How Being Single Has Been Rebranded

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
I always hated the way Pride and Prejudice ends. "But why," I asked my A-level English teacher, "does Lizzie Bennet have to marry Mr Darcy, surely there has to be another way? Can she really be a heroine if, in the end, we’re congratulating her for winning over a difficult man?" 
It’s unfair – an anachronism even – to expect Jane Austen to have come up with anything more radical given that she was writing in the late 1700s, when women generally didn’t work or have means of their own. If anything, Bennet is a heroine because – or rather, in spite – of that as she enters marriage uncompromisingly, having never devoted her personality to being amenable to the opposite sex. She’s not perfect and that only makes Austen’s writing of her all the more progressive. 
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Thanks to various '90s and '00s film adaptations (including that one with Colin Firth and the lake, and Helen Fielding’s reworking, Bridget Jones) Lizzie has lived a life beyond Austen’s text, cast as a feminist character for young, intellectually curious and independent women to look up to – just as Mr Darcy has become the universal symbol for men who can’t communicate their feelings well, if at all. 
She has sat alongside the likes of Bridget and Carrie Bradshaw in an era that has seen the heterosexual single woman become hyper visible in Western culture. This was not quite a revolution in its own right but a symptom of the fact that more of us than ever were working, earning our own money and using it to consume culture and whatever people wanted to sell us. 
That’s also why the single woman has long appeared to us as a fairly rigid capitalist archetype, a conventional advertiser’s dream – a white, straight, slim, professional gal with cash to burn who is looking for one thing above all else: a man to marry. 
Unsurprisingly, despite her late 20th century economic empowerment, the single woman remained, as Anthea Taylor notes in Single Women in Popular Culture: The Limits Of Postfeminism, "a figure around whom broader cultural fears about feminism and about women’s power and independence" coalesced. 

The single woman has long appeared to us as a fairly rigid capitalist archetype, a conventional advertiser's dream - a white, straight, slim, professional gal with cash to burn who is looking for one thing above all else: a man to marry. 

She couldn’t be both single and happy, so she was undermined. She could be a successful career woman and likeable as long as she drank too much and hated her body (Bridget) or was fundamentally unlikeable and had a shopping addiction (Carrie) because she couldn’t keep a man. 
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Postfeminism and neoliberal individualism became unlikely bedfellows somewhere along the line, encouraging women to "focus on themselves" by buying anything and everything and never to look outwards, into the world, and think about what they might be able to achieve if they weren’t obsessing over finding ways to fill the void they were told they felt in their chest because they weren’t married. The spinster was replaced by the cocktail/wine-swigging singleton. 
You need look no further than the attention that Emma Watson was given when she talked last year about feeling shame as a single woman and opting to use the term "self-partnered" instead for an example of the fact that society is still weirded out by straight women who aren’t currently with a man. Hell, we’re so weirded out by ourselves that we’re trying to find new labels to make us feel better. See also the rise of the term "alonement" which was recently coined by the journalist Francesca Specter, who describes it as "celebrating and valuing the time you spend alone". 
It’s worthy but are we railing against the stereotypes of singledom and trying to recreate them because, ultimately, being partnered in some way – note Watson’s use of the term in her attempt to rebrand being single – remains necessary in order for straight women to be viable and visible members of society? 
Women are marrying later than ever, according to the Office for National Statistics, spending longer than at any time in history on their own or, at least, without a spouse. This supposed revolution of single culture is taking place despite the fact that men – from Darcy in his various incarnations to Mr Big – are not and never have been okay on their own, which is the ultimate litmus test of whether a cultural problem is steeped in prejudice. 
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Lena Dunham’s Girls managed to challenge this narrative somewhat with the eminently problematic and frustrating Hannah Horvath. In the end, Dunham did at least manage not to give Hannah a fairytale ending. The last time we see Adam, Hannah's love interest, is as she sits opposite him in a diner and they come to a mutual yet silent realisation that love isn’t enough, that their malfunctioning relationship will never work even though he has offered to raise her unborn child with her. She decides to go it alone. 

Are we railing against the stereotypes of singledom and trying to recreate them because, ultimately, being partnered in some way remains necessary in order for straight women to be viable and visible members of society? 

One of the main criticisms of Austen’s work not only at the time it was published but ever since is that it is too prosaic; her beat was love, romance, marriage, friendship, community and home. Yet surely all of this is the bedrock of human existence, the common ground we all inhabit and yet, somehow, can’t seem to figure out. 
Jane Austen has been dead for centuries and that same criticism is now being levelled at woman writer of the moment Sally Rooney, as her bestselling novel Normal People makes it onto TV screens (which surely vindicates Austen). If anything, it’s proof that society's desire to write women's stories for us is as overbearing as it ever was because our place in the world is still being established. Let’s not forget, we’ve only had the vote for 100 years and equal pay for 40. 
In the end, Rooney’s imperfect female lead Marianne also goes it alone. Connell has been accepted for a creative writing MFA programme in New York and she pushes him to leave, refusing to guarantee whether things will or won’t work out between them at a later date. He says, "I’ll go" and she replies, "and I’ll stay. And we’ll be okay."
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Marianne could follow Connell but she doesn’t. She leaves a literal ocean of space and unknown outcomes between them and she’s okay with it. Perhaps, had she been written at a different time, that’s what Lizzie would have done, too. 
This, like Hannah’s non-fairytale ending, is radical in its own way (though it may be somewhat obscured by how horny the TV adaptation is, meaning all of our minds are on other things by the time we get to the end of the series). Rooney offers no neat answers, no explanations and no qualifications. 
Slowly but surely, single women are being offered different stories to consume. From the commercial success of Lizzo’s particular brand of radical self-love – "I’m my own soulmate", "You’re supposed to hold me down but you’re holding me back" and "If he don't love you anymore/ Just walk your fine ass out the door" – to the quasi-spiritual soul-searching power ballads of Maggie Rogers – "And I walked off you/ And I walked off an old me" – to the fact that even Selena Gomez now sings lyrics like "I needed to lose you to love me", single positivity is on the rise. Moreover, because there is an appetite among women for the notion that true love is not the only path to fulfilment, there is now serious money to be made from it, which means it’s likely to continue. 

We keep talking about self-love and self-acceptance and yet it strikes me that we're still actually asking the world to welcome us as we are.

We’re contesting the reductive narratives about single women, it’s good. But in that reworking of the cultural conversation we are in danger of replacing sexist stories with a brand of self-help that tries to turn being single into an identity and a way of life in its own right, overlooking the fact that nobody really wants to be alone and refusing to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that today, as women gain more independence, their relationships with men are under strain – we’re seeing that in the fact that Normal People’s Connell is being held up as a hero for doing basic things like not wanting to choke his girlfriend, as well as in the creeping misogyny of men’s rights activists online. 
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In the end, Adam in Girls is as dysfunctional as Hannah, to the extent that she decides to embark on motherhood alone. Connell in Normal People, though he respects women, isn’t always able to truly love Marianne, to give her what she needs or even to say what he’s really thinking and feeling. What works about Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy, in the end, is that a) he's rich so they don't have to struggle while raising a family and b) he gives her permission to be herself.
What if we focused on the space left by Rooney at the end of Normal People or by Dunham and Judd Apatow at the end of Girls? Or by Maggie Rogers in every single song she sings, where all that we don't and can’t know lingers in the background?
It’s begging us to fill it in, not with a partner but with something else. What if we can find it, not by looking in on ourselves but out towards one another? What if it’s not straight single women who need to be rehabilitated into our culture but heteronormative relationships – in policy and principal – as a whole? 
When more than 600 women attended the first national Women’s Liberation Movement conference in 1970 in Oxford, they came up with four demands:
1. Equal pay
2. Equal educational and job opportunities
3. Free contraception and abortion on demand
4. Free 24-hour nurseries
We’re still fighting for all of these and, until we have them, men and women will never truly be able to engage with each other on equal terms because single women will always be disadvantaged, which systematically elevates men’s experience above theirs. 
What if we – single women – were okay all along and we’re only just finding ways to articulate that, to figure out how we want to be in the world and ask for society to put systems in place to facilitate it? There's a reason why the most lucrative forms of popular culture continue to ask questions about relationships and how men and women can be (or not be) together – it's because we haven't got it right yet.
We keep talking about self-love and self-acceptance and yet it strikes me that, as Austen subtly did through the vehicle of Lizzie Bennet, we're still actually asking the world to welcome us as we are.

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