4-Female Theory and Living Single (1993-8)
A few months ago, we started a series that looks at TV shows that feature four strong women characters – sitcoms and dramas. Perhaps you caught recap of Sisters, from the 90s, or found out a little backstory of how Desperate Housewives came to earn so many awards. There are more than a dozen shows that use this formula. It’s simply fascinating!
In this installment Advanced TV Herstory goes in depth with college professor Dr. Wendy Burns-Ardolino on the construction of the four-women dynamic. Based on her new book, TV Female Foursomes and Their Fans, published in fall 2015, we’ll also look at the 90s sitcom, Living Single.
As one of very few shows that depicted African-Americans in all the main roles, Living Single was an audience favorite for five seasons on Fox. The cast consisted of Queen Latifah as Kadijah, Kim Coles as Synclaire, Erika Alexander as Maxine and Kim Fields – of Facts of Life fame (yes, another female foursome sitcom) as Regine. We’ll discuss its aspirational and representational aspects for 20-something Americans of all colors in the mid-90s, and how the four main character construct aided the show’s creator, Yvette Lee Bowser to cast a relevant net for plots.
Listeners, you do make a difference! One of you sent a link to Advanced TV Herstory to Dr. Burns-Ardolino, who then contacted me by email. We had a great visit by phone and recently recorded a more focused interview on Living Single and the four-character framework which is her book’s focus.
Dr. Burns-Ardolino is chair of the Liberal Studies Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Her undergraduate degree is in politics and philosophy, her master’s in English and her PhD in cultural studies. She teaches some excellent classes like American Society and Media, Human Traffic & Trafficking – and a few more.
Prior to publishing her latest work, TV Female Foursomes, Burns-Ardolino published Jiggle: (Re)Shaping American Women. That work explores the relationship between American women and their bodies as mediated by both traditional and contemporary foundation garments.
The professor and I agree on a lot and learned we have a lot in common. We haven’t discussed foundation-wear – well partly because I really don’t discuss foundation wear with anyone.
Okay, back to this book about four main women characters, all strong – on TV. I asked the professor how she developed the idea for her book.
The book TV Female Foursomes really is a work that spans writing theory and construction, sociology, gender studies and media. In explaining the relevance, significance and often brilliance of the seven shows she profiled, Burns-Ardolino encountered others who are similarly fascinated by the use of four strong women characters in storytelling.
The professor scoured academic and popular journals for insight. She found terrific value and used fan commentary and observation, yes the comments written on YouTube, network sites, fan sites and social media to take the temperature of how Living Single as well as six other shows resonated with the audiences. Burns-Ardolino’s research spans the half-hour sitcoms The Golden Girls, Girlfriends, Designing Women, Sex and the City, Hot in Cleveland and the very short-lived Cashmere Mafia.
We all know fan sites where people share more, behind the veil of anonymity, than they ever would in public. Burns-Ardolino asserts that fan sites and forums
address a myriad of social, cultural, political and economic concerns, including the representations of women, gender performativity, sex roles, heteronormativity, abortion, miscarriage, menopause, breast cancer, single parenthood, interracial relationships, AIDS, the right to die, chronic fatigue syndrome, pornography, world hunger, obesity, depression, political participation, free speech, the role of women in the church, death and dying and female friendship – to name a few.
In her research, Burns-Ardolino built on the work of others and broke out fan commentary and conversations across four themes: “messages of praise, issue-focused discussion, long-term narratives and discussion board culture.” In monitoring conversations about shows long cancelled but still in re-runs or that enjoy strong, loyal followings, the professor never participated or added commentary. She just viewed and took notes that generated both quantitative as well as qualitative data.
Here’s how Burns-Ardolino reflects the values seen across three sitcom standards. A fan-commenter “FS” draws upon her own knowledge and of Living Single, The Golden Girls and Designing Women.
Although thinking about it Kim Fields’ show Living Single is very similar to Designing Women and The Golden Girls in its characters:
• The book-smart, business-minded one: Dorothy on The Golden Girls, Julia on Designing Women and Keedisha on Living Single.
• The Sexy One: Suzanne on Designing Women, Blanche on The Golden Girls and Regine on Living Single.
• The dim-witted one: Rose on The Golden Girls, Charlene on Designing Women, Synclaire on Living Single and then there was the more sarcastic/immature (at times) one: Mary Jo on Designing Women, Sophia on The Golden Girls, Maxine on Living Single.
I took this quote, from page 10 of Burns-Ardolino’s introduction for three reasons.
First, I give the professor a lot of credit for wading through hundreds of sites and cataloging millions of words of fan expression.
Second reason for reciting that early quote from the book is that it reveals just how seriously and closely women viewers watch shows – both current and reruns. Sometimes that creates expectations that are almost impossible to fulfill. But it also has the power to build a loyal fan-base that, armed with social media, has yet to really make a mark.
Third reason why that basic quote is a good example of how much some people think about TV shows is you – the listener of this podcast. Advanced TV Herstory attempts to gather first-hand perspective about women in and of TV. The professor and I share a great interest in TV Herstory. It was an important part of her growing up in Tennessee and my childhood in Minnesota.
She researches and writes. I research, get to use audio clips and produce a podcast. So one might conclude, this makes me a Scholar Fan, of sorts. Life is good.
Before we look at the show Living Single and the place it holds in TV herstory, I want to share more with you about the professor’s book. She draws out the societal value of each show – that long list of topics I mentioned earlier – how the plots unfolded or were sustained over time, and how viewers received it. They successfully transformed stereotypes or weighed in on social issues, Burns-Ardolino asserts, through the effective use of four strong main characters.
For example, The Golden Girls combats ageism through depictions of active female desire of women over the age of fifty, while upward mobility and racism are addressed in virtually every episode of Living Single and Girlfriends. Female sexuality and heterosexist values are challenged by Sex and the City and traditional Southern femininity and contemporary feminism collide in the plotlines of Designing Women. The ways in which these programs employed stereotypical female foursomes to confront and disrupt mainstream cultural ideologies, hierarchies and power relations enables them to contribute to the growth and development of the third-wave feminist movement.
Relax, the whole book isn’t that intellectual. There are meaty comparisons of the four in The Golden Girls to the four in Hot in Cleveland… and to the four in Sex and the City… and so on. But there are legitimate comparisons to make and I am glad Burns-Ardolino has put this work out there. She too is thrilled that it’s been published. From her research, she knows the kinds of readers or groups to which it should or might appeal.
Needless to say I was thrilled that the professor wanted to talk about Living Single, which debuted on the Fox network in 1993. At that time, Fox had a very different outlook on its place in the cable world than it does today. In fact, from 2004 through 2012, it garnered the highest network ratings in the 18-49 year old demographic. In the 2000s, - yes a few years after Living Single aired, Fox was the home to original series like The O.C., House, Bernie Mac, Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development.
Fox started out as a fledgling cable channel in 1986 and grew its programming book bit by bit each year. In January 1993, the year Living Single premiered, Fox had extended its original prime time programming to cover each night of the week. That programming caught the eye of African American and Latino audiences. They saw faces and heard plot lines absent or forgotten on the major networks.
Here’s how the professor explains the formula of four strong women and how Living Single puts it to use.
Here’s the set-up explained another way. Arsenio Hall, a significant African-American on TV during the late 80s and throughout the 90s invited the Living Single cast to his Fox talk show.
Arsenio Hall intro
Before the four cover a few other topics, Arsenio asks for them to describe a bit about their characters. Kim Fields and Kim Coles chime in. My own memory of The Arsenio Hall Show is that there was always laughter. It seemed like his guests felt at ease. They had fun.
In her research on Living Single, the professor quotes an articulate, well-written post by blogger LaToya Peterson, posted in April of 2008 about Living Single. Looking back on the show a decade after it aired, Peterson put great context into how a show about 4 professional, educated, middle-class single women captured a moment in time for her and her peers. Here’s a quote from the Racialacious blog, which Burns-Ardolino quoted on p. 38…
Their lifestyles look decidedly normal. Though I remember reading criticism somewhere that the kind of brownstone they had in New York would probably be out of reach, watching the show as an adult reinforces to me that the 90s were a time of more realistic TV… Even within the ridiculous comedy setups, the dialogue is gifted in showing how people actually talk and relate to each other.
Living Single is available on YouTube and the first season has been released on DVD. It was a hit on an emerging network that made a 180 degree turn in its focus. Its audience was largely Gen X. Living Single represented prime time progress, alongside The Cosby Show, A Different World and a host of other sitcoms and dramas.
Yet, because Living Single was one of only two shows of the female foursome construction, they hold more power for social disruption, as the professor points out. Feminists like LaToya Peterson and others in social media contribute in their own way to defining the show’s significance and impact on teens and young adults at the time. And, the pickins’, for young women of color, was somewhat slim.
Men as well as women (or boys as well as girls), as it turns out, are loyal followers of Living Single. In 2014, Kim Fields was a guest on Sway’s radio show, which is broadcast on Sirius XM radio. Sway talks candidly about his memory of Living Single.
Kim on Sway
There’s a pride there. Through her acting and career that has been free of incident or scandal, Kim Fields has been a part of people’s lives. She’s made people laugh. She’s a good soul.
On the DVD edition of Season One, Kim Coles and creator Yvette Lee Bowser appear in bonus feature, providing a little backstory about the show’s creation, underscoring Burns-Ardolino’s earlier statements about the show’s focus on sisterhood and breaking out into the big world. There may have been other interviews on talk shows, but in a pre-internet world, no one thought to tape them for future uploading to YouTube.
And while there’s no question that Queen Latifah was the best known member of the cast. Her career was on a huge upswing, having made a name for herself as an African-American woman rapper
Latifah’s success and her role as the stable, matriarch Kadijah is mentioned in a book Burns-Ardolino used in her research. The book is Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television by Kristal Brent Zook. Zook’s 1999 book observes, “In looking at Latifah’s various on-screen roles, then, we see that her feminist and lesbian characterizations represent an integral part of her persona as a popular icon among African American audiences. Moreover, because she is situated within a community of hip-hop artists, a whole body of narrative possibilities is to her characterizations – possibilities that both challenge patriarchal contexts and affirm traditional notions of mythical matriarchal Africanity with a contemporary womanist twist.”
Is Queen Latifah a transformational figure who stands to have a long, high profile career? It’s quite likely. It’s just a shame she hasn’t worn a five-year span of her life as more of a badge of honor than she has.
Since Living Single’s last episode, Kim Fields has acted some and directed occasionally. Kim Coles has appeared in TV shows and has directed and written. And Erika Alexander has a long list of series that she’s had a recurring or single performance in.
It’s interesting to put Living Single into the context of the times – the early 90s – and compare them with today. Audience behaviors are changing as more households pull the plug on cable. But, there’s a spike in shows with increasingly diverse casts. Last year skeptics weighed in with the question of whether this is a permanent development or a spike. It was noted that quote – upstart networks like Fox and the WB went hard after diverse audiences with shows like Living Single, Martin, Moesha and The Jamie Foxx Show. A network merger between UPN and the WB in the late 90s revealed the audience segregation made better social sense than it did business sense. The surviving network’s format morphed toward integration, with increasing focus on reality shows. Fox shifted its focus to young men.
Knowing the business side of television networks is important to the degree that, we understand precisely the opportunity Yvette Lee Bowser refers to, when she says she was asked to develop a show. It was cast with grade-A talent, the writing was solid and it resonated with audiences for five seasons. Had the sand not shifted under its feet, the show might have gone on further or spun off to develop a whole new set of characters. Instead, it’s kept alive in memories and textbooks as a time in American and TV herstory when a show gave voice to realistic aspiration and representation of young African American women.
Geez, I really don’t want to end this on a downer. So here are a few take-aways from the interview with the professor and what we know now about Living Single.
One, we are of like mind – you, me and Wendy Burns-Ardolino. There’s a blend of optimism for the future but also a recognition that there’s more work to be done, understanding the lessons of old shows, veteran directors, showrunners and writers.
Two, it pays to forward a link of this show to someone you know. Before I started this podcast, I never would have had the occasion to know the professor. Now we’re practically buds so much that she’s all but invited me to flop on her couch the next time I’m in Michigan. Seriously though, connections are powerful. Women who get that do better, particularly when we are so united in our focus and goals.
Three, it’s rewarding to know that if you’re a participant on a fan site or message board, your commentary might be considered data by someone conducting research.
Fourth and lastly, we need to remember that just as in TV female foursomes, when we surround ourselves with others who have different strengths, we all grow and are better positioned for success. It’s certainly more interesting. And we also have learned that no single person – real or made up – is exclusively one type. We’re each hold a hint of the naif, shades of matriarch or maybe aspire to be a little more femme fatale.
Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. I am pleased to have had the chance to introduce you to the very thoughtful Professor Wendy Burns-Ardolino, PhD. Her book is described and available for purchase at mcfarlandbooks.com. Because her book documents a wide range of data gathering techniques, she presents yet more resources for someone who has an interest in media, representations and feminism. And, Wendy is happy to have you contact her directly.
While there are no direct audio clips from Living Single in this installment, know that the first season is available on DVD and most of the seasons can be found on YouTube. YouTube was also the source for the Arsenio Hall Show clip with the cast and someone’s upload of the DVD bonus feature.
If you’ve got an idea or theory or moment in TV herstory that needs a thorough scrubbing, send it along! Our email is email@example.com. Find us on Twitter through our handle, @TVHerstory. Feedback is a good thing, so please leave comments at the host site, Libsyn or iTunes, however it is that you came up on this podcast.
Scripts for this and past episodes are housed at cynthiabemisabrams.com, which is also where you can find more information about my public speaking. I’ve presented a host of topics to rooms of up to 100 people and eschew the concept of reading from a powerpoint. You won’t be disappointed.
It’s been my pleasure to be your host, I’m Cynthia Bemis Abrams.