The Myth Of 20-Something Dating Culture
The Debrief: Singles' culture is dead and here's why that's a good thing
What did I think my mid to late twenties would look like? From my late teens, thanks to TV shows like Friends and Sex and the City which I watched courtesy of Channel 4 and my mum and dad’s TV, I imagined that I would either be living alone or hanging out with my perfect friends all the time, wearing lots of expensive clothes and surrounded by and endless stream of eligible and/or exciting dating options.
Of course, the plot lines of those shows were New York-based and, to be fair, the messages of pop culture’s portrayals of single women were a bit mixed. Sex and The City ran for 7 years from 1998 to 2004. It was purportedly rooted in women’s liberation – dating, romance and friendships in all their messy complicated glory. And yet, the end game for every character turned out to be a conventional, heterosexual relationship. The show, when it finished, saw the lives of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte neatly tied up with the sort of happy ending that you don’t always get in life.
On this side of the pond we had Bridget Jones who seemed to be suggesting that the state of affairs would be considerably less than glam, although, still pretty exciting for a suburban teenager trying to imagine life beyond drinking too many Archers and lemonades and getting off with the same boy, again.
Myth 1: single women like cocktails and can't/won't/don't cook
What seemed certain based on what I was watching was that early adult life would be marked, definitively, by some kind of ‘singles’ or ‘dating’ culture. This would be rooted in a sense of comradery and we would all be there for each other through it, on call 24/7. We wouldn’t spend hours cooking from scratch, we’d go out to eat and sip on cocktails – remember Bridget’s ill-fated parodic ‘blue soup’ and Miranda’s constant calls to her local takeaway? We would all, at some point, be living alone in flat with a living room. And, unless we fell into the feckless ‘Carrie’ category, we would probably own that flat.
Reality has turned out to be quite different. According to the Office for National Statistics in 2014 only 28% of households in the country contained just one person. The number of people across this country as a whole who are single is estimated to be ‘well below’ 40%.
Indeed, contrary to what pop culture’s portrayal of single women might have lead you to believe there are, officially, more single men than women in England and Wales, across all of the age groups. Interestingly, the same can’t be said for the US. Where there are, in fact, more single women than men in many places.
In the UK women are getting married later than ever, although we are not delaying it as much as you might think the age at which we enter into marriage has gone up significantly and the number of us who will never tie the knot has gone up. The average age for first-time marriage in the UK is 36.7 for men and 34.3 for women. So, you might reasonably think, there must be an ever-growing singles'/dating culture in the UK amongst people in their 20s and yet there isn't really one.
Myth 2: dating is glamorous and enjoyable
My American friends living in the UK lament the lack of aforementioned singles' and dating culture here. ‘Nobody talks to anyone when you’re out’ they tell me, ‘how are you ever supposed to meet anyone?’ My former flatmate, a Texan who made it to London via New York noted that what happens in London is less dating more ‘let’s get wasted, have sex and never speak of it or to each other ever again.’
I asked some of my other non-American friends whether they thought we had much of said culture in this country. ‘Not really’, they replied. That said, this conversation took place while we all sat on the floor of on of our rented flats, shared relationship stories and discussed partners past, present and prospective over dinner.
Perhaps this in part because of the recession, but who wants to hear any more about how much that messed things up for this generation (nobody has any money, many of us live in flat shares, our post-recession careers aren’t really in full swing yet and, interestingly, rather a lot of young men still live at home with their parents into their late 20s and early 30s).
Myth 3: single women get asked out by handsome strangers serendipitously
Equally, perhaps it’s down to technology. Sex and The City, Friends and Bridget Jones – around which Western singles' culture calcified in the early 00s – were written in a pre-online dating, pre dating app world. Dating is now quite a solitary thing, it’s something you do scrolling through your phone whilst also watching Bear Grylls’ The Island alone on a weeknight, while you loll hungover on the sofa on Sunday afternoon or when you nip the loo whilst at the pub with your mates. You might show your matches to your mates, but you’ll chat to your potential date via WhatsApp on your own and go out to meet them alone.
‘We don’t really go out on the pull together’ one of my pals pointed out. ‘Well, we did a bit at university, maybe’ the other said. ‘True, but when I go out now I go out with friends I have shared interests with, stuff in common with – we’ve got other stuff to talk about and the focus isn’t getting laid. I think it’s a bit lame to make a big fuss about it. Also being ‘on the pull’ or out in a gang has become related to boozed up uni lad culture and I don’t want to be associated with that’. Another good point was then made, ‘I always feel like it’s shit on your friends when you pull on nights out, it’s boring for them. Plus, I find the whole process a bit demeaning and completely ridiculous. It’s all so obvious and feels a bit grim. I’m too old to be that girl kissing someone in the smoking area of a club now.’ FYI the person who said this has only just turned 27.
One of them did point out, however, that she thinks people approach each other less now on the whole. 'I definitely feel like it's getting harder to pull. Like, in one way it's easier because of Tinder and stuff like that, but I prefer to meet people in real life. I don't go out in big groups of girls any more on the pull like we did at school or uni. When I do go out I just want to have fun with my friends, I'm not looking to get off with some random. I always find it so cringe anyway, I feel really lame when I come onto guys in clubs, but I swear no one ever approaches me these days.'
Myth 4: single women only talk about dating when they get together
The fact that we don’t and never really did go out on the pull as a pack is, perhaps, a good thing. Indeed, the fact that we are all a bit cynical about dating on the whole could also be a good thing. There is no detectable sadness amongst my single friends (and I don’t remember feeling any when I was single) that we aren’t going out on glamorous dinner dates with a different person every night, skipping from bar to bar in shoes we can’t walk in or leaving our friends to go off into the night with a handsome stranger. That said, the general consensus is that it would be good if people started to talk to eachother IRL again and stopped hiding behind their iPhones. Soon after I’d finished asking my questions, the conversation turned to work, politics and whether or not we were realistically going to be able to get up at 6am on Sunday to take our unwanted clothes and flog them at a car boot sale (our intentions are good, but no, probably not).
We shouldn’t feel bad that our lives don’t look anything like the singles' shows and films we watched growing up. Sex and the City, in particular, deconstructed female relationships and pushed the boundaries of the rom com as a genre. The genius of it was that the characters didn’t get it right in fact, more often than not, they got it wrong. However, it’s downfall was that, in the end, it all turned out rather well (before the films of course, but let’s not talk about those). More than this, it turned out pretty conventionally. Big went to Paris to ‘rescue’ Carrie, Samantha ended up with her toyboy hunk Smith by the sea, Charlotte got her perfect marriage and Miranda moved to Brooklyn with her adoring one-balled bar tender. For a show that started out a being revolutionarily realistic in terms of how its characters portrayed and embodied women’s anxieties, hopes, dreams and fuck ups in equal measure, with a far from perfect lead character, the endings each of them were written were, ultimately, idealistic. Friends, equally, put friendship on a pedestal and raised our expectations of what friends were for. Of course it looked perfect, it was TV. Real life isn’t life that, sometimes you’re just watching Netflix on your own and eating take away Nandos.
Myth 5: the sole focus of a single woman's life is to find a person to be in a relationship with
The penultimate series of Lena Dunham’s GIRLS recently drew to a close. At the end of the season Hannah writes a story and takes herself to storytelling club, The Moth, in the hope of being selected to read it out. Her best mate, Jessa, has shacked up with her ex, Adam. It’s not a great situation and it’s no happy ending for Hannah’s troubled and tormented character. However, it is a return for her to writing – her true love. She tells the crowd that the idea for the story came when she went to drop off a fruit basket as a peace offering to Adam and Jessa. She heard them fighting she recounts, and so, because of this, her story ends with her saying ‘I knew I was free at least for tonight.’
GIRLS Season 5 ends with a young single woman telling her own story, in her own words and on her own terms. She’s not defined by her relationships, past, present or future; she’s defining herself in relation to them, which is something we should all strive to do regardless of whether we're single, married or co-habiting. If there is no ‘singles’ culture’ today this is, potentially, no great loss. If the end game of all you do with your mates is to find a relationship, then you might be so busy looking for that that you overlook the friends you’re with at any given moment. If your eye is constantly on ‘the prize’ (and that’s how pop culture portrayals of single heterosexual woman have traditionally portrayed finding a man) then you’re seeing right through what’s in front of you.
The way single women were portrayed throughout the 90s and 00s was, by and large, fairly reductive. Single life is more than a holding pattern in which you circulate until you're given the goahead to land and get on with your journey as part of a pair before you, eventually, clock up enough miles to enter the first class lounge: a world of hen dos and 'I dos'. Shows like GIRLS have begun to show that on our screens but there's still a long way to go towards redefining and reconfiguring our ideas of what women in their twenties are supposed to say, do, think, look like and aspire to. One thing's for sure: we’ve got better things to talk about and more pressing things to be preoccupied by (like whether we'll ever be able to buy a house) than the hyperbolic notion that we’re all going to die alone and be eaten by Alsatians.
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