Friday, 13 May 2016

THOUGHTS ON: Life As The Single Girl

"So, Anna, are you seeing anyone at the moment?"

This is a question that crops up somewhat regularly; on this occasion, it was my grandmother asking. My answer was brief and varied little from any other time I am asked this. "Not at the moment, Nanny."

While my grandmother may have been asking with the most innocent of intents, I have found myself growing increasingly tense each time a friend, family member or colleague makes this same query. It is perfectly possible that every one of these individuals only seeks to make conversation, but I've come to realise that there may be something larger and even harmful at play here. Today I'd like to highlight the sexism I see lurking under the surface of this seemingly simple question.

The truth is that I now see being single as something I have to justify and almost apologise for. It is as if being in a relationship is seen as the "default" and being single is some kind of weird error; a blip in the system.

Think of the difference between the way we see the words "girlfriend" and "wife" versus how we feel about the term "spinster". Girlfriend and wife, though heavy with gendered baggage in their own right, lack the subtext of loneliness and sadness that we visualise when we hear the word spinster.

Compare this too with the fun, roguish stereotype of the spinster's historical male equivalent, the bachelor; somehow the female version engenders images of sad women at home with a multitude of cats, while the male term carries a sense of youth and sexual freedom. Why on earth should this be the case?

In fact I have realised that I began internalising this aversion to female singlehood from an early age. In both the fairy tale Disney films I devoured as a child and the sitcoms I loved as a teenager, the single girl was painted a sad, solitary figure, whose experience little resembles my time as a single woman. The princesses I loved (Snow White, Cinderella, Jasmine, Sleeping Beauty) only found happiness and an escape from their difficult pasts by earning the love of a man. The female characters in the sitcoms I adored got off no better, and were often to hate being single (think Elliott Reed of Scrubs, Rachel from Friends, Grace in Will & Grace). The subtext of all these portrayals regularly implied that if a girl was single, she was not truly happy.  Rather, she was waiting for her true love to sweep in and rescue/marry/complete her, and only then would she find total happiness.

Even Sex and the City, widely loved and celebrated for its portrayal of four happily single women, focused almost in its entirety on the group's quest to find men. Particularly in its earliest seasons, the four protagonists were seldom shown as being truly comfortable living life without some degree of male attention. Instead, singlehood was often shown as simply the time spent between male partners; either nursing wounds from the last, or going all out to woo the next. This could well be put down to the show being a product of its era, perhaps, but I still think it is a crying shame that the biggest female-led sitcom of all time was so obsessed with men.

I think, too, of how quickly our society calls into question women who are not obviously interested in attracting male attention. Growing up I heard on numerous occasions of various women rejecting various men (both on and off screen) and noticed how quickly the assumption was made that the woman must be gay... As if rejecting one man is somehow the same as rejecting all men.

This is problematic for a number of reasons; firstly, it belittles the choices of gay women everywhere, implying that lesbian relationships are based on hatred for men rather than love for women. Secondly, it encourages the notion that the woman in question has an issue with all men, even when she is rejecting one individual who has treated her poorly. In fact, while writing this essay, I've begun to wonder how much idea that male desire should be the ultimate goal for all straight women (and ideally all gay women too, for that matter) feeds into the idea of rape culture. My initial thoughts are hugely so.

It's taken me a long while to share this post with you; I've deleted it, re-written it, scheduled it and then cancelled it on numerous occasions, all because I was so scared what sharing on this subject would say about me... To be perfectly frank with you, I was afraid I'd be dismissed as just another sad single girl. Only when a friend pointed out the irony of this to me did I feel I could finally hit "Publish".

Lastly, I've chatted with a fair few of my friends about how damaging the shaming of female singledom can be. I've known of so many beautiful, brilliant, bright girls who stay in unhappy relationships for seemingly no reason; who turn to Tinder even after finding it didn't work for them; who go through heartbreak over guys who are not the gods they believe them to be. I don't think that all of these situations arise solely because we are cultured to avoid being single, but I do think that pressuring girls to find a man and settle plays a part in this pain.

I'm so, so curious - what do you make of this topic? My fellow single ladies - do you feel shamed about your single status too? I am so eager to hear your thoughts!


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