Picture the scenario– a white, heterosexual single woman on the wrong side of 30 who hates her job and sort of secretly wishes she could have babies so that she can escape from it. But alas, she has no love interests in her life. Lo and behold, within the next few days, she meets a man in a sexual encounter who soon becomes a persistent niggle at the back of her mind until she realises she is unequivocally in love with him. One awkward confession later where it turns out that he’s been feeling the same all along, they kiss passionately and then walk away hand-in hand.
I have just described the plot to nearly every romantic comedy movie ever. It probably stars Cameron Diaz. Or Jennifer Aniston. I would imagine the lead actor is probably a British chap who’s gone to Hollywood because he can’t get on British telly for love nor money anymore. Or Adam Sandler. Actually, it’s most likely Adam Sandler.
As a Single Lady, I am not a fam of romcoms often have a lot of problems identifying with ‘single’ women in fiction, mainly because they tend to end up not single by the end of the film or are not really happy with being single. Those that are, are just not really shown to be desirable characters in any way. Generally speaking, I find that single characters in fiction who stay single are often depicted as being the plain-looking friend whose main role is to offer a shoulder for the lovesick heroine to cry on. She’s intelligent, content with her life, and a really lovely person– and yet, her life is incomplete compared to the heroine due to the simple fact that she has no love interests.
The idea that beautiful women must find a man and be happy has been a subliminal message in fiction for centuries. I am sure that many men and women will disagree, but the notion that young girls must find, specifically, a man to be happy is drilled into us from as soon as we learn to walk and talk. My mother did a very good job of not showering me with gender-stereotyped toys as she firmly believed that her children should have free reign to develop their own personalities. So, while my favourite toys consisted of plastic dinosaurs and toy railways and the like, I also had many Barbie dolls and Polly Pockets which had just as much attention. The latter two are obviously much more heavily marketed at young girls than boys and key thing to recognise here is that these products are dolls– which is to say, something that girls carry with them and take care of, much like a mother would do for a baby. The years go by and after you inevitably ask your parents the awkward baby question, you learn that to make a baby you need a happily-ever-after and a man and a lady who love each other very much.
And then, that is it. Young girls are locked in the mould, and we start to see men and women with happily-ever-afters who love each other very much everywhere. The reality is that life is really just a very long ‘To be continued’ as opposed to a ‘happily-ever-after’ because of fun things that Snow White never had to worry about like mortgages and credit ratings and income tax. Never mind the fact that for many women, ‘happily-ever-after’ doesn’t necessarily mean a successful relationship or a relationship at all. Regardless of this, every fairytale we’re read as girls has a princess marrying a prince. Nearly every book or comic we’ll read in our pre-teen years will be along similar lines– about girls going after boys in their class. We watch Disney movies where the heroine almost always needs some kind of assistance from a man who she inevitably ends up marrying.
I would wager that this happens because, historically speaking at least, fiction is penned chiefly by men. Generations of girls fail to realise it, but because of the predominance of happily married or happily in love women in popular culture, they are being groomed by men from a young age to learn that to be a straight, married woman is true happiness. It’s therefore not a surprise that this trend continues into adult life and becomes prevalent in books, films and TV shows aimed at adults and we see multiple straight female characters whose sole aim is to get a boyfriend or husband and absolutely no single women who are not all that interested in relationships.
Instead, as previously mentioned, this lack of understanding leads to a lot of single female characters in adult-facing fiction ending up either not single by the end of the film or being given designs and descriptions that conjure up women who are conventionally not attractive or, worse still, just a bit of a joke. To give you one example, I am a lover of all things Doctor Who and while for the most part I like the female characters on the show, they are either in love with the Doctor or someone else or, if they are single, they are not very good looking or there is just something a bit off about them. Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate, was a woman whose marriage had not worked out (for various alien-related reasons) and was shown to be rather unsuccessful in life– and yet, she was clever, funny, and really quite content with her lot. To all intents and purposes she should have been a pretty good example of a single female character but unfortunately, while I personally think that Catherine Tate is really quite a charming woman, Donna was shown as being ‘a bit past it’, for want of a better expression, as well as short-tempered and not too bright. Much of her dialogue and actions also fell back on comic relief for the most part, too.
With all that said, to say that all single women in fiction are not diverse or relatable is of course a bit of a sweeping generalisation, as there are exceptions. Comedies written by single women for single women often do a great job of lampooning the situation while at the same time injecting a real sense that the heroine is really just enjoying being true to herself. The BBC’s comedy Miranda, like it or hate it, is just such an example. Not all stories aimed at young girls have heroines whose aim in life is to chase after their prince, either. Do you want to know what show I loved growing up? The Powerpuff Girls. Talk about breaking conventions– three little girls who solved the town’s problems with little or no help and whose only parent was a stay-at-home-Dad who owned and wore a pink flowery apron. Amazing. In the modern age, a lot of independent and non-English-language films also depict very strong single female leads. Additionally, Netflix original series in particular are, I have noticed, strong when it comes to relatable single female characters. Orange Is The New Black is a particularly apt example and while a number of women in the series are romantically interested in other inmates, there are those who are not and who seem quite happy that way.
Talking of that show, where are the POC single women and the single non-cisgender / non-heterosexual women? In most mainstream books, comics and TV shows, single characters are usually white and heterosexual. Lesbian Filipinas you will not find. Black non-binary ladies are also nowhere to be seen. Any and all combinations of non cis-white heterosexual women are a rare thing, according to fiction. The lack of diverse single women in popular culture is extremely frustrating for many Single Ladies already struggling to relate with any Single Lady characters that they might have come across. I can only hope that this will change in the near future and that some genius writer somewhere will write a life comedy about a single Latina lesbian-run vegan bookshop in San Francisco.
Of course, many of you have probably been reading this and are itching to point our that women do have relationships so it would be absurd to have a full cast of women who don’t within fiction. Without a a doubt, it is possible to have a female character in a relationship and for her to still be a strong and relatable character for Single Ladies. The key difference in these cases is that the character’s relationship is not the sole focus of the story and the character may well also have other goals and aspirations besides her loved one. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we therefore see this kind of mentality applied to single women in fiction. Rather than being the plain-looking friend or the oddball or ending up in some kind of relationship by the conclusion, it would be lovely to see single women in fiction portrayed as competent, content individuals who aren’t all that fussed about a happy ending and would much rather enjoy life and all its little adventures as their own mistresses.