Sex & Relationships

Why Are Americans So Desperate to Marry Off Our Single Women?

A new Atlantic story "marriagability" has stirred the predictable panic about women who stay single.

Ladies! How are your marriage prospects looking? Good? Bad? In need of an ironing? Perhaps if you alphabetise them they will look more enticing. Attractive. Bed, in possession of incredible skills in. Cute. Doesn't earn more than any prospective suitor. Excellent at phone sex. Fiercely desirous of marrying a man whose money will give you access to business class lounges for the rest of your days; etc. Aw, your marriage prospects look adorable arranged like that! You should get them covered in Cath Kidston fabric to make them as pretty as possible.

Or perhaps you have not considered your marriage prospects at all. Perhaps you have thought that the term "marriage prospects" sounds about as anachronistic and Austenian as "22in waist." Maybe you didn't even think that "marriageability" was a quality, let alone a quantifiable one, beyond, perhaps: "brushes teeth, occasionally has a bath, all else subjective."

Yet in the much discussed article in US magazine the Atlantic by Kate Bolick – republished last weekend in the Observer and already in inevitable talks of a TV spin-off – she describes why she and an intriguingly homogenous yet amorphous sounding group of women like her will never marry due to various marriageability issues. So let's discuss marriageability.

I am at an advantage here, being based in New York City. Marriage and one's marriageability tend to be presented here with a strange combination of pragmatic formality combined with hysterical fetishisation that Bolick perhaps inadvertently captured in her piece. There are many things one can say about how feminism has affected women's attitudes to marriage but one theory of Bolick's exemplified a certain attitude that makes so many depictions of marriage in the media here feel so retrograde. "American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be 'marriageable' men – those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity." Yes, we might call it that, if one could only countenance consorting with men who earn more than oneself.

This weirdly monetised and loveless view of marriage in America will not surprise anyone who has gawped at the "Vows" section in the New York Times' Sunday edition. Photos of grinning couples sit atop detailed descriptions of not just their jobs and social standing ("Mr Jaeger, 28, works at Markit, a financial information services company in Manhattan, for which he heads product development for the index, exchange-traded-funds and research-data businesses," read one typically romantic entry from this weekend) but those of their parents ("His mother is a member of the board of trustees at the Jewish Museum of New York," another entryassures readers.) To read this section is like reading a satirical chapter of an Edith Wharton novel without a punch line, yet it is an established part of the paper, probably best known here for its appearance in an episode of Sex in the City, in which one of the characters frantically tries to be featured in it.

Clearly, Vows is no more representative of New York – let alone America – as a whole than Bridget Jones's daily life was of Britain, but it does reflect an attitude that plays into the fascination the American media has in single women. Such is the popularity of investigations into the enthralling mystery of single women that these articles are pretty much their own genre of journalism in America, characterised by gloomy warnings about the dangers of feminism, cod anthropological claims, regrets about leaving a nice man because the writer wanted an unspecified "more", self-flagellation dressed up as "honesty" about feminism and they are always – always – written by a woman.

Bolick's piece is a perfect example of this, as was Lori Gottlieb's similarly hoo-hahed 2008 article Marry Him!, also published in the Atlantic. The reason they attract so much attention is because the media love any stories that suggest independent women will be punished and because many women readers, in my experience, glob on to articles that voice their worst fears.

With meta irony, such an article was featured in Sex and the City just as that show itself became another example of self-flagellation with a feminist fig leaf when Carrie was featured in a piece titled, Single and Fabulous? – emphasis on the question mark.

One sees this less in Britain, beyond the pages of the Daily Mail, of course, which last week featured an article with the unimprovably hilarious headline, "Too sexy, too laid back, too independent … Why some women just AREN'T wife material." It's amazing the Daily Mail didn't self-combust after publishing that piece.

I would have thought that a far more damaging factor than a woman's career to her marriageability would be the broken nose caused by her head clunking down on the kitchen table when faced with another article about the foolhardiness of single women today.

Yet perhaps that is missing the point. Perhaps these articles, from the Atlantic to the Daily Mail, are all part of a plot to make single women feel better for having failed to "keep a man." While hanging out in a single-sex Dutch commune, as Bolick, nigh on parodically, does at the end of her piece might not be the happily ever after you dreamed of, it sure sounds better than being with the vision of humanity these articles present. This kind of talk reduces men to insecure throwbacks with machismo and ego issues, and women to conniving, venal fools. If those are the options, no wonder so many people aren't attending to their marriage prospects and would prefer to be alone.