Singles as Doc Stars

What does mean to be single? This is a defining moment.

Posted Jul 19, 2008

Recently, I got an email about a documentary on living single. The promotional materials for Seeking Happily Ever After said that the trailer was voted a "Top Rated Trailer" at Sundance and that the film was a "hip, poignant, and entertaining documentary" that will "leave viewers surprised, hopeful, curious, and rethinking assumptions about what it means to be single." I'm a voracious consumer of all things single, so I would have watched the trailer even without the great pitch. I did, and from just those few moments, I think the film really may be a "hip, poignant, and entertaining documentary" that is myth-busting, too.

Those of you who read this blog know that I like to collect instances of singlism and matrimania and make fun of the perpetrators. Today's post will be different. That's because, when I went to add this in-progress documentary and other updates to the Links and Resources page of my website, I was struck by just how many of the entries on that page were completely missing from the societal, cultural, and intellectual landscape when I first taught a course on singles in 1999.

I'm no historian, but I suspect that we are living in a special moment in time with regard to what it means to be single. The changes have been dramatic, but what do they mean? Those many new additions to my Resources section - maybe they are different approaches to puzzling out the answer to that question.

"Seeking Happily Ever After" is third new documentary about singles for which I've received pitches in just the past week. In another, "Bachelorette, 34," a whole generational disconnect is captured, one quip and quote at a time. "Kara," says the protagonist's mom, "I met the perfect man for you. He's 30, you're 30, it's perfect!"

The third documentary was a disappointment, filled with clichés about singles as mate-seeking, bar-hopping troubled souls who even find travel to be painful because they are taking the pictures rather than posing for them. But in a way, that's my point - what it means to be single is contested terrain. Doc #3 is trying to hold its stereotyped ground, while the other two try to peek through the yellowed lace curtains of the past into a new and uncertain present and future.

When I taught that course on singles in 1999, the only undergraduate amidst all of the grad students, Rachana Bhide, proposed a magazine for singles as her final project. Now, in 2008, just such a magazine is set to launch. As the website says, "Singular magazine - created by singles, for singles - is an advocate for those who enjoy their single status, whether temporary or lifelong."

The 21st century also sports a retreat for single women. Led by Karen Gail Lewis, author of "With or Without a Man: Single Women Taking Control of Their Lives," it may well be the only retreat for single women that is not about finding a man.

This fall will also feature a "New Attitudes Singles Telesymposium." The topics seem to range from the traditional to the contemporary.

The book aisles also have a new look for the new century. There are anthologies about living single edited by Jane Ganahl and Diane Mapes. Another, starring single Black women and edited by Nika Beamon, is in press.

In academia, the Chronicle of Higher Education published my essay with Rachel Moran and Kay Trimberger, urging our colleagues to "Make Room for Singles in Teaching and Research." There is now a Singles Studies website, a listserv for academics interested in single women throughout history, and a foundation that funds research on singles.

The American Association for Single People (AASP), sometimes called Unmarried America, is the one resource that was available when I first started studying singlehood in the 1990s. Thomas Coleman still maintains it as an online informational resource. The Alternatives to Marriage Project (AtMP) is an organization that has for years advocated on behalf of unmarried couples. Under Nicky Grist's leadership, the concerns of people who are single (and uncoupled) are now pursued even more vigorously than they were before.

Of course, as is so often the case these days, much of the action is online. There, many groups and individuals are doing what they can to create spaces where every single voice can be heard. (My list is here; please send suggestions for additions.) Barbara Payne's Single Working Women site is paired with a radio show. Sasha Cagen's QuirkyAlone is a vibrant and compelling community, not always content to stay in their place in cyberspace. Hat tip, too, to Sherri Langburt, whose Single Edition even got touted by the royalty of the MSM, the New York Times.

I fear that I'm unwittingly leaving out some important contributors and innovators, and for that I apologize in advance. But I also smile, because a decade ago, I don't think I would have predicted that there would be so many people to thank.