There are three industries that have boomed since COVID-19 arrived and shifted the paradigms of our lives, plunging the world into ongoing uncertainty. Those industries? Ice-cream, dating apps and streaming services. In April 2020, Match reported a 30 per cent increase in traffic to their sites. Between May and July, ice-cream saw a 36 per cent increase in sales, and streaming platforms saw a worldwide increase of a whopping 51 per cent.
In what is a delightfully human reaction to a global catastrophe, it seems many of us have turned to the familiar comfort blankets of food, mindless TV and virtual flings. We’ve reacted to the pandemic like Bridget Jones on a rebound, swaddling ourselves in tangible comforts from life pre-pandemic, reminding ourselves of the days before “unprecedented times” became daily parlance.
Sitting on my sofa, halfway through both a tub of ice-cream and my 10th rewatch of When Harry Met Sally, mindlessly window shopping on Hinge on my phone, I had two thoughts. One: I am essentially a walking cliché and must make more effort to shrug off gender stereotypes. Two: the increased usage of dating apps in lockdown, alongside the increased consumption of rom-coms, highlights our collective perception that romantic love is the thing we need to feel comfort and security. I don’t think I actually thought of the phrase “collective perception” at the time, but the non-linear nature of my actual thoughts makes them impossible to write down verbatim. The point is, as the world becomes increasingly hostile, it is romantic love that we turn to as a tonic. Romantic love and ice-cream. Humans are great, aren’t they?
With this increase in traffic to dating apps and increased consumption of both ice-cream and rom-coms, I think we can draw some fairly reliable conclusions. First, that ice-cream makes everything better. More importantly, that many of us buy into the idea that romantic love/a romantic partner is something we need — a fundamental life stage, a necessity. When Tinder and rom-coms are becoming our main sources of entertainment, and we’re in a relatively stressful pandemic thing, it’s easy to see why.
Endless quest to find love
Don’t get me wrong, both rom-coms and dating apps are a pretty great diversion tactic — they are escapism at its most basic. Hinge, a little hand-held window-shopping experience, is like being able to people-watch without leaving the house. It’s fun, I’ll admit. But while most people are probably, like me, scrolling through these little personal sales pitches as something to do, a distraction from talking about “unprecedented times” or reading the news, lockdown has simply magnified an existing behaviour and revealed further the societal positioning of single people on an endless quest to find love.
As a single person, I am constantly reminded that I should be looking for love. From the plethora of romantic comedies on streaming sites trying to peddle the idea that without romantic love we are empty vessels awaiting fulfilment, to adverts for Bumble after every other TikTok video (yes, yes, I am one of those millennials who is embarrassingly into TikTok — sorry), there is more media telling us we need to couple up than media telling us we should value our independence and learn to look for other areas of our lives that deserve love. Music, arguably the worst culprit when it comes to peddling normative ideas about romantic love, is riddled with songs about love found and lost. For single people, there is no easy escape. As products of our environment, we absorb these messages like sponges.
Now I’m not saying I don’t think love is important. I believe it is one of the most important feelings, gifts and states of mind — loving and being loved are truly wonderful feelings. I know many people in “romantic” love, people who have found their proverbial lobster and to be around their love is a joy. But the issue lies in the imbalance of romantic love versus everything else.
I can love and be loved by my family and friends, by my dog (touchy subject on that front, I’m pretty sure I love her more than she loves me, but I don’t want to talk about it okay). I can love hiking, surfing, writing and reading. I can love my job and I can love mayonnaise in a borderline sexual way. I can love all of these things with an enthusiasm and importance I can scarcely put into words and yet, in the eyes of a heteronormative society, in a society shaped by pop cultural obsessions with the tropes of romantic love, these loves are not enough. These little points of difference that make up the rich variances in our beautiful lives are not enough. These loves all pale in comparison to romantic love. Well, it’s about time we tried to understand why.
Perhaps it’s a hangover from the primal need to reproduce, an act between two people with the sole focus of procreation, taken over thousands of years and formed into something more fundamental, more emotional. Perhaps it’s because raising a family is easier when divided into two. But these are antiquated reasons and, in a world where our cars can drive by themselves and Elon Musk wants to insert microchips into our brains, it seems retrogressive to hang our hats on this heteronormative need for romantic love to feel whole.
We need to recalibrate the assumption that to be not in love is to be unhappy. That being single is like being in the lobby of a hotel. Or the virtual lobby of a Zoom call if we’re going to be #relevant about it. Being single is posited as a kind of life-limbo, a liminal point where you exist in a state of semi-anxiety, waiting to be admitted to the next stage. It is a box in life that requires a check — the terms and conditions box. The “I have read and agreed to” section. Being single is a life stage, an important one. And it’s an achievement in itself — to be comfortable being independent and happy in a world that tells us we shouldn’t be.
The value in non-romantic love
In order to start to reposition the societal perception of the single person, we need to understand that there is so much value in non-romantic love, value in our independence, our friendships, what we choose to believe in and who we choose to support.
Society looks at single people and assumes that they are either looking for love (what else could they possibly be doing?) or that there is something wrong with them. Enjoying being single? Haha. Good one. Pop culture has told us that single people are unhappy since before Harry met Sally. Way before we were told that men and women couldn’t be friends without eventually having sex and falling in love — it’s the natural progression of a heterosexual friendship, right?
Wrong. Let’s not get into that particular argument now or we’ll be here all day, but to try to see the value of being single among the shouty structures of heteronormativity is not easy. Look at the Beatles. When they wrote “Love is All You Need” they did so in a movement expressed by free love; the swinging sixties, defined by flower power, anti-war movements and utopian ideals. Now, when the song is used in a cinematic context, or in countless first dances at weddings, it is used to represent romance. Society finds it hard to understand love outside of a romantic context; in many ways, we are led to believe that romantic love is all we should want. Indeed, all we need, yet if we think about all the other elements that make up our lives, it becomes clear that this is nothing but tunnel vision, a black and white perception in a world made up of thousands of colours.
If the pandemic has given us anything positive, it is time to think. Time to recalibrate. Perhaps rather than scrolling through Hinge while wistfully watching About Time or Crazy Stupid Love, we should look at how we perceive the things that are valuable in life. Perhaps rather than eating this ice-cream (it’s finished now, by the way), wondering if anyone will ever write a song about me, I should write a song about myself or my friends or the fact that I’ve met some amazing people who do amazing things for the world that don’t include romantic love.
We need to shift how we position being single. Being single isn’t a condition. It’s not a waiting room. It’s an opportunity. An opportunity to realise what’s important to you, to give and receive love in its myriad other forms. A chance to see how wonderful it is that we can love people outside of romance. A chance to see that we can love so much of life and give so much as a result. We don’t need romantic love to be whole. It’s nice to have but not an essential. Ice-cream, on the other hand, is absolutely essential and no one can try and tell me otherwise.
Sophie Williams is a London-based writer filled with millennial angst and cynicism, which offer the perfect foundation for her pieces on gender roles, lowbrow pop culture and challenging societal norms.