For better or for worse, The Bachelor finale that drew millions of viewers last week had America abuzz about single women in a way that only a pop culture phenomenon can.
Desperate, pathetic, catty, anachronistic, typical, sympathetic, amusing, engaging — everyone who watched, and even some who didn't, had an opinion on the 25 young women who vied on national television to win the heart of bachelor Aaron Buerge.
As it turns out, reactions to the battle of the wannabe brides show how torn our society can be about the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population — single women.
According to some cultural observers, the bachelorettes — and other, fictional single gals looking for love, like Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal — present a harmful distortion of America's 17.3 million single women.
Have women really come a long way, baby, if a guy is still the ultimate prize, these critics ask?
"This is something out of the '50s," said Betsy Israel, author of the recently released book Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century. "You see these women competing with each other trying to resolve their lives in a morality play. It's embarrassing. It's specifically meant to pit women against one another," she said.
Others say the popularity of dating shows and the proliferation and mainstreaming of online dating services show that American women, and men, too, are still looking for a dream partner. And what's wrong with that, they ask?
"People like to see people fall in love. Who knows how many people covet that for themselves?" said Kate Kennedy of the conservative think tank Independent Women's Forum.
Feminists have made it seem passé for women to want marriage, she added. "If you covet that, you'd better not voice it or you will be viewed as weak. You're not viewed as weak if you're single," Kennedy said.
Single Women By the Numbers
Critics like Israel say single women are wrongly portrayed as a special interest group outside the mainstream of society. Consider these facts about the demographic:
Single women comprise the fastest-growing segment of the American population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with 42 percent of women 18 and older never married, divorced or widowed.
According to the National Association of Realtors, single women now comprise the second largest group of homebuyers, just after married couples.
The number of women living alone has doubled since 1970 to 15.3 million.
Still, popular culture is more likely to portray single women as social outcasts, said Israel, whose book looks at the cultural representations of women over the last century.
"It's basic in this culture that women were always supposed to be married. If they weren't, they were thought to be aberrant. 'Spinsters' were going to lose their teeth, their ovaries would shrink, their breath would stink, their boobs would fall down their waists — the only way out of this predicament was to get a man," she said.
Of course, how pop culture represents single women does not necessarily reflect real attitudes about women. The media construct images for they're own purposes, which are usually money-making in nature, said Sally Kitch, a women's studies professor at Ohio State University.