by Troy Williams
Kristen Stewart knows about heartache. Her Twilight character Bella was caught in a nasty teen love triangle. Who would she save her virginity for? The fangless sparkly ancient vampire teen Edward or the buff and fiercely loyal teen wolf Jacob? In the fiction Bella chooses Edward, just as in real life – Stewart picked Edward’s alter-ego Robert Pattison.
I have no idea how the movie or book romance ends (seriously!) but if you’ve read the tabloids lately, Stewart and Pattison are breaking up. It didn’t work out. Twi-hard tween fans across the nation share their grief, and collectively mourn the loss of eternal love.
But Michael Cobb argues it’s not all Stewart’s fault! He says “the love triangle is as much about a single person as it is about a couple.” Further, he contends that singles are the most despised sexual minority, with no positive role models, language, or social and political standing. With that, the love triangle is the dominant story of what it means to be single.
Cobb is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, he teaches courses in American literature, modernism, literary theory, and queer theory. He is the author of God Hates Fags: The Rhetoric of Religious Violence and his new book, Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled.
Listen to the entire interview here:
Troy Williams: Though I probably lean a little toward Team Jacob – I think Bella probably would have been better off without either of them.
Michael Cobb: Most likely. But what’s kind of fascinating is that the story strangely turns out to be about Jacob. Again, I also don’t know how the fiction ends but what we quickly see is something about Jacob’s singleness, something about him not winning Bella’s heart that can really be instructive about how we think about and construe singleness. He is made to be a really pathetic and lonely creature even though he’s quite the opposite. He’s robust, he’s healthy, he’s amazing. But when it comes down to it, he’s somehow less viable as an option than a dead man who wants to take away Bella’s life.
What’s fascinating is that we have to have all of this cultural political emotional work to make us think that the happy, healthy good person is a bad idea. That is what I find so fascinating. Singleness is always supposed to be this pathetic condition as opposed to something that one would want to choose. Kristen probably would have been better off by herself, but in a world of romantic teen drama being by yourself just doesn’t exist.
TW: It doesn’t exist in any narrative. You describe single people are the most despised sexual minority?
MC: Yes. One of the things that LGBTQ (lesbian gay bi-sexual transgender queer) activism does is to give a political voice, cultural representation and a historical memory to those who have not been adequately represented. Those individuals who have romantic or sexual lives that can’t be so quickly validated by dominant conventions, laws and policies. A lot of queer activism has been about making the invisible visible. So partly, single people in this equation are those who really don’t get a lot of cultural representation. They don’t get benefits. They are actually penalized economically. Tax codes are designed against them. Family members are ravenously trying to change single people into a couple.
It became gruesomely apparent as an adult, especially as I spent long stretches as a single person, that there wasn’t really a language to describe singleness in terms that weren’t defensive or negative – you know, pre or post couple, just waiting to change that status. I needed to sit down and think critically about how we can maybe affiliate with this category of sexual minorities.
TW: We need a single’s pride parade!
MC: We totally do. But then the joke in the media would be they would all meet each other and then they would no longer be single. I’ve done a lot of press for this book, and almost everyone wants to bring up that now maybe soon you won’t be single. It’s a cute joke, but even the joke wants to subtlety reinforce, yeah, you really can’t be happy about your situation. You can’t be a viable adult. It’s probably because there isn’t a tradition, there isn’t a language, or an apparatus around us to make us feel comfortable that some people just want to be by themselves. We don’t allow people to dwell happily in that category.
TW: At the end of the day you’ve got to grow up and get married.
MC: That’s the thing. You’ve got to grow up and follow a particular life narrative. If you don’t you are eyed suspiciously. People consider you too immature to make a commitment or too pathetic to be chosen by that special someone. Again, just think about this, did any of your relatives ever say at anytime growing up, I hope you grow up to be alone. I hope that you will die alone. You do not get that as an option. It’s immediately, who are you going to date? Who is going to make you happy?
Not only that you have to make that whole world out of that person. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a relationship. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a couple. Eventually if you do, it makes that person impossible because they can’t be a world for you.
TW: One of the great things about being gay is after you finally come out your parents and grandparents stop asking if you’ve found someone special!
MC: (laughs) That’s true, depending on how fun your family is. They do stop asking you as intensely about your love life. But there is still that association. This is one of the reasons queer activism has been hijacked by same-sex marriage debates. Again, I believe same-sex marriage is a right that should be given. I don’t like marriage inequality. It stigmatizes people, it creates second-class citizens. But for the most part, gay marriage politics has taken up all of the air around queer activism. It’s because there is this impulse. Being legitimate means you are a couple. How do you become a more legitimate couple? Become recognized by the state.
When you do that and put all of these things together you still have a very nagging, very conventional and very conservative politics. To be a good person, to be the right kind of citizen, means you are married or at least on the way to being there. Again, I don’t want to disparage relationships or couples or marriages, I just wonder and am anxious about that kind of priority and hierarchy.
TW: You make the claim that there are no “real single people” – everyone is either pre or post-coupled.
MC: It’s probably because there isn’t a language. There aren’t these great single heroes. I often ask in contemporary culture who is a really positive single role model – and they are often elderly like Gandalf or Dumbledore.
TW: I can think of Uncle Arthur on Bewitched – but we all knew there was probably a reason he wasn’t married!
MC: Yeah, has Brad Pitt ever been cast as a character who triumphantly decides to not be in love? It’s that need to make the love plot the only plot you can have. That’s what I’m worried about.
TW: Through the cannon of literature and film there must be some good examples?
MC: There definitely are. One is Hellman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener; a weird, peculiar employee who won’t do anything other what he was hired to do which was to copy text. When he’s asked to anything else, he says he prefers not to. Then he stops doing anything. He becomes this weird maddening crazy person that you can’t figure out. That’s is what happens with a lot with single people. People ask: why on earth are they not with someone? What’s going on? I don’t understand their motivations because they are not following the life-script. They’re not doing that important step that they are supposed to be doing.
I don’t want to make the claim that there are no single people in actuality or no single people in literature. But the cultural presumption is that status is suspicious and wrong and needs to be changed. A better formulation of what I’m trying to say is that there isn’t a rich field of representation and a rich political system that allows people to flourish and thrive when they are single.
You don’t have great and easy role models out there.