How should one be single today? This question, while arguably as old as marriage, has taken on an added significance since the rise of the internet. GPS-led social media apps, and particularly Tinder and its friends, have dramatically increased the dating activity expected of singletons.
In the West after the 1960s, being single was no longer about chastity or waiting around but the opposite: action, dating, having fun, accumulating experience in the name of self-knowledge and entertainment value. It’s been about getting the balance right between searching and self-containment – being open but not desperate. But with the rise of technologies that amplify and are instrumental in strengthening our capacity for FOMO (fear of missing out), singleness has become more like a full-time job: logistically, sexually and psychologically.
The new comedy film, How to Be Single, appears to tap right into these changes and no doubt appeals to the countless people who, simultaneously obsessed with and disgusted by their Tinder feed, are wondering just that. As a women living in the post-1960s dating age and one who researches just this topic, I dutifully went along.
If you have a burning desire to watch this trite and old-fashioned film spoiler free, then do stop reading now. For everyone else, here’s a guide to the film’s main points – but don’t expect any nuggets of wisdom from it, you’re better off with Tinder.
#1. Sleep around
Curiously, How To Be Single, for all its indulgences in the trademarks of contemporary life – latest iPhone messaging, blow-dry hair bars, craft beer – couldn’t be less interested in modern, technologically-driven singleness on steroids. Instead, it just rehashes some very traditional motifs.
The central characters – all bar Rebel Wilson’s sexually discreditable alcoholic party-girl Robin – doggedly pursue traditional romantic ends, and cope with their singleness in relatively old-fashioned ways. For Tinder is, weirdly, absent. So the singles in their 20s go out and get drunk and shag people they snog on the dance floor, while the two 30-somethings opt for IVF from a sperm bank (the older one) and old-fashioned internet dating (the younger), to which end the film’s only likeable character, Lucy, played by the luminous Alison Brie, has written a site-combing algorithm.
The film starts in a college dorm, with beanpole undergraduate Josh (Nicolas Braun) clutching at Dakota Johnson’s willowy, lip-bitten Alice. Love blossoms: so far so traditional.
But in the next scene, four years later, as they’re packing up their dorms after graduating, Alice explains she wants a relationship break. So off they go to New York where Alice starts work as a paralegal and meets the sex-mad Robin, whose fat – in standard Hollywood logic – acts as her green light to be the only character who is truly “myself”. Robin drags goody-two-shoes Alice out for the first of many nights on the tiles, in which they enact version one of how to be single (read: how not to be single). This involves Alice sleeping with wily, commitment-phobe barman Tom who is so against women sticking around in the morning that he has cut off the water to his kitchen tap so that the hungover damsels must flee.
#2. Have a baby
Other alcohol-soaked adventures ensue, punctuated by the ebb and flow of Alice’s tears about losing Josh, who has decided he doesn’t want her after all, despite a sudden change of heart on her part. Meanwhile, Alice’s older sister Meg (Lesley Mann), an obstetrician who purports to enjoy life single and without a baby, one day delivers a baby too cute to hate. She decides to get IVF with a perfect Swede sperm donor, whose spotless genetic and social record are excitedly reeled off from the catalogue. This jolly choice is creepily announced without irony, and so its proudly eugenic, Aryan-oriented chime rings somewhat painfully.
That said, it fits neatly with the middle-class drive to consolidate resources which informs the film’s wider network of relationships. Alice’s Josh dreamily gets into business school just when she most fancies him; Alice’s short-term boyfriend David (Damon Wyans, Jr), is a property developer who happens to “own” the building next to her office on Wall Street. Anyway, Meg’s pregnancy develops apace, and she happens to meet a devoted would-be house-husband Ken (Jake Lacey) who doesn’t mind that her baby isn’t his – also, he’s a receptionist. This is the film’s progressive blip. Still, progressive as Ken is on baby matters, his first words to her in bed are the rather atavistic: “Your body’s awesome!”
#3. Be yourself
Lucy, meanwhile, has been explaining her OCD approach to dating to Tom while at the bar eating peanuts. At first he finds her tactics repulsive, but it isn’t long before he warms to her. However – in punishment for his playboy ways – the feeling isn’t reciprocated, and he watches in horror as Lucy falls into the arms of the completely charmless bookstore manager George (Jason Mantzoukas) who – unlike the rest (himself included) – was ready to “put a ring on it”.
But back to Alice. Poor girl; something about her just doesn’t stick. Even men find her forgettable – witness Josh, Tom and David. This, Robin helpfully points out, is because unlike her, Alice constantly falls into men’s “dicksand”, losing herself in the age-old female trance of phallus worship. This is the wake-up call she needs. To be single is to be yourself! Off she goes to the Grand Canyon for a solo dawn hike. Men, shmen.
So why leave out Tinder and the like? My hunch is that any sense of truly modern dating would complicate a film that tracks along two simple lines: one, singleness is alright if you really go single (shun meaningless sex, deceitful ex-boyfriends, the easy path in general) and two, singleness is for achieving your dreams, and finding yourself outside the bedroom.
So this is a curiously staid movie: more traditional even than Sex and the City, some of whose characters ultimately reject traditional roles. Here, there is a pot of romantic gold at the end of the rainbow for the deserving, whether in the form of a husband (Lucy) or the self (Alice). And Alice’s singleness is clearly just a pause before the right relationship comes along. So the film stays firmly within traditional lines, advancing the 1960s idea that to find someone else you must find yourself first. The idea that you might never want to find “the one” is beyond its reach.