I'm Wearing Last Night's Underwear To Work and It's OK." So might read the headline on yet another Jane magazine article on why it's cool
"I'm Wearing Last Night's Underwear To Work and It's OK." So might read the headline on yet another Jane magazine article on why it's cool to be single. For the past few years, pop culture has been fascinated with the supposedly wild lives of unmarried women in their 20s and 30s. With popular chick-friendly fare like Bridget Jones's Diary and Sex and the City, the consumer world loves the Cult of the Single Girl. Suddenly, it's hip to be solo. Better yet, it's hip to be solo, neurotic, drink too many cocktails, and sleep with any and all men from valet parkers to stockbrokers. Look at the "sold out" gaps in bookstore racks and one would wager that twenty-to-thirtysomethings are abandoning The Rules and turning a blind eye to Wendy Shalit. Modesty be damned. The single girl's image in the media has been transformed into that of a girl who frankly discusses STDs, wears leather pants to work, and gauges how many apple martinis she can down before it impairs her ability to count proper taxi fare. Helen Fielding's term has stuck: The Singleton. Movies, books, and TV jump on the bandwagon. But when will the well (or rather, fifth of vodka) run dry?
For now, audiences are responding. Why? Well, comedy has stepped away from the primness of Mary Tyler Moore and the well-coifed trio on Friends. It's refreshing. The Sex and the City girls actually sweat during sex. Bridget Jones shoehorns herself into a constrictive beige girdle and drinks too much when she's depressed. Rather than creating an ideal, these shows create ideals out of normal female quirks. (And not in a Welcome to the Dollhouse kind of way). It's not that every woman wants to be Bridget Jones. Rather, it's that watching her makes us not feel so bad about being single. In a May 7 Salon article, author Carina Chocano looked at the recent spate of "Single Girl's Guide to" books that have been published recently. According to Chocano, "The girl in these books is slightly hysterical. She's the kind of girl who buys the conflicting messages that lead to addled, self-absorbed, neurotic heroines like Bridget Jones." Maybe. But I would argue that being neurotic and self-absorbed are the natural defense systems that you have when you're a single girl in the big city. You're turning 30 and you haven't gotten married like everyone back home, and you're trying to figure out what's wrong with you. As long as those issues remain, you'll still want your single life to be played out for you on a film or TV screen, with the appropriate fantasy glamour added.
Once Sex and the City is canceled and book publishers tire of putting out yet another Single Girl's Guide, all single women won't turn in their huge lapel flowers to the Desk Sergeant and retire from the force. They'll still be single. They'll still be searching. They'll still be enduring questions at weddings like "Do you have a boyfriend?" or "Can I introduce you to my nephew, who speaks pretty OK English?" These shows make single urban women in their 20s and 30s feel like they're finally being spoken to. Like their single lives are worthy of an entire show. As my single, college-educated, employed friend E* puts it, "We finally count as a demographic."
No, these characters aren't real people. In the same way that ER isn't a real emergency room in a real hospital. All single women don't sleep with hundreds of men. Not all single women want to. But being single, the option is definitely left open. Without the safe harbor of marriage, single women must go out and search for mates. Much like spy planes on non-stop missions. And of course, the spy plane runs the risk of getting shot down. The characters have a constant unresolved conflict: the fear of being alone. Since nothing in a single girl's life is set in stone, her ever-changing love life might as well be mined for drama. Though my soon-to-be-married friend S* doesn't identify with the show, she acknowledges that "there wouldn't be a show if they were married." But as my married friend K* says, it's not just the single women who tune in. "Every married woman was once single", K* reminds me, and every married woman faces the possibility that she may be single again someday. As my other married friend K* also reminds me when describing why she likes Sex and the City, "Usually what they're going through is applicable to all types of relationships."
Male friends seem mystified. Leaving a showing of Bridget Jones's Diary, a male friend turned to me, utterly confused. "Please explain what you connect with in that... ?" he asked. After a few moments of mystified silence, he turned to me again and said, "but? you're not crazy like that." My single girlfriends and I would beg to differ. We flock to Bridget Jones and tune into Sex because the shows talk about the pitfalls of single life in a manner that makes them endearing. We do obsess. We do have extended e-mail flirtations. In Bridget Jones, these details aren't hidden. These shows help us to feel justified about our single lives. They also show a version of our life that is more glamorous (or, as one married friend of mine suggests, "more pathetic") than real single life.
Pop culture has acknowledged that women can have selfish interests and want something bigger out of life. And there's nothing pathetic about showing her day-to-day life while she searches for this. Some married friends, of course, disagree. S* tells me that she can't identify with anything on the show. It's entertaining, but "the women on Sex and the City are so selfish, shallow, and ridiculously funny?.most women go through this phase in their life, I think, but then get over it." Says S*, "For example, if you want a relationship, don't take up with a married man [Mr. Big]." Good advice, but an entirely different subject matter. Whether or not the single girl literature dies off, we'll never be in short supply of the "Smart Girl, Dumb Choices" self-help books. People will make dumb choices in love, regardless of being married with full sets of silverware.
When I watched movies as a kid, the single female character always got the short end of the stick. The perpetually single woman was anathema. She was Melanie Mayron on thirtysomething or Elizabeth Perkins in About Last Night. Acerbic, ambitious, and desperate. Too neurotic to hold down a normal relationship. Unlike Bridget, her quirks didn't work to her advantage. The single friend never quite got it right. Would this awkward woman ever find her match outside of a bottle of Xanax?
In the late '80s and '90s, films tried to sell the quirky single girl on a different kind of romantic ideal. When Harry Met Sally and Reality Bites told us that the perfect man was always right under our nose. "Date your slacker male best friend." It's a nice fantasy. When I entered my mid-20s, though, I found that the reality bit. Not every woman wants a guy who works at a video store. Slackerdom is charming on Friends, not necessarily appealing in reality. Even Miranda on Sex and the City fails to make her relationship with minimum-wage bartender Steve work. He's a nice guy, but he's just not on her level.
The '70s myth of "having it all" is debunked when today's Singleton tries to find a good relationship in a city full of go-getters. Sure, you can have it all? you just have to get it all first. We don't want the pressure to find Mr. Right when Mr. Right isn't around right now. Some of us don't want to make do with the video store guy. My friend H*, who is unmarried and an executive at a film company, defends her lifestyle by saying, "We are career women, and I personally find that a lot more rewarding than some '50s mentality where I have to land a man in order to have self-worth."
The Singleton genre also understands that while a woman may be a high-powered executive, she can still be reduced to tears in the ladies room when "he doesn't call." For me, the shows are also a testament to the value of female friendship. In the absence of a husband, I've developed strong female friendships. My friends who got married at age 21 won't have that experience. Carrie Bradshaw has not one person who unconditionally loves her, but three. (Also, a gay man.) Bridget Jones has a makeshift "urban family" of two single girls and a gay man. Using personal narrative devices (a newspaper column for Sex and the City and a diary for Bridget Jones), the shows even have a "chatting with girlfriends" feel. As K* tells me, "The conversations among the girlfriends definitely remind me of times with my college roommates. When we get together we're still like that."
So when asked what I think of the fad of "single girl" pop culture, I protest that single women tuning in en masse doesn't necessarily indicate a fad.
For the single girl, it's our lives. Not that we should not want to get married, rather that we shouldn't spend every moment of our unmarried lives feeling bad about it.
When will the madness die down? What will happen to the "Bridget Jones's Diary of her time Hunting and Fishing for some civilized Sex in this City" literature and shows?
Well, like any favorite media subject from dot.coms to Kate Hudson, it will be overexposed. Women will get tired of buying yet another Single Girl's Guide when they realize the advice is basically all the same. They'll see that just because a girl in a non-Helen Fielding novel is heavy, single, and decidedly British doesn't necessarily make her charming and Bridget-esque.
As with comic books, you still need great characters and satisfying villains. The genre will stop overproducing, but it won't go away. As long as there are single women in big cities, looking to juggle their personal ambitions and find a man, they'll always want to watch the follies of better-dressed actresses doing the same thing. Especially when they've been infused with the hope, as Bridget promises, that a man out there will love her "just as she is. "