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A critical reading of singlehood, gender and time

“What are you waiting for?” Stop wasting your time” “You will die alone,” “You will miss the train and stay on your own! “. These are just some of the questions and warnings that single women hear on an everyday basis. In a similar vein, single women are constantly being asked whether they are ‘‘still single,’’ or being bid to get married next or soon. Still, soon, ever-after, waste of time, waiting, how long, when, all these form part of the rich language of time.

Table for one is the first book to consider the profound relationship between singlehood and social time. Drawing on a wide range of cultural resources – including web columns, blogs, advice columns, popular clichés, advertisements and references from television and cinema, Kinneret Lahad challenges the conventional meaning-making processes of singlehood and Time and raises pertinent questions about how people conceptualize their lives alone and with others.

Lahad’s unique approach gives us the opportunity to explore singlehood through temporal concepts such as waiting, wasting time, timeout or age and accelerated aging. Other temporal categories which are examined throughout this book as the life course, linearity and commodification of time enable a new consideration of dominant perceptions about collective clocks, schedules, and the temporal organization of social life in general. By proposing this new analytical direction, this book seeks to rework some of our common conceptions of singlehood, and presents a new theoretical arsenal with which the temporal paradigms which devalue and marginalize single women and women’s subjectivies in general are reassessed and subverted.

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This chapter is devoted to a critical analysis of the temporal construct of “waiting”. It argued that the figure of the single woman waiting to enter coupledom and married life has become deeply embedded in conventional thinking about single women. From this viewpoint, waiting is examined as an interactive setting, representing and producing rigid societal timetables as well as traditional feminine subjectivities.

Drawing on Mann’s (1969) and Barry Schwartz’s (1975) observations of queue culture, this chapter examines representations of single women also as queuers standing in line, waiting to enter matrimony. Observing and interpreting this social interaction as a queue offers multiple dimensions of analysis. For example, a temporal analysis of the queue as a social microsystem lends insight to how temporal norms and temporal mechanisms are established. From this perspective, the status of single women can be measured according to their location within and outside what is termed as a heteronormative queue. In much the same way – and by extending Pierre Bourdieu’s (2000) work, waiting is perceived as both an exercise and effect of power. It is argued that these sets of images constitute compliant temporal subjectivities, which are part of an unquestioned heteronormative order.

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Keeping up appearances

In the texts analyzed in this chapter, single women reveal their hesitations and obstacles of appearing in public ‘on their own’. This chapter offers a temporal reading of everyday social interaction by employing a Goffmanesque analysis of the ways in which single women attempt to control their impression management during public interaction. Concepts such as participation units, loss of face, civil inattention and impression management are used to examine the temporal dimensions of the presentation of the single self in public. In this way, attention is drawn to the temporal context within which social interaction takes place and demonstrates how time marking mechanisms assumes overwhelming importance.

This chapter also relies on Durkheim’s (2008) and Zreubavel’s works (1981) on temporal demarcations. By examining the social meanings attached to time units such as night and day, the week and the weekend, normal days and holidays, It is argued that these time conventions have important bearings on the single woman’s opportunities for appearing and interacting in public. It is also claimed that the temporal interpretations of time during holidays such as New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s day, weekends or dinner time have important bearings on the single women’s visibility and impacts their ability to orient their appearance, and consequently their sense of self agency, in public settings.

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Another time

This book concludes with the questions and themes raised in the introduction. By examining some primary examples of single women’s resistance, a new agenda for singlehood studies is promoted. Such paths are still rarely recognised in mainstream society, and reflect the need to harness conventional hegemonic discourses. They also point to the possibility that singlehood is both a social category and an analytical tool for questioning some of our core understandings of the normative and the natural. By extension, challenging what are often taken as established and naturalized facts can circumvent some of the rigid temporal conventions that govern our perceptions of subjectivity and sociality, as well as provoking new ways of thinking about what is considered as right and normal. The assertion which is stressed here is that a reconfiguration of time can contest our preconceived notions about singlehood and gendered timelines, clocks and schedules and also paves the way for claiming temporal agency.

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The purpose of the introduction is to acquaint the readers with the rationale behind the research project and introduce them to some of the theoretical concepts and framework that are used throughout the book. It does so by providing a short overview of the analytical issues that this book will explore and specifies how this study differs from previous ones. The concluding section of the introduction provides the research design and a chapter overview.

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Chapter Two reconsiders two important temporal conceptions in the social interpretation of singlehood: the belief in progressive linearity and the heteronormative paradigm of the life course. The approach guiding this analysis integrates a social constructionist lens as well as recent theoretical developments in queer time studies, which challenge the heteronormative life course. Building on these perspectives, this discussion demonstrates the ways in which linearity and its related concepts such as progress, (re) production and continuity are socially and ideologically situated. A critical discussion of the linear temporal order serves as a point of departure for this chapter, which will be followed by examining its normative implications for female singlehood.

In the second part of the chapter, the life course scheme is analysed and re-considered as a major conceptual paradigm through which late singlehood is judged and evaluated. Thus, a case is made that the essentialist and naturalized life-course paradigm is a particularly powerful cultural template, but one that is rarely criticized in popular and scholarly discourses on singlehood and social life. Thus, instead of adhering to the prevailing normative linear paradigm of the progressive life course order, Chapter 2 critically re-evaluate its terms, convictions and its powers.

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The focus of this chapter is a conceptual analysis of ‘becoming single as well as the discursive mechanisms that constitute it as a biographical disruption. One of the main arguments of this chapter is that this process is rarely problematized in relation to singlehood or figured as a default and sequential life trajectory. By pursuing this point further, this discussion examines this path in relational terms, in which the process of becoming single and the transition from normative to late singlehood is produced by socio-temporal truth statements. In this chapter ‘becoming single’ is explored as a subtle non-institutionalized transition process, in which the entry and exit from ‘normative singlehood’ to ‘late singlehood’ occurs without institutionalised rituals or official formalities.

The second part of this chapter offers a temporal analysis of the question “Why is she still single?” as signifying the transition to late singlehood. The intent here is to explain the discursive formations and implications of this ubiquitous question, and shed light on how popular knowledge about single women is produced and circulated. Thus, instead of asking why single women are single, this chapter examines how the question itself is discursively constructed in relation to how singlehood is figured as unscheduled and disruptive trajectory.

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Becoming an “old maid”

Incorporating recent literature on age, feminist theory and singlehood, this chapter re-evaluates the image of the old maid alongside the omnipresence of age, sexism and ageism in current discourses on singlehood. This chapter asks what gives this powerful stereotypical image so much discursive force and makes it so defiant to resistance and deconstruction?

This inquiry is further developed by exploring how the predominant cultural perceptions of age appropriateness, age segregation, age norms and ageism play a crucial role in the construction of late singlehood and gendered timetables in general. That is, the argument put forth is the contention that single women are faced with a triple disfranchisement, based on age, gender and single status. Given this, the argument presented here is that single women undergo a process of accelerated aging, leading them towards their social death. Thus, this chapter also makes a significant contribution to critical age studies and feminist age studies by reworking these categories and opening up new ways to critically revisit the authority of age, sexist and ageist practices. It also points out that ageism and age-based discrimination do not necessarily apply merely to the social category of old age and old people, but are practiced at different phases of the life course.

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From wasted time to damaged goods

While the previous chapter focused on how ageism sexism and singlism coalesce, this chapter will cover an in-depth analysis of how they come together and are discursively articulated through the commodified language of time. Chapter Five includes various examples in which singlehood and single women’s subjectivity are constantly measured through the conditions of the marketplace. It also examines how this temporal economic language provides a set of powerful presuppositions, through which single women are objectified and ascribed with an inferior social status.

This line of inquiry allows a rich analysis of how age and gender based temporal logic conjoins with the rhetoric of demand and supply. In this chapter, the aim is to create a new understanding of what are considered as undisputed market laws, and the way time is reified and commodified. Following this line of thought, this discussion raises questions such as: To what extent does the abstraction of time act as a quantifiable measure that controls the lives of single women? What are the discursive mechanisms through which single women are considered as damaged goods, stamped with expiration dates? And lastly, how do temporal practices such as wasting time and accumulating time reconfigured in relation to single women’s time.

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In the first part of the chapter, normative social rhythms and temporal concepts such as time out and taking a break are discussed. Drawing on sociological studies of time it is argued that what is considered as a temporal time out from the race of “finding the one” can turn into a permanent drop out from the collective linear trajectory, with limited chances of rejoining it. It is suggested that the demand for a time out is also an act of resistance which claims temporal agency and control of one’s time.

In the second section of this chapter this line of analysis is further developed by exploring images of time on hold and frozen time. Central to this analysis are also questions of mobility and speed as well as the prevalent perceptions of single women as immobile subjects frozen in time. According to these texts, single women are viewed as trapped in their own immobility, a temporal position in which they have lost their telos and agency. This leads to a discussion of how what is figured as a breakdown in the articulation of time and arrested flow of time which disconnects the present from the future and empties them out of meaning and substance.

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