According to a piece in today’s Guardian, “the girl power generation are confused”. I’m not surprised. I’m confused, too, not least because I’d always assumed I was part of said generation. Alas, it turns out I’m too old. Already 21 when Wannabe was released, I can’t be one of the “twentysomething women” who can claim to be “the most liberated and educated women ever”. So liberated, in fact, that they get to be defined by a 1990s girl band (the lack of a corresponding Boyzone generation can be taken as clear evidence that the pendulum has swung too far).
But wait! Said twentysomethings might be liberated and educated, but as you’ve already guessed, they’re still not happy! And not just because previous generations were awarded enigmatic letters such as X and Y whereas they got the sodding Spice Girls. Today’s young women are unhappy because too many people have written too many books telling them what to do. From The Rules to He’s Just Not That Into You, books have bombarded women with “contradictory messages” which leave them “in a bind, and without much help in figuring out what they actually want” (see, that’s what happens when you make the ladies literate):
Every piece of ‘modern’ advice about maintaining independence and using their 20s to explore and experiment sexually is layered over a piece of ‘old-fashioned’ advice about getting married before it’s ‘too late’, not being too assertive or passionate in sex, and not being too sexually experienced. This sort of advice means that young women often struggle to admit that they need a man
Thankfully, Dr Leslie Bell – source of the above quotation – has written another book, due to be published later this month, which will sort out all the stuff from the previous books and tell young women what they actually have to do, at least until the next book comes along. One presumes that Hard To Get, if it does little else, will finally enable women to recognise the man-shaped gap in their lives. This is good because no one’s ever been honest about this before. It’s not as though, say, Susan Faludi’s Backlash, published in 1992 – four years before Wannabe! – opened with a chapter debunking “man shortages and barren wombs” as one of the central “myths of the backlash” against feminism. I must have imagined that (in-between downing vats of Taboo and lemonade in order to hide my own man-need from myself).
Regardless of whether we’re dealing with myths, I don’t dispute that Bell is tapping into something powerful. I might be getting on a bit, but even I can’t recall a time when “liberated” young women were not reminded on a daily basis that they needed to find a partner, and sharpish, BEFORE IT GOT TOO LATE!!! It’s certainly a message I fell for, despite the best efforts of Geri et al to persuade me otherwise. In 1998 – following a whole two years of girl power-fueled Christmas No. 1s – a friend and I actually bought The Rules, not for the purposes of some ironic piss-take, but because we genuinely wanted to use the advice (our previous purchase, How Not To Stay Single, had proved a disappointment). We tried our best with our second purchase, but failed miserably. This wasn’t just because the book essentially tells you to pretend to be someone else for the rest of your entire life, purely for the purposes of nabbing a man, any man, who’ll think you’re “a creature unlike any other” (unless you’re a slag who shags him too soon). I don’t think we’d have minded if it was just that. The main problem is that the whole thing is way too culturally specific. We might have been middle-class western women, but when we found ourselves sitting in our local pub – in the heart of the Lake District, surrounded by beer-swilling farmers and fell walkers – the fantasy that this was a bar in Manhattan filled with strangers willing to “date” us suddenly dissolved into thin air.
So why did we put ourselves through this? Because deep down, we were hard-wired to rebel against the crude pseudo-liberation of ladette culture? Not really. The fact that I did tend to shag men “too soon” was, if I’m truly honest, another sticking point with The Rules. I didn’t really mind loving them and leaving them. All the same, neither I nor my friend wanted to be lonely. Few people do. That, if anything, is the taboo. When you’re in your twenties, separating yourself from the role of being your parents’ child, it starts to cross your mind that one day your family won’t be there, and who will you be with? However much we big up the single life, the threat of being cast adrift can be terrifying. Lonely people are sad. Lonely people are unwanted. Lonely people – spinsters, bachelors, weird uncles and aunts – are to be pitied, but also to be avoided, because loneliness is contagious. Don’t stand too close to Billy No-Mates. People might think you’re like him. So be yourself, be liberated, but remember, you must also be like everyone else, or face up to old age alone.
It’s not that I think being single is like that. All the same, when this fear is there – when you get to the stage of realising that perhaps you’re alone in this big, wide world – all the media messages about what you “need” touch a nerve. You start to believe them. After all, if you want control over your situation, it’s far easier to believe the “experts” than it is to panic alone. Far easier to think “I can follow The Rules” than “well, hopefully I’ll meet someone by sheer chance standing in a doorway eating Bombay mix at a party to which I wasn’t even invited”. Blaming yourself for what you’re told you lack is far safer than blaming random fate. What’s more, if you’re female, you also get to blame your own “liberation”. Damn you, choices! Now see what you made me do!
I find myself reflecting on this (as we smug marrieds do) when looking at the current hoo-ha over the Nice Guys of OKCupid Tumblr. Depending on your viewpoint, this either exposes the nasty misogyny of men who think their “niceness” should be rewarded with sex, or involves putting lonely individuals “in the 21st Century equivalent of the medieval stocks to be mocked, abused and humiliated” (Ally Fogg). Like Fogg, I suspect both of these things are happening. The misogyny inherent in the “friendzone” concept – that place where all the nice guys find themselves when the ungrateful recipients of “niceness” fail to open their legs – infuriates me, but so too does the open mockery of lonely people. Loneliness is not a gender-specific issue, but it’s become a weapon to be used in imaginary gender wars. The misery of loneliness threatens every woman who’s become too independent, and every man who’s failed to be “manly” enough. What’s more, as we transfer our fear of loneliness onto lonely people themselves, this threat becomes even more powerful. And yet, we can’t fight it with more books revising the books we read before, or by telling people they’d be better off with no choices at all. Perhaps the only effective challenge will come from human beings being actually, genuinely, sincerely nice in the here and now. How else can we calm our own fears about what comes later?