“Historically, do you think ‘being single’ has been positively or negatively portrayed by the media/society?”
That was one of many questions more than 1,000 single adults were asked in a recent survey. The participants were all young adults, ages 18-25. They were a diverse group with regard to characteristics such as race/ethnicity and sexual orientation/gender identity. (Although the survey was released by Tinder, 29% of the participants were not Tinder users.)
I expected the young adults to say that historically, the media and society have portrayed singles negatively. I’ve been studying stereotypes of single people for many years. My research — and other people’s, too — consistently shows that single people are judged more harshly than married people or people in romantic relationships. Portrayals of singles in the media and in society are likely to contribute to those judgments.
Much to my surprise, the survey results showed that only 35% of the young adults said that the media and society have historically portrayed singles negatively. Just about the same number, 37%, said that being single has been portrayed positively. The others, 28%, said the portrayal has been neutral.
That could be a heartening finding. Maybe today’s young single people are not experiencing the same feelings of being put down that generations before them have, and they assume that things were not that different in the past.
But then I looked at what happened when the men’s answers and the women’s answers were considered separately. That was a whole different story. It was only the single men who thought that being single had been portrayed positively by the media and by society: Nearly half of them (47%) said that being single had been portrayed positively, compared to just 28% who said the portrayal had been negative. (The others chose the “neutral” answer.)
The single women totally disagreed. Only 30% of them said that being single had been portrayed positively. More of them – 39% — said that singles had been portrayed negatively.
If you look again at the question at the top of this article, you will see that the survey participants were asked about singles in general. They were not asked how single men or single women had been portrayed. My guess is that when single men thought about that question, the examples they brought to mind were mostly of portrayals of single men in the media/society, and the women thought mostly about the women. But that’s just a guess. I would love to know which particular examples the participants were thinking about when they made their judgments.
The participants in the survey were also asked about the particular ways that single people have been viewed or portrayed in the media and in society. Specifically, they were asked whether they thought single people were depicted as adventurous, angry or bitter, desperate, empowered, fun, happy, lonely, or sad. In their answers to those questions, the men and women mostly agreed.
Both the men and the women thought that single people were most often depicted as lonely. Half of the men said that singles were portrayed as lonely, and 60% of the women said the same thing.
Next came desperate and sad. Thirty-nine percent of the men and 42% of the women said that singles are depicted as desperate. Thirty-eight percent of the men and 43% of the women said that singles are portrayed as sad. Many of them also thought singles were painted as angry and bitter (29% of the men and 38% of the women).
Each of the positive characterizations (fun, adventurous, happy, empowered) was endorsed by only about a quarter of the men and a fifth of the women.
I wondered how the single people in the survey felt about themselves. Was it the same or different from how they thought they had been depicted in the media and in society? Fortunately, participants were asked the question, “How does being single make you feel?” They were offered some of the same characteristics to endorse: adventurous, empowered, happy, lonely, and sad.
With just one exception, both the men and the women thought that single people were depicted in more negative ways than how they actually felt about themselves. The biggest difference was for sadness: these young single people thought that singles get portrayed as much sadder than they personally feel.
For the single women, there was also a big difference for happiness. They thought singles were depicted as far less happy than they felt. The same was true for the men, but the difference was smaller.
Both the men and women thought that single people were portrayed as lonelier and less adventurous than they felt themselves.
The women thought that singles were portrayed as less empowered than they felt themselves.
The one exception was for the men. They thought single people were portrayed as more empowered than they felt themselves.
Young single men think that being single has been portrayed mostly positively, in contrast to young single women, who think that being single has been portrayed mostly negatively. However, both agree that specific portrayals of single people are more often negative (lonely, desperate, sad, angry and bitter) than positive (fun, adventurous, happy, empowered). In most ways, they feel more positively about themselves as single people than the media or society has made them out to be. They feel happier, more adventurous, more fun (and, if they are women, more empowered) than they have been portrayed. They also feel less lonely, desperate, sad, angry, or bitter than they have been depicted.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the media and society caught up with how single people really do feel about themselves?