A dear friend of mine, a vibrant young woman I will call Sally, has grown a little restless lately. I suspect that some of Sally’s preoccupations are beginning to weigh heavier on her recently. As unmarried women approaching 30 and living in the city we grew up in, perhaps it comes with the territory. But I worry that Sally’s preoccupation with a particular status marker has the potential to become an unhealthy obsession.
In recent years, as some of our high school classmates have settled down and started families, we have been drawn together by our shared experiences in the daunting world of internet dating. Though we embrace the ability to cringe at our adventures, the romantic marketplace is a space we have moved into somewhat reluctantly, recognising that it is an increasingly institutionalised, though far from ideal, method of finding a mate. Yet, as our coffee date conversation again gravitates towards a certain narrow range of topics, I feel the space between us more keenly, see the differences in our world views cast into sharp perspective. As we observe our peers moving through the world of ‘adult’ responsibilities, the stuff of mortgages and marriages has become an enduring talking point.
The loneliness that flows from Sally’s heightened awareness of her singlehood are exacerbated by her use of social media, and the captivating projections of social bounty which she finds there. She attempts to recast her reluctant singlehood in a more positive light, broadcasting a steady stream of aphorisms and motivational quotes. You know the ones: a lone figure is framed against a blushing sunset, limbs akimbo, utterly thrilled to be facing the world solo: ‘I’m not single! I’m in a long-standing relationship with fun and freedom!’. Or for a more serious, perhaps slightly battle-scarred tone: ‘Do your own thing on your own terms and get what you came here for’. Yet, there is a part of Sally that would like to see herself in the smug portraits of spousal fulfilment that populate her news feed. I fear that, in this regard, she is beginning to define herself by what she lacks.
In her book The Sex Myth, Rachel Hills cites a 2009 study published in the journal, Gender and Society, which considers the role of G-rated films in socialising children into the ideal of hetero-romantic love and its ‘magical’ qualities. In Disney’s Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, the researchers observed, ‘relationships between opposite-sex characters [were] accompanied by soaring music, soulful eye contact, and sweeping natural vistas in a way that other types of relationships – such as those between friends or between children and parents – were not’.
So many of the media discourses around what it means to be young and female, whether they are propagated by local newspapers or by reality TV, reinforce an increasingly narrow range of ideals. Sometimes it seems that just as the hard-won gains of feminism have enabled women the autonomy to shape their own destinies in ways not previously possible – to transcend the traditional archetypes of women as breeders and caregivers and auxiliaries in the male world of work – in steps a whole new set of forces to constrain the possibilities for womanhood.
As these discourses tell us, having that male companion (and ideally, that shiny symbol of romantic commitment on your finger) is regarded as indispensible in the modern toolkit of ‘success’, alongside the career, the thriving social calendar, the aspirations for home ownership or travel, and all the paraphernalia of fashion and beauty. In this culture in which girls learn from a young age to internalise the message that they’re not good enough, loving yourself just as you are is an act of defiance.
In her book Princesses and Pornstars, Emily Maguire turns a critical eye on women’s magazines and self-help books and their sham advocacy of single women’s independence. ‘Since these attributes are useful only for the purposes of fooling a man into liking you,’ Maguire writes, ‘they need not be genuine qualities. According to the women’s magazine philosophy of man-hunting, you can obtain Respect and Confidence the same way you get everything else in this consumer society: through purchasing stuff or performing roles’. In her consummate style, Maguire argues that ‘the right outfit and facial expression may make a woman appear strong, but nothing will make her strong except living through a couple of tough life experiences…A diamond ring makes a woman appear loved, but it will never stop her from feeling lonely or unworthy or ugly or sad. And marriage will turn a woman into a wife, but it will never turn a directionless woman into one with a purpose’.
Lauren Rosewarne, writing in the latest issue of Meanjin, highlights another statistic that seems counterintuitive: ABS figures suggest that some 40 per cent of women between 25 and 64 are single. And yet, social media drips-drips a steady supply of articles, and books like Kate Bolick’s Spinster do a roaring trade, indicating that ‘seemingly all those statistically normal single women want to read material that reassures them of their normalness while treating their normalness as something needing to be analysed, rationalised, legitimised’. Rosewarne asks,
Why is singleness somehow more of a character indictment – in reality or just amid our own hang-ups – than our political views, how well read we are, or our music tastes? Why is my single status the basis on which I’m separated from the general population at a wedding, as opposed to some other random quality like my hair colour, education, or the degree to which I despise cats? How is it that in the twenty-first century we’re still allowing the apparent endorsement of a man to dictate – to others and more importantly to ourselves – our worth?
Sally, I only want the best for you. I hope you find someone who loves you and respects you, because you deserve nothing less. But to resign yourself to waiting and hoping for that special someone is to set yourself up for disappointment. Surrounding yourself with positive affirmations and empowerment rhetoric might seem like a good idea, but it risks creating a kind of passivity.
Surely after hundreds of years of feminist struggle we can take a moment to reflect on and enjoy some of the gains. Any modern woman, whether in a relationship or not, should be free to know herself, value herself and love herself. Being able to recognise that you are simply ‘enough’ feels damn good, and not because any man, any marketing campaign or any motivational quote tells you so.
Maguire, Emily, Princesses and Pornstars: sex, power, identity, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008.
Hills, Rachel, The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality, Penguin, 2015.
Rosewarne, Lauren, ‘Choose Your Own (Miss)Adventure’, Meanjin, Spring 2016.