Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

An image from the YouTube video How to be Alone
An image from the YouTube video How to be Alone

Russell Smith: On Culture

YouTube video about being alone is anti-feminist, retrograde Add to ...

My girlfriend mentioned last week that all her friends seemed to be really taken with a little YouTube video - a melancholy monologue about being single called How to Be Alone - and were all posting links to it on Facebook. I watched the video and was ready to leave it alone - for it's clearly something pretty personal - until its popularity grew really startling. Women all over the world seem enthralled by it. They are telling each other to watch it as if it were therapeutic for some generalized sadness that I don't understand.

As of this writing, there have been 652,000 views of it, and its creators have been interviewed on CBC Radio. It has become a sudden zeitgeist-encapsulator - and the parodies will no doubt quickly follow, which makes it a meme.

This is great for the artists, a songwriter called Tanya Davis and a filmmaker called Andrea Dorfman - but also unpleasant, for a virus like this becomes an ideological football. The Internet will make a massive pop phenomenon out of obscure art pieces or personal postings, and this success will in turn draw criticism, sometimes virulent, from people who feel the piece's success is overrated. (Unfortunately, I will be one of those people.) The criticism is then itself way out of proportion to the original ambition of the piece. A little personal piece doesn't deserve harsh global mockery. But the negative reactions are not, by that stage, about the piece itself: They are about the hundreds of gushy blog postings that followed it; they are a reaction to the reaction.





<object width="560" height="340"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/k7X7sZzSXYs&hl=en_US&fs=1"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/k7X7sZzSXYs&hl=en_US&fs=1" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="560" height="340"></embed></object>




Bear this in mind as I list my grievances - and here they are: Basically, I consider this kind of pair-bonding-obsessed weepiness to be anti-feminist, retrograde and disempowering to women. But my opposition is not so much to this innocent piece of diaristic vlogging, but to the culture that upholds it as in some way exemplary of feminine behaviour, as some kind of useful balm for the wounds of a supposedly monolithically married society.

If you haven't yet seen this 4 1/2-minute piece, it's a monologue, written by Davis, about dealing with the angst that comes after a breakup. It begins, "If you are, at first, lonely, be patient." It then goes on to explain that being alone is not such a bad thing, that there are all sorts of things you shouldn't be afraid to do on your own, such as eating in a restaurant or sitting in a café or taking public transit or going to the library. You could also go to the gym; there's nothing wrong with doing it in your own. "Cause if you're happy in your head then alone is blessed and solitude is okay."

The accompanying film shows the writer acting out those activities in a cold and lonely-looking Halifax, and sitting alone in a room with a guitar in a variety of fuzzy woollen hats and slippers and scarves, sometimes actually knitting same, and looking anything but happy and confident.

There's a nice reflective mood to the video itself. The text is just bizarre. It's meant to be encouraging, but it's depressing. In what kind of 19th-century world do women need to be told that they may order food in a restaurant by themselves? (The parodies of this, when they come, are going to be so easy: "Start by getting dressed - you can do it on your own. You'll find pouring the Corn Flakes by yourself is liberating once you've tried it …")

Are there really women who have never been to a gym on their own? Or who feel sad about going to the library? Are men - who generally don't think twice about any of these things - really so much stronger than women? This lament is actually a part of the mentality it purports to criticize. ("Society is afraid of alone," intones the narrator. Is it? Or are you?) It seems to be from a time before the feminism of the 1960s, before the sexual revolution: It reflects a world of women knitting and playing instruments and feeling lonely, a place of purely old-fashionedly feminine interests, where women don't have economics or chemistry or warfare to keep them busy or distract them in any way.

And the reason this video's popularity irks me is that I see this backsliding everywhere around me. I see all the blogs and books about being single and finding a husband and surviving divorce, written by educated women in this world in which women can do anything and I wonder if the 1960s ever happened. There is an obsession with romantic commitment in the air again.

Maybe it's now, embarrassingly, necessary to repeat these ideas that I grew up with. I really don't believe that women are so weak and clingy as to find normal daily activities terrifying in the first place. I do not believe that women are so dependent on romantic relationships as to require instruction on how to live without them. I do not believe that women are constitutionally opposed to solitude. I believe that women are just as interested as men in solitude and its creative and intellectual advantages. I believe that women are just as capable of being busy and distracted by histology or the futures market or electoral reform. And that there are very many women who are busy with those things and they tend not to ever think about the stress of ordering a coffee on their own, and that they are better, more attractive role models than those who define themselves by their relationships.

But now I am no longer arguing with a cute little video, but with a pervasive theme in contemporary media and culture, one that's amorphous and evanescent and perhaps only seen by me.

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories