Just before the opening credits of "The Mindy Project" materialize, Mindy Kaling as her eponymous character has a heart to heart with a Barbie-like doll -- and moments later, gets served. "If you don't pull it together, no one will ever love you," the doll warns. Adding insult to injury, the plastic figurine notes that she "at least" has a boyfriend.

"When that hot, mean doll pointed out that even she had a boyfriend," Kaling's character says in a voice-over, "that's when I started to cry. ... This is not where I should be."

From Mary Tyler Moore to Hannah Horvath, the free-spirited single woman has been a staple of TV entertainment, a lightning rod for the culture wars and a mirror for society's shifting views about the place of a post-feminist woman. This season the single woman is one of the hottest commodities, and the abundance of prime-time single women reflects a societal reality. Barely half of all adults in the U.S. are married (a record low), according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data. Those who find themselves tying the knot do so later in life, with the median age for brides 26.5. And if it feels like your Facebook feed is overwrought with announcements of friends getting hitched, imagine how it might look in 1960 -- when 59 percent of women 18-29 were married, compared with 20 percent today.


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Variety of roles

The fall onslaught presents the unattached female in a variety of guises -- women who are neither bimbos nor pure role models but trying to find their TV feet in 2012 just as real single women are. Among them: a doctor (Kaling) with unreal romance expectations rooted in her obsession with romantic comedies ("The Mindy Project''); a 50-something divorced, faded country music singer, played by Reba McEntire, who uproots her family from Memphis, Tenn., to Malibu ("Malibu Country''); a 20-something (Georgia King) raising a daughter while serving as a surrogate for a gay couple ("The New Normal''); and another 20-something single mom, played by Dakota Johnson, who gets reacclimated with a childlike older brother who moves in with her ("Ben and Kate'').

"Society has always been obsessed with the single woman," said Kate Bolick of The Atlantic, who wrote a recent cover story about her single life at 39 and how it reflects social trends -- which was developed into a comedy pilot recently purchased by CBS.

The most high-profile dame leading the charge this season is Kaling. The 33-year-old leaves her eight-year stint as a writer and actor on "The Office" to make her headlining debut on Fox's "The Mindy Project" starring as an unlucky-in-love gynecologist. Kaling, sitting in her studio office in Universal City decorated with "You've Got Mail" and "Hannah and Her Sisters" posters, said she's aware that her on-screen persona is not the most laudable figure; Kaling's Mindy Lahiri might pray that her next suitor is superbly well endowed and takes pleasure in putting effort into date attire.

"It's tricky because I think when you're a woman creating a show, you become a role model in a way that kind of creeps up on you," Kaling said. "But that translates to a feeling of 'Well, don't make the character something that you wouldn't want girls to look up to and want to be.' But I'm not interested in doing a show that is just some political statement or trying to appease people by presenting women in a certain positive or altruistic light."

Some of her fictional single-women cohorts have other things on their mind too, like how to discipline their teen daughters or figuring out how they'll pick up their kid from school and make it to their night shift at the bar on time -- just as real women do too. As of 2011, 11.7 million families in the U.S. were headed by a single parent -- of which more than 85 percent are headed by women, according to U.S. Census data.

Looking back

Twenty years ago, fictional newswoman Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen), a more complicated version of the single working woman with her temperamental personality, drew the rage of a vice president with her decision to have a child out of wedlock. While such a notion might be a little less shocking these days, the bulk of single moms spotlighted this season are divorcees.

McEntire, who stars as a past-her-prime country star scarred by her ex-husband's affair with her backup singer, said underneath the comedy that lampoons her disconnect with her children is a story of a mother in survival mode.

"She's just trying to be as strong as she possibly can for her kids," she said. "That's basically the same thing that a single mom has to do anywhere. She is the backbone -- whether she likes it or not and whether she thinks she can pull it off or not."

Ali Adler, co-creator of "The New Normal," said that women, particularly single moms, are experiencing a "what can I be when I grow up?" point in their lives. "The New Normal" showcases Georgia King as Goldie, a single mom from the Midwest who wants to give her daughter a better life and, with no money or resources, agrees to be the surrogate for a gay couple as a source of income. "To see (her) journey out into the world and to see that motherhood isn't the end for (her) is something that I think is important to explore."

Historic look

Rebecca Traister, working on a book on the history of single women, said there is an immense change in what society thinks a woman's life should look like, largely because the values of the feminist movement have become so ingrained into contemporary lives.

For Dana Fox, creator of "Ben and Kate" -- Fox's other new Tuesday night comedy with an unattached female lead, played by Dakota Johnson -- that reality is a blessing and a curse.

"One of the things I think is interesting about our time right now is that we're not in that 'working girl' moment where a woman in an office or not being married is a surprise anymore," Fox said. "It's not a surprise at all anymore, in fact, so there's less of a sense of, 'oh, we need to talk about women's issues' -- it used to be special and meaningful. In some ways, it's almost more difficult because we feel like we don't have to make a statement."