“Part of the reason being single is terrible is that it’s been made into a mystifying condition, marked by failure, characterised by an almost unassimilable oddity, despite its always threatening ubiquity.”
— Michael Cobb, Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled
My first encounter with the perils of ‘singlehood’ happened while apartment hunting in Mumbai. I was 22, armed with my first job, and with nowhere to stay. On one of these expeditions, an elderly couple told me with firm politeness that I was ‘like a daughter’ to them but did not make a suitable tenant. Still a novice to Mumbai’s ‘The Great Apartment Race’, it took me a minute to process what seemed like contradictory statements. Before I could respond, I was offered this helpful explanation: because I was a combination of ‘single’ and ‘woman’, taking me in would be a ‘risk’.
Ten years later, I am still a ‘risk’. This familiar soundtrack plays on loop as I move from one apartment to the next, trailing multiple rejections in their wake. And it isn’t just the apartment hunting. Navigating the city as a single woman has taught me that going out for a meal, getting a drink, or staying out late become ‘tasks’ when performed alone. Going through life as a single woman means family gatherings produce an endless stream of well-meaning but unsolicited advice. First dates come with a side serving of ‘why is someone like you still single’? Singlehood turns me into an object of scrutiny. In being single, I am singled out.
Of course, much of my experience is by virtue of being a middle class, upper caste, cis woman with a femme presentation. While this social location means I am subject to specific forms of gendered monitoring and anxieties, it is also a source of privilege. This privilege ensures that I am allowed into certain spaces, and at the same time, I can extricate myself from these spaces if need be. That, while it may be difficult for me to find a space of my own, it is not impossible.
But even cushioned by this privilege, I am acutely aware of the microaggressions single women face. I know something of the labour of having to account for one’s single status, having to explain that it might actually be a preference, something to hold on to. I get the struggle of having to clarify that alone and lonely are not the same, and that unsolicited concern is often intrusive. I am aware of the gendered anxieties that arise when women insist on staying single, flouting (hetero)normative structures and relations.
So recently, when Emma Watson spoke to British Vogue about the incredible amounts of stress and anxiety that follows, “…if you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out…”, I got it. That even Watson — a beloved pop culture icon, an international movie star and a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador — is affected by this “subliminal messaging” is something to think about.
I am, however, conflicted by what she said next — that she would rather describe herself as ‘self-partnered’ instead of ‘single’. To be clear, this is NOT a comment on Watson’s decision to use this term. It is the word itself — self-partnered — that I am concerned about. I am interested in what the term might imply and what purpose it might serve.
Because language is never neutral.
A More Palatable Euphemism?
To me, the term ‘self-partnered’ buys into the very culture that it seeks to reject. By retaining the word ‘partnered’, it misses an opportunity to point out that surely partnering cannot be the only eventual outcome. It merely defers the imperative of partnering to sometime in the future, without ever rejecting it. In doing so, it reaffirms that single may be good, but double is better. It, thus, fails to speak to women who may choose singlehood as a way of life, not just as a phase preceding marriage and children.
It leaves unquestioned the power relations that underpin all relationships, but especially heterosexual relationships, and how women are positioned in them through love and work. And surely, it is this injunction of partnering that often keeps women (and men) tethered to relationships which have turned sour, toxic, and even abusive. It seems to have not made peace with the fact that an unwillingness to partner or the rejection of a partner are valid responses.
It sees the shiny, happy side of being single and, in doing so, glosses over who can afford to be self-partnered. Evocative of a vocabulary of ‘taking myself out’ and self-care routines, it is inflected with race, class and privilege. It sounds very much like a feel-good term that only an exclusive club of elite women have access to.
It looks for an amicable way to be confident and assertive, and therefore, does not really think about why we need need another word for ‘single’. What is it about single women and how we move through life that disturbs the status quo?
We know that the word ‘single’ is already gendered. It takes on a specific set of meanings when the one who is single is also a woman. Feminist scholars like Nirmal Puwar argue that the ways in which the gendered (and racialised and classed) body takes up space is a function of where it is located relative to the masculine norm. Not being the norm, women become ‘space invaders’ — bodies out of place.
Gendered anxieties are especially heightened when this gendered body is of a single woman who wants nothing to do with (hetero)normative marriage or relations. These anxieties show up in questions like ‘why are you single’, ‘why aren’t you trying hard enough’, ‘maybe you just need to lower your standards’. Well-meaning anxieties that mask their underlying violence. It is not a surprise, then, that the vocabulary of self-partnered feels safer because it deflects some of these anxieties. Precisely by keeping the promise of partnering alive. But deflecting them doesn’t do away with them.
Enter The ‘Feminist Killjoy’
Maybe what we need, then, is not another euphemism to mask these anxieties, but to reclaim the word ‘single’ in order to unmask them. It is only by making these gendered anxieties clear that we can interrogate why only certain kinds of lives as livable and permissible for women. Yes, reclaiming words that are meant to disparage cannot be without consequences. And so, reclaiming the word ‘single’ — both as a political stance and a lived reality — will mean inviting backlash, disturbing the false peace of certain spaces, and pushing back against well-meaning familial and friendly concern. It will be read, as feminist acts are often read, as angry and combative. An act that kills joy.
But as feminist theorist Sara Ahmed who introduced us to the beloved figure of the ‘feminist killjoy’ tells us, “there can be joy, in killing joy”. When the feminist killjoy is accused of killing joy, she is in fact only exposing the gendered realities that no one else will talk about. She is pointing to “the bad feelings (or anxieties) that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy (or heteronormative bliss).” In that moment, by refusing to be happy with the status quo, she makes possible other modes of being.
By refusing to play along with what is given and permissible, by questioning who is permitted what and how much, by challenging not just the status quo but also ostensibly ‘feminist’ assertions that depoliticise what is deeply political, the feminist killjoy makes possible new ways of joyful living.
It is in spirit that I suggest reclaiming the figure of the ‘single woman’. As a feminist killjoy act.
This article was originally published on Feminism in India.
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