As a child, I never wanted to get married when I grew up. It wasn’t an active anti-marriage stance, per say; it’s just that marriage never occurred to me as something to be particularly excited about. There were no pretend wedding dresses or veils, my soft toys remained resolutely single and never partook in a wedding, and I never fake-married a classmate. The only concession I ever made towards marriage as a child was begrudgingly agreeing that I might have a wedding, as long as I didn’t have to kiss my partner on the lips in front of everybody. Gross.
But somewhere between being a petulant six-year-old and being a petulant 22-year-old, I realised that marriage isn’t just about finding someone you love to spend the rest of your life with. It’s also about avoiding the crushing loneliness and despair of being single and alone. Its about proving that you are capable of having another human being like you enough to hang out with you, forever, and about not being discovered half-eaten by the cats you live with in lieu of a husband or wife.
Most of pop culture tells women (and to a lesser degree, men) that being single is not something that you want to be. Think Bridget Jones, 30-something and single, singing don’t wanna be all by myself in her lounge room, or Katherine Heigl’s romcom characters, pining after handsome men who don’t notice her.
From Disney films to teen movies to sitcoms, the overwhelming message is that if you’re single, there’s something wrong. If you’re not the main character, you’re the sarcastic, possible racially-diverse, single sidekick (if you’re lucky you may get paired up with a random person at the end of the film). If you’re not the princess, you’re the witch. Or a dwarf, maybe. So the end of your story is when you kiss, the music swells, and the curtain drops. Sure, Julia Roberts’ friend is saving up money to go to school at the end of Pretty Woman, but that’s not nearly as good as having landed Richard Gere. You’re not the single girl, because being single sucks.
In pop culture and in society, being a single woman is the worst thing you can be. Being single is not having dates to weddings. It’s day-drinking and desperately trawling Tinder and going to shitty clubs and having unfulfilling one-night stands. It’s being the third wheel and having to watch other people being in love and feeling judged and being less because no one likes you enough to want to be with you romantically and exclusively.
I’ve been single, and sure, sometimes it kind of sucks. But a lot of the time it’s kind of fun. I can crash on friends’ couches without worrying about a plus one. I can make out with strangers at poetry slams. I can play video games until 2am and eat potato gems without anyone’s judgement but the internet’s. I can have Tinder dates and have fun, or laugh at how awful they were later.
I want society and pop culture to reframe singleness. I want romantic relationships to stop being the be all and end all of a woman’s life. I want being single to be seen as a choice, not as something that happens to you when no one likes you. I want society to stop obsessing over monogamous, heterosexual, conventional romantic relationships. Essentially, I want the world to be more like Broad City. (Yes, this was just a ruse to gush about my favourite TV show right now.)
Broad City gives me hope that it’s possible for young women to be portrayed without judgement (well, mostly). If you’re not aware of it, I’m jealous, because you get to experience it for the first time, hopefully very soon. You have three seasons to binge-watch by whatever means necessary, and the knowledge that at least two more seasons are on their way. Created by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, Broad City follows the two best friends and their lives and adventures in New York City. Not necessarily a groundbreaking premise, but Broad City delights in unconventional relationships. Unlike, say, Monica and Rachel in Friends, they don’t spend their time obsessing about romantic relationships and about getting married.
Ilana spends most of the series in a casual, open relationship with Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), but also has plenty of other sexual encounters, as well as being comically in love with her best friend. Abbi has a crush on a neighbour, and also has several just-sex relationships. But it’s not necessarily that the two never have relationships or that they hate marriage and want to destroy monogamy. It’s more that the Broad City makes women’s stories more than just a series of events that lead up to finding the perfect man and getting married. It shows women having a whole range of relationships with no judgement.
It’s wonderfully refreshing to have a story about two young women that just get to be young. There’s no obsessing over marriage or babies or whatever women are meant to obsess about. Instead they party, have adventures in a huge city, hook up, and generally live their lives in a way that you generally only see men doing on screen – at least without being labeled as deficient, strange, somehow lacking. In this sense, they join shows like Girls, in which women are shown to have far more on their minds than marriage – they get to be people.
I know that not everyone is as invested in television and pop culture as I am. But the influence of popular culture has on society is often underestimated. Culture and society are wrapped up with each other – neither exists in a vacuum, and they influence each other in a myriad of ways. For example, actress and producer Geena Davis sponsored a 20-year study of media representation, finding that women made up just 17% of crowd scenes on average. She draws a correlation to the American workforce: “That ratio is everywhere. US congress? 17% women. Fortune 500 boards are 17%. Law partners and tenured professors and military are 17% female. Cardiac surgeons are 17%. That’s the percentage of women in the Animation Guild. Journalists, print journalists, are 19% women. So why, across all these major sectors of society, does this percentage of women in leadership positions stall at about the same range?”
Or how about the breakout success of Orange is the New Black, which introduced mainstream audiences to Laverne Cox, a black transgender woman? The popularity of the series and of Cox’s character, Sophia, along with a spate of other high profile transgender celebrities, has been credited with bringing transgender issues into the societal spotlight.
And there’s also the small fact that the average Australian in 2014 watched over three hours of television a day, not including streaming services.
In short, pop culture is important, and not just because I consume a worryingly large amount of it. It makes up a large part of who we are – they say you’re a composite of the five people you spend the most time with. Apart from work colleagues, the five people I spend the most time with are usually the core cast of whatever I’m currently watching, as it would be for a lot of other people. And I’d rather be a composite of Abbi and Ilana and even Lena Dunham/Hannah Horvath than Rachel and Monica and Phoebe.
Sharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.