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Beyond 'Bridget,' a fuller view of single women

By Kim Campbell Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 2001

Single women have a request for Hollywood: Stop depicting us as desperate and lonely.

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Or as over-sexed urbanites.

Or as stalkers.

And would it be possible for the girl to not get the guy in the end and still be happy?

The growth in the ranks of single women in recent decades - due in part to divorce and marrying late or not at all - has created a new cultural phenomenon. Today, some 40 percent of all adult women are single.

In Tinseltown and on bookstore shelves, the media are beginning to present more nuanced portrayals of these women - from the self-sufficiency in CBS's "That's Life" to the candidness of "Bridget Jones's Diary," which opens in theaters tomorrow.

Driving that is a grass-roots explosion of novels and newsletters, photo exhibits and websites dedicated to a more faithful presentation of single women, whose experiences differ dramatically from those of their mothers and grandmothers.

"There's no script for them [to] follow or borrow from an earlier generation of women," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. "They're defining this stage of life as they go through it."

Despite the popularity of "Ally McBeal" and "Sex in the City," single women say they feel they are often a transparent part of society, considered neither complete nor financially viable.

"We're seen as people-in-waiting," says Lorie Johnson, a single woman in Little Rock, Ark., who is about to buy her own home. "The idea that we could be happy and content with our lives and escape the marriage-go-round seems to escape [people]."

There are some exceptions. The TV show "That's Life" is about a woman who dumps her fiance and goes back to college in her 30s. But generally, the media "still can't imagine a single woman having a personal life that does not include a romantic involvement," says Jean Potuchek, a sociologist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

Part of the problem is that society is still figuring out what to do with women who aren't following the traditional married-with-children pattern.

About 43 million women - or 40 percent of the adult female population -are over 18 and single, according to 1998 census figures. Thirty years ago, that number was about 30 percent.

More men are single, too, but the percentages of unmarried women ages 25 to 29, and 30 to 34 have roughly tripled between 1970 and 1998. The median age of marriage for women has also gone up -from about 20 in 1960 to 25 in 1998.

Money to be made

A Young and Rubicam study from last summer suggests that marketers ignore single women at their own peril -now that they are more frequently buying cars and houses and taking vacations on their own - a contrast to the unfulfilled types the media often makes them out to be.

"Happily married is something people have an image of. But there is no shared cultural image of being happily single," says Professor Potuchek.

As a result, many women are creating those images themselves. Barbara Colombo of Nederland, Colo., started taking pictures of single women when she was struggling with career and dating issues in her early 30s. Her photos are now part of a traveling exhibit called"Over 30: Portraits of Unmarried Women" that highlights women ages 30 to 86.