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.
"Unfortunately, the message that's belittling to women often seems to be what sells or appeals to mass audiences," she said. "But I don't believe that even for those who watch or enjoy those programs that their own lives necessarily follow the guidelines of those programs. Human beings are contradictory."
Mixed Signals to Singles
Contradictory, indeed, says Renee Jones, a 39-year-old single from Dayton, Ohio. Even though society has come a long way from calling single women old maids or spinsters, single women still get mixed signals, she said.
"We talk big talk about how liberated we are and about society not viewing us as spinsters or old maids," Jones said. "But there's still a little bit of a stigma that says it's unnatural not to want a boyfriend or spouse at all times. There's still this mindset that it's better than being alone."
Jones married at 20, divorced two years later and has been single ever since. She hasn't ruled out the possibility of partnering up and even puts her profile on dating Web sites.
But she's long past the point of feeling so anxious about having a husband that she'll date men she knows she's not compatible with. "When you look at the divorce rate, there's nothing wrong with being more careful," she said.
As a hobby, Jones runs a Web site called singlegoddess.com. She's not trying to glorify singledom with her site, she says, but hopes to show that being single is a choice women should feel free to make — especially if the alternative is an unfulfilling or even abusive relationship.
"If you're a free and independent woman, you have the freedom to make that choice, not one society and family and friends tell you to make," Jones said.
Free To Be You and Me
Just the fact that women have the freedom to choose being single is evidence of how far they've come, said IWF's Kennedy. She points to a recent study by the Employment Policy Foundation which found that single women who live alone and have full-time jobs earn 28 cents more than similarly-situated men.
"The good news is there are a lot of choices for women today," Kennedy said. "But I do think there is something about the books, movies and TV shows focusing on women and what they go through in their professional and social lives which do a fairly good job of portraying young women and what they ultimately at the end of the day really want."
Kennedy denies that there's any stigma surrounding single women these days. "If anything, if there's a stigma, falling in love, staying home — that's where the stigma lies."
And perhaps the resolution of the most recent Bachelor show represents just that — the bachelor's choice, Helene Eksterowicz, has so far decided against moving across the country to join her new fiance in favor of staying in her own hometown to continue her own career.
Or perhaps Eksterowicz's choice shows how divergent reality for the single woman can be from what's on TV — even on reality TV.
"Pop culture is a marker of something, but not necessarily a marker of the way people really live or think," Kitch said.