SinglemindedThe New Rom-Com Heroines Go Solo

a colorful illustration by Catarina Bessell using black and white cutouts of Maya Rudolph, Radha Blank, and Sanaa Lathan, with different floral and plant shapes surrounding them on a turquoise background.

Illustration by Catarina Bessell

Legacy issue cover featuring Nailah Howze, a Black woman styled with a sculptural, braided hairdo, wearing a pleated gold top, adorned with a sparkling headpiece and nail decor
This article was published in Legacy Issue #90 | Spring 2021

FOR YEARS, watching romantic comedies as a single woman made me grit my teeth so hard I thought I’d need a mouth guard. Lonely, desperate, and bitter women who continually select broken partners have been an onscreen mainstay for as long as I can remember. I came of age when almost everyone, regardless of race, gender, or class, seemed to align their identities in terms of characters on Sex and the City. This phenomenon began in the late ’90s and early aughts, in part because of cultural fatigue from depictions of single women so starved for emotional and physical connection in the form of a marriageable mate that they would endure anything, including wearing, saying, and performing all kinds of outrageousnesses, in exchange for an engagement ring.

So I was delighted when, beginning in 2006, there was at least one movie every few years that featured a single woman turning the sad single lady trope on its head. The trend can be traced to Sanaa Hamri’s Something New, which signaled a shift in romantic comedies, especially for single Black women. The 2006 film follows Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), a high-powered attorney who’s hesitant to lower her standards even after meeting the sexiest white landscaper in America, Brian Kelly (Simon Baker), on a blind date. (To be fair, he does wear a terrible leather necklace with a primordial pendant.) Status, looks, and position are everything in Kenya’s world, and furthermore, she can’t exactly talk to Brian about racial microaggressions. Enter Mark Harper (Blair Underwood), the secret weapon of rom-coms—or hell, any movie genre—who seems perfect for her on paper. But it’s too late: She’s already fallen for Brian. Though she’s single, professional, and independent, as so many rom-com heroines are, Kenya isn’t a victim of her success the way many women of her caliber tend to be in films. Instead, she ultimately chooses Brian, earning bonus points for subjecting him to the awkwardness of dressing up in a mariachi outfit about two sizes too small for a cotillion.

Lonely, desperate, and bitter women who continually select broken partners have been an onscreen mainstay for as long as I can remember.

Five years later, Bridesmaids centered around the fraught relationship between the betrothed Lillian (Maya Rudolph) and her wrecking ball of a best friend, Annie (Kristen Wiig). The film’s ever-escalating comedic hijinks highlighted the intimate role of close female friendship instead of focusing on the wedding as the single defining moment of Lillian’s life. How to Be Single (2016), which adhered more closely to the rom-com formula, offered more refreshing inversions of the sad single lady trope, even if the end result was more silly than poignant. Single people need levity too! Alice (Dakota Johnson) takes a break from her boyfriend after college and moves to New York City, only to find herself permanently single. In Robin (Rebel Wilson), a rollicking, partying Australian, she finds a guide to the best way to be single in the city. It’s a highlight when Robin warns Alice against falling into “dick sand,” the friend-sucking force that romantic relationships can be when women let themselves get too wrapped up. Lucy (Alison Brie) has made a spreadsheet and an algorithm and is on 10 different dating apps to find The One, but it isn’t until she has a meltdown over Spanx and a situationship gone wrong that she meets her future husband. Alice’s sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), a single obstetrician, finds a boyfriend after choosing an alternative path to pregnancy that doesn’t include a male partner.

In 2019, we got Spinster, featuring Gaby (Chelsea Peretti), who is dumped by her boyfriend on her 39th birthday. The short film soon becomes a series of awkward hookups and sad dates until we realize that the true love of her life is her own self-actualization, as symbolized by her leveling up from working as a caterer to owning her own restaurant. A meet-cute moment in the woods threatens to upend the movie’s focus, but thankfully, in the end Gaby still chooses a happiness that doesn’t happen to involve anyone but herself, her friends, and her family. And in 2020, there was at least one example of a refreshing take on Black lady singlehood: Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version. The writer and director plays herself as a playwright struggling to maintain the integrity of her creations and her friendships in the wake of losing her mother. Along the way, she decides that a rap career as RadhaMUSprime might reinvigorate her, and she meets a hot, significantly younger beatmaker who finds her talent, passion, and beauty compelling—in that order. Hopefully, the film is just one of many to come that have refined portrayals of singlehood as an indefinite period of joy, discovery, and satisfaction in its own right.

 

Joshunda Sanders, a Black woman with short black hair, smiles brightly at the camera
by Joshunda Sanders
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Joshunda Sanders is the author of I Can Write the World, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color, and The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in the Bronx, New York, and sometimes tweets @JoshundaSanders.