The proposals were practically perfect.
The settings were lavish. Flowers were artfully styled. Friends and family were present. The diamond rings were sparkly and large. Chiseled men got down on one knee to propose to beautiful, tall, blond, white women.
In most TV series, these would be the ultimate happy endings for the female characters. Maybe their relationships would fall apart down the road, but in that moment, they would obviously say yes to the proposals ― most likely with teary eyes and expressions of joy only the knowledge that they now (perhaps?) wouldn’t die alone could bring.
But in the most recent seasons of “UnREAL” and “Jessica Jones,” the former of which wrapped up on Monday night, these familiar setups didn’t amount to familiar conclusions. Both aforementioned women turned down their respective proposals, staying single by choice.
On “Jessica Jones,” Jessica’s best friend Trish, an actress-turned-broadcaster-turned-wannabe-vigilante-sidekick, rejects her successful, empathetic and loving broadcast journalist boyfriend. “I don’t want to be with Griffin,” she explains. “I want to be him. I want to do what he does. And that’s not love, and that’s not fair to either one of us.”
On “UnREAL,” things get meta. The rejected proposals happen within “Everlasting,” the “Bachelor(ette)”-like show that the main characters produce. Serena Wolcott is the reality show’s first female lead, a whip-smart single woman who proves difficult to manipulate. On a show that usually depends on a happy ending for ratings and audience buy-in, Serena chooses no one. “I have wanted this so much, but I realize that I have to wait until I know for sure in my soul that I have found my perfect match,” she says to her two dejected suitors ― and all of America.
What might seem like lines plucked straight from the “How To Be a Strong Female Character” guidebook becomes something else in the hands of the “UnREAL” and “Jessica Jones” cast and crew: A rare glimpse at what a Realistic Single Female Character looks like in 2018 (though both series certainly have their pitfalls). They join an increasingly varied and lengthy list of TV shows that are subverting the idea that for women, all narrative roads lead toward and end with coupledom.
Unmarried women are a potent force in American society. As of 2016, there were 110.6 million unmarried people over the age of 18 in the United States, and 53.2 percent of those people were women. As Rebecca Traister wrote in an adapted excerpt of her 2016 book All the Single Ladies, “We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry.”
And yet single women are still being explicitly and implicitly told ― by politicians, by pop culture creators, by the wedding industry ― that their lives are fundamentally incomplete. They are constantly in a state of “becoming,” not because of personal growth and possibility, but because of what they lack ― a long-term, monogamous, romantic (implied male) partner. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir: “Marriage is traditionally the destiny offered to women by society. Most women are married or have been, or plan to be or suffer from not being.”
In 1960, nearly 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 were married. By 2011, that percentage had dropped to 20 ― a record low. So what happens when, for the first time in American history, you have a critical mass of unmarried women over the age of 30 who choose to or simply find themselves in a position to build family structures, financially stable careers and homes independently? Do the stories ― even the fictional ones ― we tell about these women expand along with their realities? Or do we continue to privilege romantic partnership as the natural, and only truly happy, end to a female character’s narrative arc?
After all, even Carrie Bradshaw, Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope ended up tying the knot.
On the small screen at least, we’re seeing a resurgence of complicated narratives about unmarried women. Shows like “UnREAL,” “Jessica Jones,” “Being Mary Jane,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the upcoming “Dietland” are pushing the boundaries of what single womanhood looks like, spotlighting complex, wildly different stories about women who just happen to be unattached ― and might not be immediately compelled to become otherwise.
In “Jessica Jones,” not only is Trish unmarried, but so is the titular character herself, and, in Season 2, high-powered attorney Jeri Hogarth. Romantic and sexual relationships certainly feature in the show, but the Marvel series is ultimately about self-discovery ― Jessica’s embrace of her superhero status, or Trish’s realization that her deepest desires are professional and not romantic. In “UnREAL,” producers Rachel Goldberg and Quinn King are both single, as is the aforementioned protagonist of “Everlasting,” Serena. The show-within-the-show might be laser-focused on manufactured love, but “UnREAL” itself is more interested in power ― how it’s wielded, how it corrupts, how women can reclaim it. For both series, romance is part of the equation, but it’s hardly the only or even primary goal for their female protagonists, a reality that has long been accepted as the norm for male characters.
In 2018, the “behavioral latitude for women is so much wider than it used to be,” film critic and author Molly Haskell told HuffPost. “It’s just a real existentialist adventure for women now.”
Of course, we’ve seen boundary-breaking, unmarried protagonists on television before. Shows like “That Girl,” (1966-71), “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-77), “Murphy Brown” (1988-98) and “Living Single” (1993-98) centered on single women without condescension and without assuming that romance was the only project they were willing to tackle. And by doing so, they increased audiences’ collective imaginations of what a single woman’s life could be. (Still, some perceived these characters as threatening to the real-world status quo, like when Vice President Dan Quayle called out Murphy Brown for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”)
When “Sex and the City” ― another show that centered single women, but with an intentional focus on their love and sex lives ― premiered in 1998, it contained a radical premise: That single women in their 30s were interesting, fabulous and could lead fulfilled lives full of great (and not so great) sex. Before the finale aired in January 2004, there was much discussion about how the series would end. As Emily Nussbaum wrote on Slate in 2002, “SATC” raised a heady question: “What, in a single woman’s life, counts as a happy ending?” (For its part, the show went an emotionally satisfying but traditional route, leaving all of its lead characters in stable partnerships, though not necessarily marriages, by the series’ end.)
The finale of “UnREAL’s” third season asks similar questions. What does a happy ending look like for a 30-something woman who runs her own company in Silicon Valley, has model looks and still finds herself dealing with men who lack the qualities she needs in a partner? What does a happy ending look like for a 30-something woman who is brilliant at her job and dependent on her equally brilliant boss, but suspects her chosen career path might be eating away at her soul? What does a happy ending look like for a woman in her early 40s who is building the empire she always dreamed about and still wants more? These questions alone make for fascinating television.
For “UnREAL” co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, exploring those questions meant creating space for women “to see reflections of themselves on TV that feel layered and not stereotypical.”
“I think it’s important to come up with different tropes and avatars that show us a different way to look at ourselves,” she said. “And also to show us being valuable ― like, incredibly valuable ― and not only valuable, but fulfilled.”
“Perhaps in a single woman’s life, off-screen as well as on, a 'happy' ending is no ending at all.”
Faced with this Very Big Goal, “UnREAL” notably resists making simplistic feminist statements for the sake of making feminist statements. In the world of the show, Serena’s televised decision to stay single leads to headlines like “Beware The Princess Fantasy” and “Don’t Settle, Says Serena,” while Twitter users hail Serena as a “feminist hero.” Rachel is self-satisfied and celebratory. “You’ve inspired women everywhere not to settle,” she tells Serena.
“That’s not what this is, Rachel,” Serena says, wryly. “You produced me to pick neither guy. So what, I’d end up like you ― empty, alone?”
“No, I produced an empowered, feminist statement about not being so desperate to pair up that you overlook a mountain of flaws just so you can be done,” counters Rachel.
But Serena is too astute for that. “Tell the truth, Rachel. You don’t hate it here. You love it,” she says. “This is exactly where you belong. Oh, by the way, I made my choice for me, not you. I know it must kill you, but I feel great.”
Moments later, we see Serena in the back of her town car. She takes out her cell phone, opens a Tinder-like app, and starts swiping, again and again and again. She’s already exhausted. I found myself crying watching her, not because her decision felt tragic, but because it felt authentic. Being single, even when you are satisfied with and excited by your life, does not preclude a desire for a romantic relationship that fits. Single women aren’t avatars for a feminist project ― we’re human beings. And sometimes, a Realistic Female Character is more interesting and more narratively important than a Strong Female Character.
In fact, tragedy in both “UnREAL” and “Jessica Jones” is defined not by the end of romantic connection, but in the severing of female bonds and partnerships (Rachel and Quinn’s, Rachel and Serena’s, Jessica and Trish’s). In contrast, triumph on these shows lies in self-discovery, a woman’s reclamation of her future and its ever-expansive opportunities. Those futures might include romance, if the right opportunity arises or if it’s something a given character truly desires. (A future between Quinn and her former flame Chet is teased at the end of “UnREAL,” and the last moments of the “Jessica Jones” finale show Jessica finding solace in dinner with her sexy neighbor and his son.) However, long-term romantic partnership is not a narrative given, and it’s certainly not the only possible happy, or even emotionally satisfying, ending these female characters have before them.
The final moments of the “UnReal” finale find Rachel alone. She’s parted ways with Quinn, her boss and intellectual equal ― “You are a dark twisted wreck, Rachel Goldberg. And I am going to miss every piece of it,” says Quinn, in what might be the single most romantic moment of the series ― to buy the cabin in Oregon she’s been quietly pining over all season. She walks around its empty rooms and out onto the porch. A small smile creeps onto her face as she looks out into the mass of greenery and empty space in front of her. She lays down on the porch, arms splayed, looking up at the sky and just breathes. The future is a question mark ― one we will get to see play out, as the show has already filmed its fourth season ― but she owns it.
As Traister put it, “Single female life is not prescription, but its opposite: liberation.” That lack of structure is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. Perhaps in a single woman’s life, off-screen as well as on, a “happy” ending is no ending at all.