Singlehood in the Finnish public debate (by Marjo Kolehmainen)

Who would not remember the iconic Sex and the City TV programme that pictured the single lives of four women in the city of New York? Sex and the City and several other fictional television series and movies that have focused on − often female − single protagonists and their wish to form a conventional couple relationship have been objects of several studies. Yet there is still a paucity of research that would address public debates on singlehood. Two colleagues – PhD student Anu Kinnunen and Dr Annukka Lahti − and I analysed the media coverage on singlehood to produce knowledge on its conceptions in the public sphere. We traced how singlehood, single people and living alone were discussed in three major Finnish newspapers (Helsingin Sanomat, Aamulehti and Ilta-Sanomat) between 2017 and 2018. We conducted a detailed analysis of the most popular ways of discussing singlehood, which will also be introduced in what follows.

Our analysis shows that singlehood was rarely framed as a societal issue; rather, singlehood was often associated with attempts to find a partner. For instance, Tinder was seen as a challenging application because its technical features do not serve one’s wishes to commit oneself to a steady coupled relationship in the best possible way. Another example is that there were many news articles about reality TV shows based on singles’ attempts to find a partner or in which singles ‘threaten’ monogamous coupled relationships, such as The Bachelor or Temptation Island. Hence, the value of conventional couple relationships was rarely questioned. Furthermore, singlehood was discussed as a personal trait − only being single − which makes wider societal and political debate on couple normativity, singlehood and related inequalities difficult.

There were also instances where singlehood was seen as a societal issue, yet this kind of opening was relatively rare. For instance, it was remarked that singlehood is a thoroughly ignored topic in Finnish politics. Some individual articles on living alone and housing policy issues drew attention to the unequal treatment of single people. Furthermore, in places, being single − at least for a certain time − was seen as empowering. Some articles challenged the coupled norm by voicing the positive experiences of single people. Often wrapped in therapeutic language, which stresses self-reflection and self-improvement, being single was framed as an opportunity to learn something new about oneself, to pursue one’s personal goals or to deal with personal issues. However, these discourses do not necessarily counter couple normativity, as they may place at the centre the idea that, before committing oneself, it is good to get to learn about oneself: Thus, singlehood is imagined as a temporary phase of life, which shall meet its end.

As illustrated above, the media coverage on singlehood was versatile. However, considering the growing number of people living without a partner − the proportion of singles is very high in Nordic countries, including Finland − and the vividness of the ongoing public discussion on families and the social support appointed to them, we wonder how sporadic and muffled the political openings are that would foreground alternative perspectives to the intimate lives of Finnish people. Indeed, whereas families are supported by various state-led initiatives, the challenges of single life are still seen as only personal issues. There is, thus, an apparent mismatch between the growing number of singles and the ways social issues relating to singlehood fail to fuel significant political debate.

This blog post is based on the following peer-reviewed article: Marjo Kolehmainen, Anu Kinnunen & Annukka Lahti (2020): Parittomuuden politiikat? Sinkkuus suomalaisessa julkisessa keskustelussa (The politics of pairlessness: Singlehood in the public debate in Finland). Yhteiskuntapolitiikka 85(4): 370−381

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