Beyond 'Bridget,' a fuller view of single women

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

Or as over-sexed urbanites.

Or as stalkers.

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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.

Single women who see her show say, "Oh, there's all these other people like me," she says.

That's also what people tell Regena English of Houston. She wanted to meet more single women, so she started a newsletter and a website for "Leather Spinsters," a name from the 1980s that refers to resilient single women. For her, the term describes women under 55 who are happily unmarried. After almost three years, her quarterly newsletter has a circulation of 300,000.

"The No. 1 complaint is having to live up to what the media say single women are supposed to be," she says of depictions of loneliness and desperation.

During research for her coming book about changing relationship patterns, Dr. Whitehead has counted some 20 novels that women, mostly in their 30s, have written in the last decade.

Laura Zigman is on Whitehead's list. Ms. Zigman's bestselling novel "Animal Husbandry" was the basis for "Someone Like You" starring Ashley Judd as a TV booking agent who goes through a breakup. In the book the heroine doesn't get another guy; in the movie she does.

Part of the reason she wrote the book was the lack of literature that talked about being heartbroken -aside from Madame Bovary and cheesy self-help books, Zigman says. "It mirrored what happens to a lot of women where there is a big gap between relationships."

Persistent insecurities

Not all singles are enamored of all the books in the genre. While the title character in "Bridget Jones's Diary" is likable and surprisingly open about her failings, she is also obsessed with her weight and finding Mr. Right. Bridget's desperation -and the antics on "Sex in the City" may be funny, but hardly reflect real lives, many women say.

Still, Helen Fielding's 1996 "Bridget" book -loosely based on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" -is one of the best-known novels in this new genre. It was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, prompting a sequel and the film, with Renee Zellweger.

One thing that might help younger single women feel more secure in their singleness is more images of older single women, says Kay Trimberger, a professor of women's and gender studies at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

"In your late 20s and early 30s," it's harder to be single "because you're more subject to societal and marriage pressures," she says. "Whereas older single women have created lives for themselves," including strong family ties and circles of friends wider than even married women have.

CBS's "Judging Amy," has a good example of that. Amy's mother is single, and a social worker. Amy herself is a judge and single mother -more than a stereotype.

"It's a great example," says Potuchek, "It can include romance, but its not about it."

Even more telling may be that the people behind Harlequin romances are coming out with a new line of books in November. They will focus on the coming-of-age experiences of single women.

"More than anything, these books are supposed to reflect real life situations. They're hopeful but not fantasy based," says Margaret Marbury, editor of the new imprint Red Dress Ink. "These aren't exclusively the search for Mr. Maybe, but a single woman's pursuit of happiness, whatever that may be."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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