in an 'in-between' stage."
In short, the marriage-and-babies lifestyle is portrayed as the ultimate goal for women and if they don't "achieve" that, surely they're unhappy and unfulfilled — which is an extremely problematic dichotomy to represent to women of all ages consuming media. Particularly because, in reality, marriage isn't the main priority for many women: the study also found that women ranked things like living on their own, establishing a career, and gaining financial independence as more important to them than marriage.
"The most pervasive stereotype is that what single women want, more than anything else, is to be coupled — and not just any kind of coupled, but specifically the kind that leads to marriage," Bella DePaulo, social psychologist and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, tells Bustle. "That makes the findings of the new survey especially telling: when asked about their priorities, single women ranked all sorts of goals as more important to them than getting married."
Why Stereotypes About Single Women Are Harmful
Portraying women and their happiness in only one, cookie-cutter way is extremely problematic: it teaches younger girls that marriage should be their main aspiration, even if that means sacrificing in other areas, like their careers. Especially because movies and TV shows too often put older female characters into one of two camps — married with children or ball-busting career woman — when in reality, women can do both, and do them well at that.
"Women can do both, want to do both, and indeed did do both for millions of years," Dr. Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist and Chief Scientific Advisor for Match, tells Bustle. "...As I have long said: men and women are like two feet; we need each other to get ahead — not only in parenting but in business too. As we put our heads together, we use the full range of evolved human aptitudes, skills and talents. It’s folly to overlook women’s talents — those of half the population."
It should go without saying, but every woman should feel free to live her life as she so chooses, even if that deviates from what society presents as the norm. But sadly, these two-dimensional stereotypes of women that we often see on our TV screens do have a big impact, on both women and men.
"More generally, the negative stereotypes are harmful because they run the risk of undermining single women’s self-confidence and limiting their lives," DePaulo says. "So they are harmful to single women. But they are also harmful to other people who accept those stereotypes unthinkingly. They end up seeing single women not as the happy, accomplished, and complex people that they are, but as caricatures."
How Media Can Do Better To Portray Single Women
The power of representation can't be understated, especially now that diversity and inclusion is such an important topic of conversation in our culture. Particularly for young women in this day and age, it's crucial to have real, relatable, and empowering role models to look up to on our silver screens — something that simply isn't the case for a lot of women.
"When we show women that their value is in their looks or their sexuality, or in relationship to others, we're showing them that they don't have the same importance and value as men," board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Susan Edelman, tells Bustle. "We're giving them reasons to feel bad about themselves. Those messages don't empower women. With so many women struggling to have their voices be heard and to stand up for themselves, we need empowering role models instead."
"Real power is figuring out what is right for you whether others like it or not, and having the courage to stand up for yourself."
Of course, there's nothing wrong with enjoying a sappy romance movie, and it's OK to like or relate to some less-than-complex female characters. The issue is that lots and lots of single women feel their lives and their choices aren't represented at all, which is a serious problem with lasting repercussions.
"When you have a role model who can break free of the stereotypes of people-pleasing and the pressures that real women face to be sexy and act sexually, that is true power for women," Edelman says. "Real power is figuring out what is right for you whether others like it or not, and having the courage to stand up for yourself."
So what can the media do to help us, as a society, put the past behind us and move towards a future where women of all lifestyles are represented fairly and accurately on our screens?
"They should portray single women in all their real-life glory, pursuing the goals they really care about, such as living on their own, establishing a career, traveling, and becoming financially secure," DePaulo says. "They should show single women who are independent, confident, responsible, ambitious, and adventurous. [However], that doesn’t mean that the lives of single women should be depicted as totally positive."
Granted, this kind of shift in how women are portrayed won't happen overnight, but hopefully with more women working in media and entertainment, with time, we'll start to bridge the gap and begin seeing more well-rounded, complex, dynamic female characters on our screens — women who little girls can look up to not as paragons of perfection, but as real, raw role models worth emulating, regardless of their relationship status.