In the Blog
Illustration: Shelby McLeod
I recently attended a public event intended to foster body positivism and self-esteem. Several brave and powerful speakers shared their experiences, insights and perspectives with the crowd. However, one presentation by a young woman made my spirits drop within three sentences.
“I was worried,” she said, in a voice that promised gloom and doom, “that I was going to be single. Forever.” She paused dramatically. “With lots of cats.” Some members of the audience giggled, but I wasn’t amused at all. She’d invoked the stereotype of the “crazy cat lady,” which is usually defined as a single woman, especially one who is middle aged or older, living on her own, with several cats. Despite the fact that some have attempted to reclaim the term, being referred to as a “crazy cat lady” is not generally considered to be a positive thing; it’s a pejorative that manages to be ageist, ableist and sexist all in one blow. And yet, there it was, popping up in the middle of an event which was ostensibly about self-esteem and mental health awareness.
I forced myself to stay put instead of walking away, and attempted to process what I was hearing. It wasn’t what it sounded like, I reasoned to myself. I couldn’t jump to conclusions. She was talking about herself; she had every right to do that. Perhaps it really was intended to be a humorous presentation and I just hadn’t gotten the joke yet. She was going to turn it around at the end of her speech and say, “…but I realized there was nothing wrong with any of that.” She was going to proudly declare that she was happy to be a cat lady. She was going to address all the ways the stereotype was demeaning and inaccurate. She didn’t. Instead, she repeated the comments and followed them up with, “…and all of you single people know what I mean, right?”
I was asked to give feedback about the event; I mentioned the speech and carefully outlined why I’d had an issue with it. The only response I got was a rather indifferent “sorry about the cat thing.”
The “cat thing” illustrated a very important point: that even some spaces that strive to be safe haven’t necessarily figured out how to be truly intersectional and inclusive.
There’s nothing wrong with someone, personally, on their own, fretting about their love life and relationship status, if it’s something that’s important to them. Is there a problem when it’s presented publicly as a universal concern? Yes. It certainly excludes and ignores the existence of those with asexual, demisexual, grey-a or aromantic orientations; those who have made conscious choices to be celibate due to their personal or spiritual beliefs; and those who don’t formally identify in any particular way, but couldn’t care less about romantic and/or sexual relationships, either temporarily or permanently.
In 2011, about 28% of adult households in both Canada and the United States were comprised of one person. The percentages of unmarried adult Canadians and Americans have also increased. Despite these numbers, in Western society we’re still largely raised with the idea that our lives will follow a linear path: we’ll grow up, date, marry, and have kids. There have been some improvements on this basic idea over time: the fight for marriage equality, for instance, has reinforced that we have the right to marry the person we love whether we’re gay, bisexual or straight. Acceptance of divorce and cohabitation without marriage has also grown by leaps and bounds over the past forty or fifty years. However, there’s still the overarching expectation that whatever path we’re on, we will want to spend the majority of our adult lives partnered up with another human being.
Parents still tell little girls that they can’t wait to walk them down the aisle; Madison Avenue reminds women that their wedding is the “most important/best” day of their lives. Only some cultures have celebrations or rituals intended to celebrate young people outside of the context of romantic relationships, such as quinceaneras and bar/bat mitzvahs. If you identify as female, you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s and you haven’t checked the “married” box on your Facebook profile, you’ll invariably find that pages for bridal companies and online dating services will be suggested. The older you get, and the longer you’re unattached, the more likely it is to be held against you. There have been numerous studies about the ways in which single individuals face discrimination both personally and in the workplace.
I once covered a story on a young girl who was having a major operation to help improve her mobility. The benefactor who was supporting her surgery mentioned that his goal was to eventually see her dance at her wedding. She was eleven. Why was anyone mentioning weddings at all? And why was that the goal anyway, as opposed to something that would celebrate a personal achievement of her choice?
I used to work at a facility that had an exhibit on immigration and the importance of recording family histories. When I showed students around, I usually made two adjustments to the standard tour, both of which earned me a fair number of dirty looks from teachers. For one thing, when we talked about families, I would point out, very directly, that there were many possible configurations. “Maybe you have a mom and dad. Maybe you have two dads, or one mom, or you’re raised by foster parents or your grandma or older brother.” Later in the tour, there was a section that stated, “…and you can share stories with your family and pass them down to your children and grandchildren.” I would tell the kids, “Remember, that’s IF you decide to get married or have children.” I usually noticed some confused faces; it hadn’t dawned on some of them that they had a choice.
Changing the dialogue, respecting happily single individuals, and recognizing orientations like asexuality and aromanticism might start with something as simple as changing more of those “when” statements to “ifs.” Instead of assuming that someone will be interested in getting married, having a partner or having children, perhaps we should let them figure that out for themselves. And perhaps, when we’re giving speeches where we lament being single, we should acknowledge that it applies to us, not to everyone.