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Hey, I Thought You Said It Was OK to Be Single

BALTIMORE SUN

In a dim and dingy London apartment, Bridget Jones is huddled on a ratty, paisley couch in rattier-than-couch pajamas, swigging wine from a bottle and sniffling as she morosely sucks on cigarettes.

And just when it seems this scene in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” couldn’t get more depressing, Jones starts belting out the ultimate anthem of loneliness: “All by myself. Don’t wanna be . . . All by myself. Anymore.”

Ain’t it great to be a single woman in the 21st century?

Apparently not, at least according to Hollywood.

It used to be that single women constantly were nagged by mothers, aunts and married friends to step up the all-important quest for a husband. Today, however, add Hollywood and pop culture to these sources of pressure.

“Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the movie version of Helen Fielding’s wildly popular book, is just the latest offering in a growing list of media images that seem to shoot down the notion that singledom isn’t a problem for the modern woman. There’s television’s uber-neurotic “Ally McBeal,” those four eternally seeking “Sex and the City” gals and magazines such as Mademoiselle, whose May issue hit newsstands with the blaring headline “Desperate for a Diamond.” It’s all enough to make a young, single woman want to hide her barren ring finger in shame.

I should know. I’m single.

Now, I enjoyed “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and have almost every episode of “Sex and the City” on tape. Nonetheless, it bothers me that single women often come across as desperate, lonely and completely batty in pop culture. Here we are, supposedly enjoying post-feminism, a time when we’re loving our careers, we don’t need men to define who we are and we’ve unshackled ourselves from the notion of having it all (which seemed coined to give us guilt for not having a beau/husband/family in addition to our fabulous jobs). Yes, our lives are imperfect, but we’re independent and happy, thank you very much.

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So why is it that when men are single in Hollywood productions, they get to date dozens of chesty blonds--in one scene--or battle aliens trying to conquer the White House? But when women are single in Hollywood, they get to sit alone in their apartments and drink themselves to sleep or conquer their fears of spinsterhood by bedding half the men in New York City?

As sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” probably would type on her little laptop at this point: “Is the life of a single woman really that bad?”

Take Bridget Jones, icon of female “singletons” all over the world. She’s a neurotic, thirtysomething woman obsessed with snagging a man, losing weight and drinking less--in that order. Her diary entries include such deep ponderings as, “Oh, why am I so unattractive? Even a man who wears bumblebee socks thinks I am horrible.”

Or how about Ally McBeal, the scrawny lawyer who is bumbling but stellar in the courtroom, but bumbling and unsuccessful in pinning down a man. She pouts and whines about her love life and has a biological clock that ticks so loudly it gives her hallucinations of a dancing baby.

And what of the lovely ladies of “Sex and the City”? They’re all gorgeous, thin and successful. But what do they do when they get together? Down lattes and cosmopolitans while discussing such frustrating questions as: “Do women really just want to be rescued?” (To which, Charlotte famously said, “I’ve been dating since I was 15; I’m exhausted! Where is he?”)

One woman who has insight into why single women often come across as such desperate creatures in film and television is also one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers--Nora Ephron.

Ephron not only wrote the watershed relationship movie “When Harry Met Sally . . . ,” she also had a hand in “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” so she is fairly expert about portrayals of single women in box-office hits. She said the searching-single-women paradigm is popular in Hollywood because it’s real.

“I loved the book of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary,’ ” Ephron said. “The section in it where she leaves a desperate message on his machine and then punches almost every number from 1 to 20 into the machine in a desperate attempt to crack the code and erase the message. . . . I thought that section was so true and fantastic that I was wildly jealous of never having thought of it myself.”

I’ve certainly never tried to break the code of any man’s answering machine, but like other women I know, I might have left a message (or 10) in the past giving off very slight hints of desperation.

And perhaps these single-woman stereotypes, while annoying in large doses, are in some ways better than previous Hollywood portrayals of women.

“In the ‘70s, you saw a lot of the superwoman who could have it all, and so if you didn’t have it all, you were inadequate,” said Tina Pieraccini, a State University of New York communications studies professor who has published a study titled “Women and the Media.”

Today’s Hollywood single women provide a healthy image, Pieraccini added. “The emphasis is that she is a single woman, she is capable of taking care of herself so she doesn’t need someone, but she wants someone.”

So maybe there are positives to be found in the pervasiveness of today’s searching single woman. Yes, the dating world has become a nebulous jungle many of us claim we would rather avoid than trudge through. But at least today we don’t have our paths predetermined--marry early, stay at home, cook for your man, have kids.

We get to figure out life on our own terms--finding a partner who accepts us for how smart and accomplished we are, deciding when is the right time to settle down, wondering whether there’s a person for us out there who’s man enough to stay home and raise the kids so we don’t have to. Maybe it’s confusing and frustrating, but gosh darn it, at least we get a choice.

On balance, even the desperate women crowding movie and TV screens today are often about more than being superficially pathetic singletons.

In “Ally McBeal” and “Sex and the City,” the women might be single and looking, but the men they deal with often are just as bewildered and angst-ridden. Also, “Sex and the City” really is about the strong friendships among the four women who ultimately need one another more than those silly men who come and go.

And in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” although we see Bridget dithering through life, we also eventually see her growing enough to know what she really wants in a man--and mastering the all-important skill of rejecting a subpar specimen.

Maybe it’s not saving the world from angry aliens a la Will Smith, but it’s still a heroic accomplishment. So bring on the men and pass the wine bottle. But hey, let’s cut down on the whining a little, OK?


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