It's OK to be single-minded

THERE is a scene about half-way through the fifth series of Sex and the City, when the four women realise that, for the first time in years, they are all single simultaneously.

It happens as they are travelling back from a weekend in Atlantic City. Samantha, the only member of the quartet to have been in a relationship when the weekend began, has just dumped her unfaithful boyfriend Richard Wright meaning that, instead of hitching a ride back to New York in his glamorous private jet, the four have to take the bus instead. Hunched up in their seats, laughing and enjoying one another's company, they celebrate their shared single status by playing the card game Old Maid. The joke being, of course, that these characters are about as far away from old maids as it is possible for a modern single woman to get.

Sex and the City may have taught us about Manolo Blahniks and Cosmo cocktails, Rampant Rabbits and Prada Mary Jane shoes, but it had a larger, more subtle message to impart as well: that, actually, it was OK to be single.

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It's just as well, really. The number of singletons in the UK has risen by 10 per cent in the past decade, and one-third of all households are predicted to be single-person ones by 2025. Being single in your 20s, 30s and 40s is increasingly seen as the norm, rather than the exception.

As Bella DePaulo, author of the book Singled Out observes: "The reality is, relationships are now what happens between longer periods of singleness."

Back in 1998 though, when SATC first hit our TV screens (the book version had been published here the previous year), being single beyond the age of 30 was still seen as something of an exception, even, on occasion, an embarrassment. The Bridget Jones phenomenon may already have taken off, but while Helen Fielding's newspaper columns and novel wallowed in Bridget's "singleton" status, it also managed to denigrate it, portraying her as a pathetic and brittle character who drowned her sorrows in Chardonnay while waiting for the perfect man to turn up on her doorstep. Bridget was to be pitied, not glorified.

On television, it was more of the same. Programmes such as Friends, This Life and Cold Feet danced around the issue of perennial singledom, but none of them attacked it with the vigour that SATC did. Again, the underlying message of those shows seemed to be that singledom was merely a state you went through while waiting for Mr Perfect.

Sex and the City changed all that, turning single into the state you wanted to be in. Right from the start, it advocated the notion that life was the most fun when you were between relationships. It was the time when you got to hang out with your girlfriends, focus on your career, go to fabulous parties and flirt with attractive men (just because you weren't looking for a relationship didn't mean you couldn't have a fling), and if you wanted to remain like that for the rest of your life, then why not?

This mentality was mostly thanks to its author, New York columnist and party girl Candace Bushnell, who even now, having married for the first time six years ago at the age of 42, describes Carrie as her alter ego. Bushnell's belief in the joys of being single – a lifestyle she and her friends had been living in New York since the 1980s – was an integral part of her Sex and the City newspaper column. It is partly what attracted Darren Star, a close friend of Bushnell's, to turn the column into the television show.

"Instead of being driven by neurotic kinds of emotions like, 'Oh, my God, I have to have children so I can fit in and do what society tells me,' I just have an ability to not get pulled into that," Bushnell says.

Linda Dryden, a reader in literature and culture at Napier University's School of Creative Industries, says that SATC may have opened the floodgates for a lot of our modern perceptions on what it means, now, to be single.

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"Women have a lot more freedom in our culture to be and do what they want," she says. "People don't talk about 'old maids' any more. Perhaps the thing about being single now is that women feel they have more freedom to express themselves at work and have interests which aren't just focused on home and family."

For Carrie and the girls, those interests spanned their careers – all four were highly successful in their respective worlds of PR, journalism, art and law – their social lives (an endless whirl of glamorous parties and restaurants), their friendships, often conducted over brunch, and even real estate – as typified by the "who needs a husband when you have a doorman?" mentality.

Sex and the City's acknowledgement that life could be good without a man in it, particularly if you were rich, led to a whole new generation of emancipated, moneyed women shouting loudly about just how much they loved their single status. So much so in fact, that there's even a term for it: Freemale.

High-profile "freemales" include Shrek and Charlie's Angels star Cameron Diaz, who says: "I love being alone and being by myself. And I'm really good at it too," And Jennifer Aniston, the Friends stalwart whose marriage to Brad Pitt ended in divorce in 2005. She says she loves being single because of "the unknown. I love the discovery of what will be happening."

Most single women, however, have somewhat less glamorous lifestyles. While Sex and the City was the fantasy, the reality for many is different.

"The show glamorised single women with money," points out Dryden. "It's not the real world. It also fantasises about female friendship. I would imagine young women would fantasise that what they see on-screen is the ideal relationship between women."

But while there was an element of fantastical fluff to the world of SATC, there were also moments of hard, grinding reality. Rather than shying away from it, the show was unafraid of showing the downsides of being a single woman in a world full of couples.

In one poignant episode Carrie attends a party at a married-with-children friend's house, only for her very expensive pair of Blahnik sandals to go missing during the proceedings. A protracted wrangling over the shoes ensues, with her friend at one point telling Carrie that she shouldn't be spending that amount of money on shoes, and that at some point you need to just "grow up and live in the real world". The episode ends with Carrie, complete with new pair of shoes, saying in her voiceover that "sometimes, it's hard to walk in a single woman's shoes – that's why you need really fabulous shoes".

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And SATC's legacy lives on not just within the individuals who watched it and related to it, but in the culture that followed it. "I don't need a man to make me happy," sing the Pussycat Dolls – a band that probably would never have existed had it not been for SATC. "I'm a very strong woman. I don't need a man. I can be on my own," Paris Hilton purred recently.

It was only right then, that the closing lines of the show reinforced the notion that being single wasn't just a box to be ticked on a form, but a lifestyle to be celebrated.

"The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself," Carrie told us. "And if you can find someone to love the you you love, well, that's just fabulous."

"People often ask what SATC's most abiding legacy was," Patricia Field, the show's stylist remarked recently. "We launched lots of trends – corsages, Ray-Bans, horse-head bags – but I think our real legacy was awakening the consensus among women that they have the freedom to dress to express the way they feel, and not to be pressured by male society."

Much more fun than a game of Old Maid.

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