Single Ladyhood in 2016
Last December we were sharing a plate of noodles. On his side I’d been piling up everything that once had a heartbeat.
‘Have I been cockblocking you?’ he asked at a gentle lull.
I’d returned the day prior, having spent six months in Connecticut. Had the question been brewing for half a year? The maths did add up. I met him the day after I parted ways with my last boyfriend. We met, we clicked, we’ve been best friends for the three years since. I’d been on a few dates, sure, but no new relationships.
But cockblocked? It sounded all too aggressive on his part and far too pitiful on mine. Not that I didn’t appreciate the homoerotic splendour of duelling penises—hell, I’m only human—but was this what was happening? If some sexily smartarse gent found me adequately funny and whose company didn’t make me want to bathe with my hairdryer, would I pass him up? Had I found myself in some sort of Clayton’s marriage? If so, would it really be my worst outcome? A zillion hours in each other’s company and only four minor spats. One centring on a birthday cake shaped like a panda. It’s the most functional relationship I’ve ever had with a man.
According to the ABS, some 40 or so per cent of women between 25 and 64 are single. This isn’t going to be an essay about the data on single ladyhood. Largely because the numbers merely substantiate the story I live and that is lived widely in this country. To me, 40 or so per cent makes it all sound pretty normal. And yet social media drip-drips a steady supply of articles on this apparently mind-boggling phenomenon. Authors will dwell on the loneliness, wax lyrical on the liberty, and provide is-anyone-really-that-clueless? tips on the logistics of feeling less like a tragic spectacle when dining alone.
Newish books like Kate Bolick’s Spinster or Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies have recently done a roaring trade. Seemingly all of 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. This marital status shift, according to the numbers, isn’t new: the proportion of women not marrying has looked this way for a good decade or so already. So why are we still spotlighting it? Is the topic still worth so many punny headlines, reappropriated song lyrics and felled trees? Maybe. Because while the ceaseless chatter makes me bristle, I probably wouldn’t have that reaction—wouldn’t have any reaction—if it still didn’t mean something.
Noodles and I were driving back from Phillip Island recently. I hadn’t been there since I was ten. He and I had been counting aloud the duos of Cape Barren geese, making sure that each time we spotted one we located the spouse, never more than a shrub or two away. The eighth, maybe ninth pair and it came to me in a strange prod. My mum was the age I was sitting in that car, when we all went to the penguin parade. At 36 Mum had a career, a husband, two children, a house, a dog. All those markers of life well underway. At 36 I recently dropped my iPad on my face while reading, supine, and split my lip. At 36 I’ve tripped over my handbag in a lift on my own, completely sober. There’s no skittish, flaky Holly Golightly here to sell. I’ve written eight books, I have a relatively serious career and I pay my own bills. On time even. Yet the milestones of adulthood—the property purchase and the partner and the pets and the pot plants—aren’t my 36.
The contemporary ‘great’ of singledom
If words are wanted on just how soul-sating it is to be single, there’s Bolick’s work and there’s Traister’s. There’s Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo. Barbara McNally’s Unbridled. For a dash of Jesus in the mix there’s Mandy Hale’s The Single Woman. Apparently a big bed and remote control all to yourself are tome-worthy accomplishments. I’m most interested in the politics. If I were to sell a case of singlehood being great it’d be grounded in feminism. It’d be a retreat into an intellectual argument that, while admittedly never proving a balm for me in practice, on paper feels right. Historically, marriage hasn’t served women’s best interests. Being acquired almost exclusively for housekeeping, intercoursing and breeding was hardly the makings of wing-spreading and potential-reaching. Sure, the modern marriage doesn’t quite look like this, and yet research still reports residual ickery.
Women continue to do the lion’s share of the housework, the childrearing. Women still engage in sex that they don’t want to have. For feminists—at least for a swag of second-wavers—electing not to shovel resources into men, into domesticity, into propping up patriarchy with the sweat from beneath our breasts, is true empowerment. In rewriting the gender script, authentic independence can apparently be found far away from those soul-stealing totems of dirty socks and a left-up toilet seat.
I’m more than a tad conflicted. My married female friends aren’t hamstrung hausfraus who sold out their politics for a multi-tiered cake and metre of ivory silk. Equally, something jars with my own politics when I’m told that identity can only transpire away from the sullying influence of a man. That to truly bloom we have to keep ourselves unpolluted. It sounds not only painfully pious but presents an artificial conception of how identity is formed. We’re each the product of those we spend time with, just as we’re a product of what we read and watch and eat and smell and feel. I don’t feel any less the feminist, any less real, if I can connect bits of my identity to men who’ve shared my life. My humour and cynicism without doubt come from Dad. Absconding from radical feminism and my slightly dodgy attitudes to sex trace back to that really not good ex. My heightened tolerance for conversations about biology and genetics and religion centres completely on Noodles.
In researching and then writing a few hundred thousand words on life online, I’m more than convinced that the idea of there being only one identity is severely flawed. We each vacillate—mostly happily—between a range of selves. I’m not the same person speaking at a lectern as I am when baking biscuits or reading perfume reviews or singing made-up songs to my parents’ spaniel. None of these selves is more real or less, they’re just sides that flourish, get downplayed or theatrically amplified depending on context. Coupling up, therefore, doesn’t seem any less valid a journey to personal discovery than schlepping solo to India to mediate or to Tuscany to roll pasta with a by-the-hour nonna.
A theme in Spinster as well as memoirs like McNally’s or Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City is the idea of the interesting single woman. The cool and fulfilled and multifaceted single woman who is so very well rounded, attributable apparently to her not hitching her wagon to any man. Cool. A preoccupation, a compliment, an aspiration I’ve never gotten my head around. A theme in these paeans is women reassuring themselves—reassuring their audience—that they’re great, that they’re interesting. In spite of not having a man, perhaps even because of it. Whenever people go to great lengths to tell me that they’re nice, that they’re charitable, that they’re non-judgemental, my brows almost always nudge. Do such things really need to be said? Aren’t our own internalised inadequacies exposed when our defence pre-empts any challenge? Is a whole shelf of books really needed to sell the case that singlehood and good dinner-party guest can happily be linked? What even is a full life? Is it that you enjoy your own wonderfulness so much so that you’re indifferent if a penis wants to revel in it with you? Is it about sending home postcards from far-flung destinations with obscure inspirational quotes scrawled on the back? Just how necessary is the very large scarf collection?
There’s something just a tad ham-fisted about swapping the crazy cat lady caricature with a Samantha Jones, lady-about-town.
The lady doth protest too much
In Laura Kipnis’s review of Spinster, she encapsulates my angst in one nicely executed question: ‘what is this need for authors—by which I mean female authors—to defend the domestic arrangements they happen to have chosen?’ It was the very thing I wanted to avoid doing by devoting 5000 words to it myself. My interest in soapboxing is non-existent. I’ve never wanted to hear about Pete Evans’ activated almonds. I don’t want to know about Elle Macpherson’s alkaline urine. I don’t care if you eat vegan or gluten-free or quit sugar. Truly bully for you if you’ve found Allah or Herbalife or kicked the dairy and reduced your belly bloat. But when you’re using all these words to justify your busy-work self-discipline all I’m thinking is that you’re really insecure, and I’m not going to help with any of that.
Half a century on from Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl and books on women doing the solo thing still sell. And they only still sell because 50 years on it still doesn’t sit quite right with us. The bristling I mentioned earlier is situated here. Being single may not be something I think too much about—and while I may have no shame to confess here nor any tickertape parades to throw myself—I know I’ve ended up somewhere different. That my normal, that the normal of my similarly aged single friends, isn’t totally normal in a culture where coupling up forever like those Cape Barren geese is still the accepted norm.
Bolick ends Spinster with a call to reclaim the word. To make it less about cats and a moth-infested vag, and more as a state of being. Or some such … there’s a love interest at the end and her argument gets a bit fuzzy. Thoughts immediately go to primary school and how if ever a girl was called a pig by some dog bastard peer she’d haughtily try and own it: ‘That’s right. Pretty Intelligent Girl! Thank you.’ Did it take away the sting? Did ‘pig’ suddenly become a term of endearment? Did the girls being mocked and maligned suddenly become the playground hotties? Shock horror, no. Gussying up spinster—gussying up any marital status—smells like desperation and defensiveness.
Choice features prominently in single-woman celebrations. Choice, the catchcry of the modern age: as though, somehow, every option was there for the taking but we are here. Here, because it’s exactly where we wanted to be. Choices in reality are constrained. The choices of single women are dictated by the dating market: what you have to sell and who’s interested in buying. To pretend, therefore, that every woman has the same opportunities in the dating game is delusional. Age and location and levels of attractiveness and one’s inclination to pretend to like Game of Thrones all work to expand or contract our options. And sure, this is just reality, but it’s a reality that skews the applicability of the C-word. Would we all still choose to be single if our husband didn’t leave us for that bouncily nubile dog walker? Would we still choose to be single if we hadn’t been so significantly scarred by all those dud dyads? Would we still choose this single life if options to meet people existed beyond peddling our arse online?
Choice, of course, gets used to own our circumstances and to try to distance ourselves from the idea of singlehood as the place we’ve been banished to. By articulating that our ‘situation’ was chosen, apparently agency gets stirred in. I haven’t been rejected by the dating market—hell no—I’ve rejected it. The reality, alas, is still every bit the same: there’s a woman who’s on her own. Dwelling on how or why she got there is just judgemental white noise and yet somehow it manages to creep into our subconscious and see us constructing narratives to try to quell the self-loathing.
Singledom as personal failure
For a birthday lark, a friend bought us tickets to a ghost tour or, as it turned out, less tour and more paranormal investigation. (A story for another time.) So the palaver went for a good three hours and on our midnight, oil refineries–illuminated drive home we shared observations (read: bitched) about the other participants. ‘It occurred to me,’ I said, summarising the worst attributes of some of the strangest people on the tour (and let it be said, the strangest people to have ever drawn breath), ‘they’re all coupled. That tall guy who looked like he’d just climbed out of a grave, he was married. That nut job who said he died at birth but came back to life: he was married. These nutters have managed to get someone to want to be with them. What does that say about me?’ My friend’s skills, alas, don’t lie in warm reassurance.
In my book Cyberbullies, Cyberactivists, Cyberpredators I reviewed stereotypes of internet users as played out in film and television. One chapter focused on neckbeards—those fat, hairy misogynists using the internet to troll—spotlighting how their identity is often shaped by their singleness. A question I ask in the book is whether sexual rejection has led these cretins to online misogyny as a kind of anger at women and rage against the world, or are their online shenanigans just another thing that makes them repellent and unlovable? This idea of a deficit identity—of identity shaped by what a person doesn’t have—is a frequent refrain in women’s reflections on singledom.
In preparation for this essay I read a slew of academic papers on the topic and a recurrent theme is single women feeling as though being unmarried, being unpartnered, exists as a definer. As irritated as I was reading all those achey testimonials—in my case there are very few people whose perception of me I care about and a grand total of none who’d judge me based on my marital status—my thoughts went to a wedding a few years ago. I’d been seated at the lesbian table. Apparently being a single heterosexual—being partnerless—linked me most closely to seven crunchy granola rural lady-gays. Apparently I lacked sufficient experience nodding my way through another fascinating mortgage rates/school zones/tennis-karate-gymbaroo conversation.
So why does this coupled or not-coupled thing remain such a big deal? 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? My hunch is that even if women stopped caring about the optics of buying a single cinema ticket or booking a hotel room for one, we’d find something else to be paranoid about. After all, we’re a pretty self-loathing bunch. A married female friend and I often find ourselves morosely acknowledging how neither of us has ever had anything said to us as cruel as our own internal dialogue. Sure, this hideousness makes us pretty immune to the scorn of others, but a peek into our psyches would warrant sharp objects being quickly confiscated. The vague judgement about being uncoupled could effortlessly be replaced with any number of other ways to compare ourselves and fare poorly. We’ve created a society, a market, that’s persistently delivering ever newer and more soul-destroying tests for women to take and fail.
Culturally we’re all getting better at talking about head stuff, about anxiety, depression, sadness. Anything that can be understood as a kind of health problem and we’ve (slowly) come to view it as needing treatment rather than being a character flaw. Want however, is a totally different beast.
Wanting anything aloud comes with vulnerability. And fraught attempts to avoid being vulnerable sabotage everything from a woman asking for what she wants in bed to seeking a pay rise at work. Wanting means acknowledging a gap, asking for it to be filled and leaving oneself prone to exposure—to disappointment—if it doesn’t magically happen. For a single woman to want to be in a relationship, it’s apparently not like wanting a new lipstick or car, it’s about admitting to having failed dismally at securing this one life essential. It seems you can’t just casually want a partner in the sense of well, if one comes along fine, but if not, hey, that’s okay too. Wanting in this context is about desperation, is about man-hunger. And wanting a man is just as much a personal failure as not having one: that a longing to amend one’s situation merely solidifies—justifies—the extent of our unwantedness. Hence the chiming of choice and all the memoirs and the loquacious overcompensation. It’s a lot less horrible, after all, than the internal doomsday dialogue of self-condemnation. Or God forbid, the sympathy from cosily coupled friends whose unions I’ve never envied yet the game necessitates a little fakery.
So being uncoupled is a problem. And actively wanting to couple is a problem. Unsurprising, giving the finger to all of it and jumping off the two-by-two treadmill is one hell of a problem too.
The ick of the opt out
The night after the paranormal investigation, I was at my parents’ home for dinner. When I had regaled them with my experiences with divining rods and electromagnetic field sensors, we got talking about the motivation for belief in the supernatural. My position is that it makes complete sense that people would be drawn to something that promises more than just this.
This, no matter how tremendously wonderful our version of it may be, can never be enough for us. Our culture of hungry ghosts ensures that we’re always left wanting just a little bit more, a little bit better, a little bit sparklier. In this self-help, neoliberal culture it’s perfectly normal to be constantly ploughing resources into the self. More than normal, it’s expected. Essential. In fact, saying no to this perpetual project of self-improvement gets pathologised. Gets framed as a sign of blemished self-esteem. Of letting oneself go.
Despite recently being assured by a medium that I’m surrounded by spirits, I’m an atheist. I’ve chosen to accept that this is all there is. So if I’m ruling out the possibility of a generous or judgemental god or angels or leprechauns, do I have an imperative to apply the same principles to love? Do I just opt out? For sanity’s sake? For happiness? If I acknowledge the bullshit malarkey of the unending lack/acquire/new-lack cycle, doesn’t it just make sense to step back? I deal poorly, after all, with a paucity of proof and an oversupply of hope.
So here’s where it all gets sticky. I’m a tad too romantic for the flee.
The very first time I slept at Noodles’ house was only a week or two into our friendship. There was early talk that I’d sleep in one of the spare rooms but it got to 2 am and we were still on his bed talking. It was decided that I’d just sleep in there with him. Before turning down the covers we had our first and only awkward conversation. About how neither of us wanted anything to … happen. I told him about having flashes of myself as an egg. Equal parts Fabergé and Humpty Dumpty, let’s be honest. And I’d been dropped. And put together. And dropped again. And put back together. And each time the egg got glued, little shards got lost. (As I type it out it all sounds rather like a Catholic school metaphor for pre-marital sex. But I digress.)
The image felt fitting after a messy years-long cycle of leaving one awful relationship and going into another before I’d recovered, and then going into another again before I recovered from the last ones. ‘Because I’m pretty sure if that happens again, I’m not going to get pieced back together again.’ He nodded, said that he understood. Three years on and I realise that anything said to him after midnight and his eyes might be open but he’s not listening. Not to any of it. But it was fine, lovely even, and in the morning we drank tea and watched porn and our normal began, unsullied.
About three months ago he’d been counselling a friend who’d gotten herself into in a tangle with a married tycoon. Noodles asked my thoughts given that I’d written a book about doing the very same thing (although, admittedly, my peccadillo involved less jewels and more mix-tapes). He wanted to know what I’d say to convince her to extricate herself before it all got excruciating. I wrinkled my forehead. ‘You know that I’d do it all again, yeah?’ I asked. He was crestfallen. I could see him despondently rethinking his choice to store my number as ‘Oracle’ in his phone. Of course I’d bloody do it again! Not to do so would be akin to saying that I don’t like who I am now, or that I’d be a better version if I’d made ‘wiser’ decisions. I’d do my past again. Without a doubt. Could I do a whole new round of heartbreak though? With someone else’s smells and someone else’s ways to slay me and without any of the reassurance that I do make it out alive? Could I manage further wretched stints of holding myself together on aeroplanes, on trains, on footpaths, just long enough to get somewhere private and shatter? During that tycoon conversation I realised, yeah, I probably could. Three years on and it doesn’t seem all that unsurvivable. Either I’ve toughened up or the well’s run dry.
The idea of an opt out feels devastating to me. And yet I could completely imagine that someone could just get so battle-weary that they’d turn their back on it all. That they’d pull a Gornick and hurl themselves into feminist politics. That they’d throw themselves into painting or pilates or piano. Or in my case, into work. I’m all about choice and if pottery fulfils you that’s perfect, but for me there’s just something so icy about taking a possibility off the table, of taking hope away.
The not so exclusive club
A man once suggested a date at a hole-in-the-wall where he’d been assured that Melbourne writers went to imbibe. He thought I’d feel comfortable there. Melbourne writer? The horror, good God, the horror. I was imagining people using words like ‘Twitterati’ without embarrassment. Beverages made with bespoke bitters. Sure, I write. And I live off La Trobe Street. Melbourne writer? I’m also a Melbourne casual vacuumer, a Melbourne feminist, a Melbourne frequent Jeopardy viewer. Could any of these labels do me—do anyone—any kind of justice? Could they reveal anything aside from cliché and cringe? Truth be told, I’d have felt less like a wannabe and more comfortable if we’d eaten chips in a grimy food court.
A trap I’ve fallen into here, a trap Traister and Bolick and Klinenberg each tumble into too, is to talk about single women en masse, in the generic. As though the unifiers of having a vulva and not having a cock are enough to make us a cohort.
It’s hardly an unexpected problem of course. These books want to make a point about demographics that may not be new and may not be niche but that necessitates a little Helen Reddy, a little Beyoncé, and a little Bridget Jones to move the merch. In 2016 authors are compelled to move away from painting single ladyhood as all cat-grooming, ice-cream straight outta the tub and The Notebook on repeat. To sell the idea of a phenomenon, a revolution needs to be portrayed. And size matters. So single women—be they those black-clad professional widows, bitter divorcees or tawdry Tinderellas—all get assembled under the same label. And whether it’s a dolled-up rebranding or just another lamentation, all the fascinating stuff about individual single women gets blurred. And in making this demographic point about revolution some truly retrograde paths get trodden.
From the earliest blue-stocking days of feminism, an objective was to have women viewed as more than just daughters or wives or mothers. Centuries on, women continue to be discussed, to be judged, in the context of their relationship with men. Prattle about sisters doing it for themselves still makes the story all about men by virtue of their absence. I’m not interested in denying the data nor in silencing the conversation. But there’s something anachronistic about claiming that women can—and do—get shit done on their own despite the manless road we’ve taken. Until we lose the ‘in spite of their singleness/their loneliness/their solo income’ caveats, this doesn’t feel like a feminist story to me.
The single person as market
My paranormal investigations friend recently suggested I’d chosen to be single. I actually don’t know how many conscious choices I’ve ever made. I’m hardly one of those dream-create-achieve people. Her evidence was that I wasn’t putting myself out there. We’ve apparently gotten to a point in culture where either you resign yourself to singledom or you ‘put yourself out there’. Cue promotional selfies taken in cars and copious shots of race-day attire and poorly applied make-up.
Arguably there’s never been an easier time to be single. Entering the property market solo might be difficult in most cities but sorting yourself out somewhere to live on your own—surrounded only by the mess of your own curating—is possible for enough of us to constitute the fastest growing segment of the real estate market. Aside from housing, capitalism has become expert at exploiting our oh so unique single-person needs. Supermarkets have cottoned onto the fact that we’re not all setting the table for four each night. Apps exist to help us procure evening companions if we get a yen to evict all those moths. Online retailers can offer us buzzing silicone aplenty if we’d rather take matters into our own hands than have the pubes of randoms on our sheets. Equally, an entire lucrative industry has been created to remind us of the all-importance of Barbie and Ken: online dating.
Noodles claims that the internet means that nobody has to be single any more: that pretty much everyone has the option of coupling if they want to. Cindy in an episode of Orange is the New Black made the same point, albeit with a splash more colour:
See, that’s the thing with the Internet. Nobody’s a freak no more. See, it used to be all these weirdos sitting alone in their houses, jerking it to bugs or falling in love with their toasters, feeling all creepy and sad. Now, all they got to do is log on and find the same-minded toaster-loving peeps and, like, bam, suddenly shit be perfectly normal! Shawty, you could be into cannibalism or like being tickled. It don’t matter. Somebody out there gonna like what you like.
My grandma had her own, pre-net version of this: ‘for every woman there is a horse’ (a phrase I’ve chosen to interpret as being less about bestiality and more about lids for every pot). While I don’t think being single has been completely absolved of stigma or that loneliness or horniness are things women are completely comfortable with divulging yet, we’re certainly at a point where dating is considered a legitimate pastime and a worthy weeknight timesuck, and where customising our search for the One—down to hair colour and favourite sexual position—has become completely socially acceptable.
In my book Intimacy on the Internet I explored how the web has revolutionised how we do love, sex and intimacy. For the purposes of this essay, the relevance is in how it all works—paradoxically—to keep us single. The technology is undeniably useful in connecting us with people we wouldn’t otherwise meet in numbers that would not be possible otherwise. And yet it’d be foolhardy not to acknowledge that companies such as eHarmony and Match aren’t charities: they exist to make money. Sure, they want you to date; after all, if there weren’t a ready supply of eligibles you’d flee. You need to be mystically matched and you need to go to a few restaurants and waste your funny with men you won’t see again. But you also need to return to the site with the hope of finding someone just that little bit closer to perfect. And all the while keep paying your monthly subscription fee. These sites are centred on the dating rather than the forever coupling. A curious situation has thus arisen whereby online dating has become the biggest influence on normalising our singleness, and yet it’s an industry that needs us to want actively to change our singlehood while also keeping us as an unattached paying customer.
I resent the word effort. It turns things that should be organic and easy into labour that lacks serendipity, panache. And yet I’ve promised my paranormal investigator pal that I’d put in a little more of it. I’m a vegetarian who knows how to roast a chicken: my wifely virtues truly are being wasted. ‘I totally made banter with a security guard this afternoon,’ I told her the other day.
‘Did that banter involve sarcasm and an inappropriate story?’ She didn’t wait for my answer. ‘Doesn’t count.’