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Stand by Your Man? On TV, as in Life, There Are Alternatives

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Why were there so few divorced male protagonists, beyond the sad sacks of “The Odd Couple”? Perhaps because divorce represented lower economic hurdles for male characters, who were presumably already within the work force and had long enjoyed lives outside the house. The potential for brand spanking new experiences is minimized.

Besides, divorced men are sometimes seen as less sympathetic. (Want sympathy? Write a widower.) If women are taught to desire marriage, the standard wisdom goes, a wife will need to have had a great reason to need to end one. And if the wedding is ended for her, then she seems much more deserving of compassion. Men’s liberation carries less social heft.

Within the ’70s and early ’80s, divorced and divorcing women became the heroines of diverse situation comedies equivalent to “One Day at a Time,” “It’s a Living,” “Alice,” “Maude” and “Rhoda,” a “Mary Tyler Moore” spinoff. In these shows, which center on working-class and middle-class urban women, divorce often constitutes a financial and social injury that a heroine or sidekick weathers with heart and pluck.

Within the early 2000s, a latest sort of divorced woman emerged. From Charlotte of “Sex and the City” (which debuted in 1998) up through “The Starter Wife” (2007-8) and “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” (2014-18), portrayals of divorce became more glamorous, more privileged. In shows that included divorce as a serious plot point, splits offered women a probability to reinvent themselves, though their emancipation was often narrowly focused on luxury lifestyle decisions and their pursuit of recent partners. These shows divorce women not only from their spouses but additionally from broader political concerns. (One fulcrum show: “Designing Women,” which led to 1993, included one divorced character, Annie Potts’s Mary Jo, who had an energetic investment in women’s liberation, and one other, Delta Burke’s Suzanne, who didn’t.)

Suzanne Leonard, a professor of English at Simmons University and the writer of “Wife, Inc.: The Business of Marriage within the Twenty-First Century,” sees such shows as exemplars of postfeminism or “selection feminism,” an ideology through which any selection a lady makes is seen as potentially empowering. “There was a variety of discussion through the second-wave feminist movement in regards to the financial consequences of divorce,” she said. “And people consequences turn into really glossed over.”

This deal with women’s personal emancipation continued in shows like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” whose heroine becomes a comedian only after a split; “Grace and Frankie,” about frenemies whose lives are enlarged after they divorce their husbands; and “The Good Wife,” through which a politician’s wife flowers professionally (and divulges her own questionable ethics) once her marriage ends.

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