Why More Women Are Choosing Freedom And Independence Over Marriage
Are we finally getting to a place where it’s safe to be single?
If it sounds like an antiquated question in the year 2020, it’s not. Stories about cultural and family pressures on young women to wed remain as common as ever, despite how much progress women have made socially and culturally. It’s particularly interesting in Asia, where conversations about challenging traditional expectations of women are happening in China, Korea, Japan and pretty much everywhere.
“A lot more people are thinking marriage is not the solution for their lives,” says Frances Cha, a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul and Hong Kong whose debut novel, If I Had Your Face, centres on four young women in South Korea who defy such social norms in an environment where appearances are everything. “Or because they are marrying later, there is a lot more freedom for women who do not prioritise marriage.”
In fact, millennials around the world are asking what happens when modern women clash with age-old conventions. Emma Watson made headlines last year when, approaching her 30th birthday, she declared herself to be “self-partnered” as a way to express her pleasure in remaining single. Renaming her status might invite a certain degree of ridicule, but it also serves to remove a bit of stigma from something that most young people feel really shouldn’t be viewed so negatively in the first place, especially for women.
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“It is a global phenomenon,” says Tan Jia, an assistant professor of cultural studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. “We frame single women as the problem, that it is unnatural, and assume that there is an ideal destination for women, which is for them to be married. Because of urbanisation and globalisation, there are more choices for single men and women, [yet] men are seen less as the problem while women are highlighted as a problem to solve.”
Meanwhile, global statistics showing a decrease in marriages and birth rates in developed nations underscore the fact that the world is changing. While this raises concerns about social safety nets for ageing societies, it’s also giving rise to something of a single-pride movement—according to behavioural scientist Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics, the author of Happy Ever After: A Radical New Approach to Living Well, women who remain single and child-free actually tend to live longer and happier lives.
Still, there are constant reminders ingrained in our worlds that reinforce the idea that remaining single means a woman has failed in some way, like the Chinese phenomenon of sheng nu, a term used to identify educated and career-driven women over the age of 27 who remain unmarried, which translates literally as “leftover women”. Although the term is now considered derogatory, it was once so ingrained that its meaning was codified by official channels.
Shosh Shlam, who co-directed an influential 2019 documentary on the subject, Leftover Women, says it’s clear that the matter is a women’s rights issue, and the stigma that unmarried educated and working-professional women seem to inherit from the age of 25 onwards is simply "annoying."
In the opening scene of the film, Qiu Hau Mei, an enthusiastic Beijing lawyer, is told by a matchmaker she is not beautiful and is considered too old for the marriage market. In another scene, when Qiu returns home for the Chinese New Year celebration, she is criticised by her family for not having a partner with comments like “All that schooling makes you dumb” and “If you don’t get married, your happiness isn’t true happiness.”
“I think I made an important film for women in general, and specifically in China, to give them the picture that we need to think again,” Shlam says. “When we stigmatise a group of women, we limit their rights. I saw it in America and Europe, where even if it’s not official, it’s the same: if you’re not married, there is something wrong with you.”
Meanwhile, women are pushing back. Some clever entrepreneurs have responded to the cultural stigma with creativity, leading to boyfriend renting services becoming popular among Chinese millennials who seek relationships on Baidu and QQ in order to take home fake partners to their families. The rate for rentals can range anywhere from RMB1,000 to 6,000 a night.
In a 2016 Al Jazeera documentary that explored the industry, a woman who brought home a rental boyfriend during the Chinese New Year failed to pass him off as a genuine partner to her parents because they found him “too tall and handsome” for their daughter. In the US, an app called Invisible Boyfriend allows users to design their ideal boyfriend or girlfriend.
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In 2016, Japanese beauty brand SK-II created an Asia-wide woman’s empowerment marketing campaign focusing on the subject as well. A film from its #changedestiny series highlighted the immense emotional burden that Chinese women felt when identified as leftover women and became a viral sensation on YouTube, Facebook and Weibo. In the same year in the US, after years of being the subject of misogynistic tabloid gossip, Jennifer Aniston wrote an opinion piece for the HuffPost in which she blasted the perception of “how much we define a woman’s value based on her marital and maternal status”. “We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete,” she wrote. “We get to determine our own ‘happily ever after’ for ourselves.”
In recent years more women in Hollywood are championing the message. Women like Lizzo, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez have openly spoken about being content with their single status and choosing to prioritise their own health and mental wellbeing over finding a partner. Emma Watson’s comments, too, are a reflection of a trend towards a more inclusive culture.
At the end of Leftover Women, we see Qiu, the Beijing lawyer, abandoning her quest for Mr Right and heading off to France. Her father, initially her biggest adversary, became her biggest ally and gave his blessing, saying “You bring me honour”. To co-director Shlam, the scene represents a new wave of strong and independent women who are fighting for their ideas, rights and status, emphasising that “We (women) have to remember that you have to go your own way, and not give others the power to rule your identity”.
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