Guest post by Craig Wynne
In the 1988 film, Crossing Delancey, Amy Irving plays Izzy, a happily thirtysomething single woman living, working, and thriving in New York City. However, a source of conflict stems from her grandmother, who insists on marrying her and is intent on setting her up with Sam, a pickle store owner with whom she has nothing in common. True to the conventions of the romantic comedy, Izzy abandons her independence in order to couple with this man.
Even films outside of the romance genre propagate “coupling.” Many movies have romantic subplots; in addition to the protagonist accomplishing a goal/completing an arc, the hero also finds love. In the 2005 film Roll Bounce, Xavier is able to complete his character arc by entering a roller-skating competition and coming to terms with the death of his mother. He also gets a girlfriend, which appears tangential to the movie’s plot. And not only does he “couple up,” but so do his father and his best friend! They obviously can’t remain single by story’s end.
These are prime examples of singlism, a term coined by psychologist Bella DePaulo to describe the stereotyping and stigma around those who aren’t married or otherwise partnered. This concept is defined as the stereotyping around singlehood.
Singlehood needs to be more accurately represented in fiction and film, as the population of singles is ever-increasing. Fifty years ago, it was common for a person to marry right out of high school or college. These days, people are marrying later, and many opt not to “tie the knot” at all.
At the time of this writing, it is estimated that 50.2% of adults in the United States are single. In China, the marriage rate has declined each year since 2014. While most people do get married at some point in their lives, it is predicted that by 2030, 25% of adults between the ages of 45 and 54 will never marry. Given this increase, if you include singles who never marry or become divorced or widowed, the singles population will be even greater.
Some recent films have reflected this trend. For example, Christy Lemire remarked in her review of 2016’s How to be Single that "it’s…refreshing that not everyone ends up coupled and happy. Some end up alone—and happy.” Spinster, just released this past year, ends with Chelsea Peretti’s unhappily single character becoming happily single.
Why Should I Care?
Such stereotypes can be damaging. Many people become involved in romantic relationships because they feel “incomplete,” an idea often fed to us by popular romance (Jerry Maguire’s “You complete me” line is an iconic example of this). Such involvement can lead them to stay in these relationships, even if they become unfulfilling, toxic, or even dangerous. (The increased rate of domestic violence during COVID-19 is an example of this.)
A handful of studies (Signorelli, 1991; Segrin and Nabi, 2002) have linked the correlation between media consumption and high expectations of romance and marriage. Lippman, Ward, and Seabrook (2014) found that the more romance-themed movies and TV shows college students watched, the more likely they were to believe that romantic relationships should mirror what they see on the screen.
While it can generally be assumed that the views of college-age students are less likely to be shaped by fictional portrayals of romance, we might wonder whether people that age may make major decisions like marrying or having children based on what they see in the media.
Let’s consider the hypothetical scenario below:
Steve and Tara are a college-aged couple, and much of their beliefs about romance have been shaped by their viewing of romance-themed media. They decide to marry soon after graduation. A short time after, they have a child, Andrea. They appear to be a happy family on the surface, but they continue to have problems and are generally not happy with the choice they made to marry. This goes on until Andrea turns 18, which is when they decide to divorce.
Such a scenario may seem extreme, but the circumstances are not uncommon. Many couples stay in bad marriages or partnerships because they’ve been led to believe that being single is bad. We don’t know if couples in similar situations have been influenced by the media, but more discussion is needed to determine whether media has such an impact.
Whether it does or not, it is important for viewers to look at these films with a critical eye as to the messages they’re attempting to promote so they’re not influenced to enter and stay in unhealthy relationships.
Craig Wynne is an Associate Professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia and the author of How to be a Happy Bachelor.
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