On the day before Valentine’s Day, some girlfriends and I made plans to have brunch and go to a movie. We were following in Leslie Knope’s Parks and Recreation footsteps with a “Galentine’s Day” designed to celebrate female friendship. We planned to see How To Be Single, which looked like a hilarious, somewhat risqué romp through what it might be like to be solo, especially in a big city. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to spend the day.
I settled in for the movie, encountering a main character fresh out of college. Alice has been dating the same guy all through school and breaks up with him (temporarily, she says) at the beginning of the movie because she wants to experience the single life. I can’t imagine that I was the only single woman in the theater who took a deep breath as we watched this part. I know that she’s a fictional character, and that breaking up “to experience being single” is often a sign that something else in the relationship isn’t working, but I couldn’t help thinking that this girl had what many of us wanted, and she was choosing to walk away from it to have whatever it was she thought we had.
As the movie went on, I met the other single characters. There is a woman in her thirties, a successful doctor, who suddenly decides she wants a baby. One woman starts dating online, desperately trying to use algorithms to find the right person for her. Another, played by Rebel Wilson, sleeps with a new guy every night and teaches Alice how to pull herself together for work with a hangover.
The doctor decides to have a baby alone, and then starts dating a much younger man. The online dater finds love organically, and Rebel Wilson keeps dancing the night away. Alice, on the other hand, spends the movie bouncing from relationship to relationship. At one point she tries to rekindle things with her ex, but finds that he’s already moved on to a new relationship.
Throughout the movie, there is a recurring detail. Alice can’t unzip her own dresses. Apparently, she’s always had someone to do it for her. As a woman who has been single for most of my adult life, this struck me as pathetic. If Alice was truly that helpless, perhaps she wasn’t cut out for the hard work of being single, or for that matter, the hard work of a relationship.
Eventually, Alice decides to hike the Grand Canyon at night on New Year’s Eve, alone, something she’s always wanted to do. She brings a big pack to the gym, training for the real thing on the stair-stepper. Instead of continuing to go out with her friends, she reads Wild and The Bell Jar on her fire escape. She creates a device in her closet to help her with her zippers.
Although I had hoped for a movie that made me feel that my point of view was getting out into the world, even in a small way, I left the theater feeling misunderstood, disappointed, and bit annoyed. I couldn’t really be alone in my feelings, could I? It couldn’t be that I was the only one doing singleness the way I am.
For a long time, Liz Tuccillo’s book of the same name has been on my to-read list. If I’d read the back cover copy, I’m sure I would have dismissed something with the basic plot I’d just seen in the movie. I decided to discover the differences.
Immediately, I was in a different world. Liz’s main character, Julie, is 38, and has been single for all of her adult life, with relationships here and there. She would love to be married, and to have children. She has a friend dealing with clinical depression, hoping to have children and find a guy, but afraid of disappointment, another who is recently divorced, beginning to date again for the first time in years, one who is treating dating like a job, and another who is very cut off from her feelings. Julie contracts to write a book about the experiences of single women around the world and travels to several different countries where she conducts interviews. Although the book is fiction, Liz (who co-wrote He’s Just Not That Into You, and wrote for Sex and the City), actually did just that.
Although I would call this an R-rated book (there’s plenty of sex and risqué situations), I was relieved to see that there were no women in their early 20s who couldn’t handle their own wardrobe changes. It was striking that the movie protagonist burrowed inward, reading books about and by other young women, while the book protagonist set out to discover another point of view, a global one.
Even though I don’t do singleness the way Julie and her friends do, I was able to see myself in their thoughts and stories. When they worried about why they can’t just love themselves on their own, I get it. When they mourn that they won’t be young brides and young mothers, I understand. When they are concerned that it’s silly to be worrying about singleness in the face of extreme poverty and suffering, I nod along. I have asked myself these questions. I have listened to my friends over burgers and drinks, wondering if they will ever meet anyone, or if it’s simply God’s will for us to be single always. I have sat in my therapist’s office and told her that I just can’t take it any longer.
It’s because of these moments of deep vulnerability that accompany the single life, that I take issue with How To Be Single, the movie. Art is powerful. The stories we tell have repercussions far beyond entertainment. I do not have to choose between isolation and self-focused goal setting and getting drunk at clubs and sleeping with strangers. There are about a million other ways to be single. This movie doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
As my friends and I made plans to see the movie, we joked about the title. “I’m pretty sure we already know how to be single,” a friend said. “But I guess we can see it anyway.” As with every other state of being, being single is sometimes hard and sometimes lovely. I have wished it away, and I have breathed a prayer of thanks for it. But it is where I am, even if it doesn’t sum up everything about me. It’s a part of how I see and and experience the world. I do it the way everyone else does their lives, one precious moment at a time.