Why Are Americans Still So Obsessed With Single People—and So Scared by Them?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Feb. 14 2012 2:04 PM

Singled Out

Why are Americans still so obsessed with single people—and so scared by them?

Helen Gurley Brown.
Helen Gurley Brown author of the classic Sex and the Single Girl, here in 2006

Peter Kramer/Getty Images.

The averagely nonjudgmental person may wonder why, in 2012, being single should be a radical act, an interesting topic of discussion, a viable subject for a spate of new books and magazine covers. Why is this relatively ordinary or banal mode of life even worth commenting on? Why, in short, all the fuss? (See the Atlantic cover, “All the Single Ladies,” the Boston Magazine cover, “Single by Choice,” the New York Times travel section cover, “Single in the Caribbean,” and the book by Eric Klinenberg Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, to name only a few.)

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

It has now been 50 long and eventful years since the publication of Helen Gurley Brown’s feminist classic, Sex and the Single Girl, in which she made the groundbreaking observation: “I think a single woman’s biggest problem is coping with the people who are trying to marry her off.”

And it’s disconcerting that living alone, especially for a woman, is still something of a taboo; that vast swaths of the population still foster only barely submerged fantasies of spinsters and cat ladies; that children still sit cross-legged on the floor playing games of “old maid.” In a recent, highly rational exploration of the subject in the New York Times, Klinenberg, a sociologist, points out that nearly half the households in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. consist of a single person, and yet we continue to view the lifestyle of people who live outside of a couple to be as worthy of cover stories as that of rare leopards prowling across the front of National Geographic.

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It is not surprising that in 1962, in pre-awakened, pre-sexual revolution America, Helen Gurley Brown would feel called upon to justify affairs, and the exotic or offbeat pleasures of single life.

In the hot pink, 75-cent paperback edition, she writes about the single experience: “You see enough picture stories in national publications about couples and families to make you feel like the sole occupant of a life raft. To further depress you, the couples and families are always blueberry-pie normal, as industrious as gophers, as much at home in the world as an egg in custard. We know the married state is the normal one in our culture, and anybody who deviates from 'normal' has a price to pay in nonacceptance and nonglorification.”

Helen Gurley Brown was, of course, writing to career girls of the pre-feminist '60s (post-Simone de Beauvoir, but pre-Betty Friedan). She was writing to girls who might be considering buying new white gloves for a date, who mixed highballs and made innovative deserts out of canned peaches, and who wore capris, and yet that world bears a very unsettling resemblance to our world in certain important ways.

The cover of Sex and the Single Girl has a quote calling it “the sensational best seller that torpedoes the myth that a girl must be married to enjoy a satisfying life,” and it is disheartening that people still seem to be torpedoing that very same myth, that anyone deviating from “normal,” or living an unconventional romantic life should be a topic of cultural curiosity and conversation. (And the idea that being single should be considered unconventional is itself a sign of the deep, unacknowledged conservatism that runs through even our blue states. In an election year we like dividing ourselves into the right-thinking and the wrong-thinking, but the right-thinking are not examining the alarming traditionalism at home.)

This cultural obsession with living alone is a sign or symptom. It fascinates and enthralls us and arouses our curiosity because the general wisdom about how to live life, even in liberal circles, is so narrow, so respectable, so uninspired. (Or as Helen Gurley Brown put it, “There are a lot of half-alive people running around in the world.”)

All the public drumrolling about deciding not to get married, or to live alone, or to have a baby on one’s own, is in direct proportion to the resistance single people still feel from the culture, the curiously old-fashioned outsider status they seem to enjoy. It is testimony to how much truth still holds in Helen Gurley Brown’s statement that the single woman’s “whole existence seems to be an apology for not being married.” Why, one might wonder, should single women still be apologizing to anyone, explaining, elaborating, elucidating, as though they are stuck between the pages of an Austen or Trollope novel? These articles would not continue to appear and we would not continue to read them if the choices they described were simply the boring, private choices they should be. (Or as Helen Gurley Brown wrote to the single girl, “You may marry or you may not. In today’s world that is no longer the big question for women.”)

This weekend the indomitable Helen Gurley Brown will be celebrating her 90th birthday, and I think we can safely say she has seen in those 90 years a vast amount of change, and not enough.

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