In Retrospect: ‘The Lobster’ And Society’s Disdain For Singles

Home Culture and Entertainment In Retrospect: ‘The Lobster’ And Society’s Disdain For Singles

Singles experience more prejudice and discrimination from society at large than most are willing to recognize or admit, especially coupled people who benefit from it.

This essay contains spoilers for The Lobster (2015) and briefly mentions sexual assault and suicide

Bisexuality is no longer an option. Guests of the hotel must register themselves as either heterosexual or homosexual. Single people are not allowed to use the tennis or volleyball courts, those are reserved for couples. Only individual sports like golf, swimming, and squash are available to single guests. Their stay will last for up to 45 days. If they fail to fall in love by the end of the 45 days, then they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing. David has chosen to become a lobster in the event that he fails to fall in love during his stay at the hotel. 

The Lobster (2015) is a dystopian nightmare set in the near future and, like all dystopian nightmares set in the near future, it harkens to the realities of our current dystopian world. In Yorgos Lanthimos’ deeply unsettling and upsetting script, the extremely dark comedy is laced with allegory and the thing we are encouraged to both laugh and cringe at is our society’s own absurdity in regards to romance, relationships, marriage, monogamy, and singledom. 

On their first night at the hotel, each guest has one hand tied behind their back in order to demonstrate how much easier life can be when there isn’t two of something. The singles and the couples are segregated within the hotel, even eating in separate dining rooms. Everyone is defined by one specific characteristic—a limp, a lisp, math skills, short-sightedness etc.—and that is what they must use in order to find their perfect mate. Masturbation is forbidden, but it is mandated that the single guests allow the staff to masturbate them, but never to completion. If caught masturbating, they are punished. One man has his hand burned in a toaster for his transgression. 

Singles are forced to attend propaganda shows that instill a fear of singleness into them, promising terrible things like accidental death and sexual assault would happen to them if they were to remain unpartnered. Once they find their match and become a couple—based solely on their arbitrarily chosen characteristics—they are given a bigger room with more space and, soon after, a two-week stay on a luxury yacht. Naturally, rather than being turned into an animal, some singles opt to die by suicide while others choose to fake a characteristic so they can easily match with someone, meaning they will have to keep up the lie potentially for the rest of their lives. 

As if this isn’t absurd enough, the single guests learn that they can earn extra time to find a mate if they hunt the “loners” who have escaped into the forest. These hunts allow them to channel their own frustration at the system that privileges couples into aggression against other singles. Only failures become loners. For each loner they tranquilize and capture, they are given one extra day at the hotel. One more day to fall in love and avoid a similar fate. 

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From this point, The Lobster only ramps up the absurdity and reels towards an ending that is both hauntingly quiet and deeply disturbing. In the film’s dramatized criminalization of singleness and literal dehumanization of single people, what is reflected is our society’s very real disdain for those of us who remain unpartnered. Singleness is so belittled and marriage so highly pedestaled that many people feel immense shame for being unpartnered and will often resign or commit themselves to toxic, abusive partnerships and marriages for the sake of not being single any longer. Shows like Married At First Sight, Love is Blind, and 90-Day Fiancé give us depictions of people so desperate to not be single anymore—for whatever reason—that they are willing to “fall in love” with someone they have never met. Thankfully, they are not transformed into animals at the end if they come out unpartnered. 

In a world stratified by both anti-Blackness and patriarchy, the equating of individual value with relationship status impacts Black people more significantly, especially Black women and other marginalized genders. “That’s why you’re single” is so often used as an insult and threats of not being “chosen” or accusations that they are unable to “keep a man” are constantly leveled at Black women, the assumption being that all Black women are straight, invested in heteropatriarchy, and share its values. Misogynoir, Black patriarchy, and respectability politics work (together with racial capitalism) towards an end in which being a single Black person assumed, assigned, or affirmed woman becomes expensive, in more ways than one. 

In 2013, Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell estimated that the lifelong financial cost of being a single woman adds up to single women paying more than a million dollars beyond their married counterparts for income taxes, Social Security, IRAs, healthcare, and housing. Considering the racial wealth gap and the fact that Black women and other women of color earn significantly less money than white women, it means that being single as a person understood as Black woman quite literally costs us more. Not because being single is shameful, but because society devalues and discriminates against single people, especially women and other marginalized genders, and against Blackness. 

Single people experience more prejudice and discrimination from society at large than most are willing to recognize or admit, especially coupled people who benefit from it. Because unpartnered people are viewed as not being functional or productive members of society, they are stereotyped and stigmatized. Married people enjoy the privileges of more tax breaks and fewer penalties, and there are over 1,000 laws in existence that benefit only married people. Furthermore, singles are more likely to be asked to put themselves in more danger, work longer hours, and accept more undesirable assignments than their married coworkers. Things like paid leave and medicaid expansion are biased towards the benefit of people who are married. It’s even harder to get an organ transplant if you are single. 

We already know that medical professionals often fallback on implicit bias, harmful stereotypes, and oppressive ideology to make decisions about patient care. Anti-Blackness, fatphobia, ableism, and ageism significantly impact how Black, fat, disabled, and/or elderly folks experience medical care, and we have seen that especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality is that single people tend to get lower quality healthcare, have to fight harder to be heard and taken seriously in order to get the care they need, and also have to pay more for this care. This begs the question—if many people view singles as being unproductive members of society, as being less important and of less value than coupled/married folks—how are ingrained biases about single people impacting the medical care singles receive during this pandemic? 

In the spirit of the morbidness that permeates The Lobster, I wonder how often singles are dehumanized in the eyes of those tasked with caring for them. How often have singles been left to die—especially if they belonged to one or more other marginalized identities—because a physician simply didn’t see the point in keeping them alive, because so many people believe that singles are “pointless” or have “nothing and no one to live for”? These are the uncomfortable questions that we must ask, even if we are afraid to know the answers. 

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The disdain for the unpartnered impacts people of all orientations who remain single, but especially aromantic folks who do not experience romantic attraction and often never want to be partnered. There is an accepted myth that singleness is always a temporary state, and it is coupled with the belief that marriage marks the genesis of “real” adulthood. Only “real” adults are productive members of society. These are the attitudes that keep discrimination against single people alive, as well as the disregard of single people’s needs and rights. People should not have to be married in order to receive the rights, privileges, and protections that married people disproportionately receive over singles. Our society feels that marriage means those things have been earned, and this perpetuates the sentiment that singles are failures.

But the number of single people is growing. For various reasons, marriage is on the decline. The fair treatment of singles will always matter, but as more and more people live more of their lives unmarried, the rights of single people will become even more important. Not only are single people more likely to be food insecure during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are also being hit hardest by the effects of extreme isolation and economic downturn. Being single in the midst of a pandemic—especially in a nation that has so greatly mishandled its response to it—is even harder than it usually is, and this is something that needs to be directly addressed.

So, as we watch capitalists, opportunists, and coupled folks prop up the specialness of Valentine’s Day and the many public performances surrounding it, even in the midst of a global pandemic, remember that the shame attached to singleness is rooted so much deeper than not receiving a dozen roses on February 14th. That shame is a result of various systems working together to paint singles as failures. 

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