Every so often, my best friend Emily Brady and I set aside an evening to eat pie and watch Pushing Daisies (a criminally underrated series that became a sad victim of the Writers’ Strike). During our most recent rewatch, amid our mutual admiration of Anna Friel’s outfits and the comic genius of Aunts Lily and Vivian, Em made the comment, “One thing I really don’t like is the way Olive’s written as someone to be pitied because she’s single.”
I couldn’t believe that this hadn’t hit me before, because it’s something that comes across so clearly in the series. Olive Snook, played by the fantastic Kristen Chenoweth, is a waitress with a deep and unrequited love for the series’ hero, Ned (Lee Pace). When Ned’s childhood sweetheart Chuck (Anna Friel) appears on the scene – a result of him bringing her back from the dead with his magic powers, you know, that old story – Olive spirals into a jealous rage that lasts for the entire first season. This is written as equal parts funny and pathetic, and it’s constantly shoved in the audience’s faces. In one memorable scene, Olive hangs out of her own window to spy on the star-crossed couple in the next apartment; in another, she sings a sad song in the closed restaurant, accompanied by a howling Labrador.
After thinking about this further, I realised there was a good reason that the ‘sad single woman’ trope in Pushing Daisies hadn’t hit me, and that was because this particular trope is so common. A male character can stay single and still be taken seriously. James Bond’s love interests rarely hang around for more than a night. Sherlock Holmes never expresses any romantic interest in anyone (whatever people may think about Irene Adler…or Doctor Watson). The same is not true for women. It doesn’t matter how interesting, engaging or exciting a female character is – if she’s still single by the end of the story, she’s being punished or played for laughs. Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, every Jane Austen heroine – all of them end up happily paired off. Even Luna Lovegood, according to JK Rowling’s notes, eventually marries a man just as eccentric as herself.
There are only two ways a female character can escape this, it seems – if she’s too young (Alice from Lewis Carroll’s two novels, Lucy Pevensie), or if her love ends with a death or a tragic separation (Lyra, Tris from Divergent). Stories that end with a happy single heroine who’s older than twelve are few and far between. It happens very, very occasionally – Whip It is one example, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland another. Mostly, though, if a story centres on a woman, it ends with a kiss.
This trope particularly bothers me, because I’ve now passed my sixth anniversary of being single (I think that’s the Tequila anniversary, or possibly the Entire Cake anniversary). And, no matter how much I try to remind myself that it really isn’t something to be ashamed of, or how much I try and focus on what I’ve achieved and how I’ve grown, I can’t help but feel embarrassed about it. Stories shape how we think, how we see ourselves and the world around us, and after absorbing a lifetime of stories where success equals true love, there is a part of me whispering that I must be a failure.
Obviously, this is not the worst trope in media by a long shot. In a world where sexualised violence is presented as sexy, where women are treated as objects or prizes, where people of colour, trans people and disabled people are tokenised, demonised or erased completely, being made to feel bad about being single is a pretty minor concern. Even so, it’s still an example of misogyny – and just because something’s not as severely oppressive as something else, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of attention.
I wouldn’t feel embarrassed about being single if there weren’t tens of thousands of stories constantly reinforcing the idea that I should. And by stories, I mean any kind of narrative. Avoid romance? Great, but the trope is still there in every other genre. Take a break from reading? Firstly, hell no, I need books like I need air – and secondly, the sad single woman is still there, not just in films or TV shows, but in adverts or jokes or Internet memes about cat ladies.
It’s all very well to tell someone like me “There’s nothing wrong with being single! Concentrate on being happy with who you are!” – but this needs to be backed up in the media. I like a bit of romance as much as the next reader, and I love writing it for my characters (especially when I can mess them around. Sometimes I think that I’m the real villain of my stories). But there’s plenty of romance around already. We need a bit of balance. Olive Snook is a kind, funny, brave person with a killer singing voice, and her story shouldn’t centre around how sad it is that she hasn’t found a man.
I want to see stories where the heroine falls in love, and then falls out of love, and gets on with her life (instead of staring at the wall for months on end. I’m looking at you, Bella Swan). I want to see stories where the heroine and the hero are platonic friends, and no-one bats an eyelid. I want to see stories where the heroine has no romantic subplot at all, and she’s still considered to be a whole and valid person who has just as much right to her story as a girl in love. Because being told “You’re great as you are” isn’t enough when all the stories are showing you that you aren’t. You need to see it.
Alice writes YA fiction filled with horrible romantic awkwardness, because she’s evil. Her novel Spider Circus can be found at Amazon and Smashwords. She overshares about her life on Twitter, and posts stream-of-consciousness writing updates at Facebook. She and Em make two webcomics, Footloose and Cherry.