In the heady days of the Noughties, when Facebook was in its prime, it was customary to use the platform to update one’s relationship status for all to see. Options included a strong, sturdy “In a relationship”; an even stronger and sturdier “In a relationship with [tagged partner’s name]”; an often ironic “Married” (perhaps hard to see the irony unless you were a Noughties teen); a wry “It’s complicated”; and a proud – or ashamed – “Single”. This week, in the cover interview for December’s issue of Vogue, the actress Emma Watson said that she prefers to describe herself as “self-partnered”.
Though Facebook presumably will not be jumping to create a new relationship status, there was a strong response to Watson’s statement online. On Monday, #selfpartnered was trending on Twitter. Reactions were varied: some users found the term progressive, others eye-rollingly woke or narcissistic. People cared about the comment not because it revealed anything particularly juicy about Watson, but because being a single woman is complex and laden with pressure.
In pop culture this is spelt out loud, clear and flippantly: in Bridget Jones’s Diary, when Bridget breaks up with Daniel Cleaver, she alters the title page of her diary to read “Diary of Bridget Jones, spinster and lunatic”, which is only a joke because of the pathetic connotations of the word “spinster”. In The Holiday, we watch the protagonist Iris calmly describe basic facts about herself and emit a sudden teary wail as she reaches the word “single”. (Both films culminate with their female protagonists finding happiness in monogamous heterosexual relationships.) Though Sex and the City ostensibly revolved around the liberated sex lives of single women in their 30s, the narratives all lead in one direction: securing a stable romantic partner.
This stigma endures in real life. In the Vogue interview, Watson said: “If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out… There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety.” Watson explains that she has finally made peace with her singledom – out of this peace, it seems, the term “self-partnered” emerged. Though this may work for Watson, it exposes several sticky problems about how we police the lives of women.
Second-wave feminism encouraged women to prioritise the pursuit of a career above the pursuit of a husband and family. In reality, the decision is hardly so straightforward. Women who want both can end up having to sacrifice one or the other. But settling for either option comes with drawbacks and anxieties: that choosing a traditional married life will be viewed as an easy, conformative option, for example, or that in not choosing this path, one must instead cultivate a hyper-productive life of girl-bossery. In a recent article for Vice, Marianne Eloise questions why a woman should have to desire either of these options, noting that the path of the “career woman” can be framed as simply another way for a woman to optimise herself.
What is remarkable, given that “career woman” is a supposedly acceptable form of female optimisation, is that Emma Watson still appears anxious about being unmarried and childless at the age of 29. She is a Hollywood actress with an estimated net worth of $80m (£62m), was educated at Oxford and Brown Universities, has modelled for Burberry and Lancome, and is widely known for her work on global women’s rights, not least in her role as the UN Goodwill Ambassador. That this is not enough to quell her anxiety about fulfilment or security speaks volumes about the pressures confronting women who have achieved far less. Pursuing multiple, lucrative careers is still not enough, as a woman, to feel worthy.
As the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino puts it, “feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier.” This is true both of careerism and of a new, empowering terminology – of “girl bosses” who practice “self-love”. To be “self-partnered” is the latest iteration of this lexicon. The term implies reliance on or even unity with the inner self – but it creates a different type of “ideal woman”, a new status to aspire to – and a new dimension to pressurise. In this case, that dimension is “self-care”: the relaxing activities like face masks, motivational post-it notes and saying no to social engagements that proliferate on Instagram. Like self-care, self-partnership is notionally about independence and personal wellbeing – but it risks becoming become yet another unattainable ideal.
There is little chance that “self-partnered” will actually catch on. What the discourse surrounding it shows is that the language of empowerment creates another hoop to jump through – a new status to update – rather than true freedom. Self-partnership is symptomatic of the constraints on women’s choices – choices that are loaded, sacrificial, and rarely free from social pressure. Emma Watson is – or should be – free to describe herself and interpret her life however she likes. But the term “self-partnered” sheds light on the lack of space there is for women just to be.