Celebrating Being Single: Gender, Age and Coupledom

By Kate Gilchrist

It’s that time of year when the adverts for dating websites are in full swing, encouraging anyone who’s not already hooked-up to ‘fix their predicament’ in 2015. It reminds me of Tracey Emin’s announcement a few months ago – contrary to such ideas – which celebrates the fact that she is single in her new exhibition entitled ‘The Last Great Adventure is You.’ The Evening Standard quoted her as saying:

‘“I’m very much alone and wanting to celebrate that. It doesn’t mean I’m maudlin. I’ve got to make plans for the future alone.” Emin said that as they got older, couples considered retirement or moving to the country but, “when you’re on your own, you can’t make those plans.”’*

Her need to assert her singledom as a positive rather than a negative, speaks volumes. For a start, it stands out as it’s unusual – how often do we hear of people celebrating their single status in contrast to celebrating their married/coupled status? Emin refutes an association with sadness that being single apparently evokes. She describes how there is no ‘clear’ path set out for her to follow and how she must instead construct her own life plan. This is something Emin clearly feels is less straightforward to do than for those in a couple but, she says, is no less valuable. Emin’s gender and age (she’s in her early fifties) deepen the discrimination she experiences with regard to her single status. While the word ‘spinster’ is now outdated, the associations such a word conjures up are still firmly in place. Emin doesn’t explicitly talk about gender, true, but it led me to think about how such constructions are gendered. And not only how inherently (heterosexually) ‘coupled’ western society is, but also how gendered and aged the status of singledom is.

For example, the recent marriages of two ‘older’ celebrities – George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston – highlight this. They were framed in the media in such a way that not only constructed singledom in a highly gendered way, but also revealed how it is intersected with age.

George Clooney’s marriage at the age of 53, to lawyer Amal Alamuddin, was hailed as the final taming of the handsome playboy, with articles describing Clooney as Hollywood’s most eligible and lusted-after bachelor, and Alamuddin as ‘stealing’ his heart. Jennifer Aniston who – despite her brief marriage to Brad Pitt – placing her ahead of Clooney in terms of being coupled-up – recently announced she would be marrying again at the age of 46. But the media coverage has portrayed Aniston’s nuptials as a long-awaited, overdue ‘life-raft’, saving her from a life adrift as a single woman. While Clooney has just been having years of fun dating different women, (with lots of articles celebrating his list of ex-girlfriends), Aniston has apparently been tirelessly and miserably trawling through Mr Wrongs, to finally find Mr Right – much to our collective relief.

Thus the single heterosexual man is still linked to the image of the carefree, fun-loving bachelor, and while men are admired for eventually becoming ‘family men’, there is much less restriction on when that can happen, with older fathers often only praised for their continued virility (actor Steve Martin has become a father for the first time at 67 to very little negative comment). The older, single, childless woman is still castigated, as we can see from the relief over Aniston’s marriage and by Emin’s need to challenge its current status of ‘something to be pitied.’

Remaining single (or at least unmarried) would not have harmed Clooney’s reputation as much as Aniston’s. Clooney’s situation provoked more a suggestion of disappointment that no lucky woman could ‘catch’ him and an enviousness that Clooney can choose to play the field forever thanks to his sex appeal, rather than despair that he couldn’t attract anyone into marriage. This is not to say, however, that lone men escape entirely unscathed – the failure of a man to be (hetero)sexually active is always frowned upon at any age, whether they are single or attached (film The 40-year-old Virgin is a case in point). What about the other side of the gender binary when it comes to singledom and sex? The sexually active older single female – when not being cast as an animalistic ‘cougar’ – is virtually invisible, bordering a social taboo. And while the sexually active younger single female has become more visible, I’d argue that women pay for that visibility with an intense scrutiny and critique of their behaviour.

The celebration surrounding both of these celebs’ marriages shows that coupledom (ideally in the form of marriage) is always privileged over singledom. As many of my female friends and I can attest, in our mid-thirties we are repeatedly asked in social situations – particularly (surprise, surprise!) at weddings –  whether we are coupled up (married or in a long-term relationship) and if not, why not. That’s not to say that these questions are asked to intentionally harm us, but harm they can. I’m sure if we started asking married people why exactly they were married it’d reveal how loaded such a question is.

It was in response to repeatedly being asked that question that artist Suzanne Heintz, as documented by the Feminist Times, made an art project which explores how singledom is gendered. Using a set of mannequins, she constructed her very own husband and two children to make a fake ‘nuclear family’ and took family pictures in a kitsch 1950s Kodak style. It’s a family structure that haunts her as a single female of a ‘certain age’ living in the U.S. Despite the fact that the nuclear family is a myth rather than a reality (most people actually do not live in a family unit of one heterosexual couple and their children), it is still upheld as the ’norm’; a norm to which, by not conforming, we continue to pay a social price. Heintz uses her mannequins to demonstrate the true hollowness (perfectly embodied by dummies) of hailing only one way of living as, in her words, ‘the only successful life.’

As much as we’d like to think things have changed since the era of Mad Men, we’re just using different ways to reinforce a lot of the same messages. Can we start rewriting the scripts for 2015?

*(The Evening Standard even uses a headline that mimics the language of matrimony: “Emin: I’m going to spend the rest of my life alone and want to celebrate that”).

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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