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Perilous Journeys: Women, Singles Scenes and Sexual Mores in Late 1960s Television and Film

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Abstract:

In several popular media texts of the late 1960s, single heroines journeyed from their humble hometowns to bustling New York, the epicenter of a national “swinging singles” scene. While some texts, such as the ABC sitcom That Girl (1966-71), presented the city as a site for realizing earnest ambitions and innocent flirtations, others foregrounded the dangers that awaited these new urban dwellers. In the films Valley of the Dolls, Thoroughly Modern Millie and For Singles Only, among others, young white women fell prey to addictions, lurid affairs, and even abductions by menacing racial Others. These divergent narratives reflected contradictory accounts of the singles scene circulating in the popular press, which both celebrated the singles scene as a consumer phenomenon but feared the challenges that urban singles posed to traditional sex, gender and racial roles.

These texts also signaled new conceptions of the single woman in American popular culture. Expanded work opportunities for women, combined with the stirrings of sexual revolution and second-wave feminism, gave increasing legitimacy to the unmarried woman in the late 1960s. Her aspirations and desires were framed as generational attitudes rather than individual quirks, and were glamorized as often as pathologized. The single woman’s identity became inexorably linked to urban life, the site not only of economic subsistence but also of newly created scenes in which singles were reshaping dating etiquette. However, as Time noted in 1966, the singles life offered its participants both “pleasures and pains.” While some media reports presented the urban singles scene as a site of personal fulfillment and innocent flirtations, others stressed its predatory nature and its ruinous effects on women. Fictional film and television narratives drew from these divergent perceptions, often granting the single character girlishness and heightened purity that enabled her to negotiate possible dangers.

This paper is part of a larger cultural history work that analyzes print media and archival sources as well as television and film. I use the pivotal figure of the single woman to examine how the visual arts both challenged and supported dominant conceptions of sexuality, gender and race in the tumultuous 1960s. I argue that a study of urban singles – who supported national consumer imperatives, created new forms of courtship and affiliation, and facilitated the rise of social movements such as second-wave feminism – can also contribute to scholarly understandings of American citizenship, community and politics during this time period.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Lehman, Katherine. "Perilous Journeys: Women, Singles Scenes and Sexual Mores in Late 1960s Television and Film" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186075_index.html>

APA Citation:

Lehman, K. , 2007-10-11 "Perilous Journeys: Women, Singles Scenes and Sexual Mores in Late 1960s Television and Film" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186075_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: In several popular media texts of the late 1960s, single heroines journeyed from their humble hometowns to bustling New York, the epicenter of a national “swinging singles” scene. While some texts, such as the ABC sitcom That Girl (1966-71), presented the city as a site for realizing earnest ambitions and innocent flirtations, others foregrounded the dangers that awaited these new urban dwellers. In the films Valley of the Dolls, Thoroughly Modern Millie and For Singles Only, among others, young white women fell prey to addictions, lurid affairs, and even abductions by menacing racial Others. These divergent narratives reflected contradictory accounts of the singles scene circulating in the popular press, which both celebrated the singles scene as a consumer phenomenon but feared the challenges that urban singles posed to traditional sex, gender and racial roles.

These texts also signaled new conceptions of the single woman in American popular culture. Expanded work opportunities for women, combined with the stirrings of sexual revolution and second-wave feminism, gave increasing legitimacy to the unmarried woman in the late 1960s. Her aspirations and desires were framed as generational attitudes rather than individual quirks, and were glamorized as often as pathologized. The single woman’s identity became inexorably linked to urban life, the site not only of economic subsistence but also of newly created scenes in which singles were reshaping dating etiquette. However, as Time noted in 1966, the singles life offered its participants both “pleasures and pains.” While some media reports presented the urban singles scene as a site of personal fulfillment and innocent flirtations, others stressed its predatory nature and its ruinous effects on women. Fictional film and television narratives drew from these divergent perceptions, often granting the single character girlishness and heightened purity that enabled her to negotiate possible dangers.

This paper is part of a larger cultural history work that analyzes print media and archival sources as well as television and film. I use the pivotal figure of the single woman to examine how the visual arts both challenged and supported dominant conceptions of sexuality, gender and race in the tumultuous 1960s. I argue that a study of urban singles – who supported national consumer imperatives, created new forms of courtship and affiliation, and facilitated the rise of social movements such as second-wave feminism – can also contribute to scholarly understandings of American citizenship, community and politics during this time period.

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