When I first started studying single people, one thing that was immediately obvious was how relentlessly they were stereotyped. Eventually, my colleagues and I would conduct scientific tests of the stereotypes I thought were out there. It was no surprise when our results showed that single people were seen as miserable, lonely, self-centered, immature, and so much more. Those stereotypes, like many others, have mostly been debunked.
For the first year or so of thinking about single people and how they were viewed by others, I tried to figure out what single people could do to spare themselves from getting stereotyped and stigmatized. That was naïve. The answer was nothing. For example, if single women wanted to avoid getting stereotyped as promiscuous, they could try to make it clear that they were not at all like that. But it turns out that other people are not deterred by your defiance of one particular stereotype. They’ll just come up with another one. For example: poor thing, you aren’t getting any.
That realization inspired me to write chapter titles for Singled Out such as the following: “Attention, single women: You don’t get any and you’re promiscuous.” I was underscoring and mocking the way in which, no matter what single people do, they get disparaged. That’s why I encourage single people to live the lives that work for them – their best, most authentic, lives. Trying to live up to other people’s demands and trying to dodge criticism is pointless.
When Toni Morrison died in August (2019), David Remnick wrote about her in The New Yorker. He said that she saw the key function of racism as distraction. In her words, racism:
“…keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms, and you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
So it is with single people and singlism. There is always one more thing thrust upon them, another insult to defend against. They are different ones for single people – for example, that they are miserable and lonely and self-centered. (They are not.)
As applied to single people, Toni Morrison’s message is probably correct. It is not necessary to keep defending against one claim after another. I still do it sometimes, because so many people have taken it to heart when they see headlines proclaiming that married people are better than they are, and that science says so. It makes me angry and exasperated that my fellow social scientists continue to make the same errors in conducting and interpreting research, over and over again. Debunking their claims is something I do get tired of doing, even when I never get bored with writing about any other aspects of singlehood.
Maybe I will someday get to the point of following Toni Morrison’s advice. I’ll see the next bogus claim about the supposed superiority of married people and I’ll remind myself that debunking just isn’t necessary.