Eat Pray Love Won’t Teach You How to Be Alone (or, “First Try to See Something, Anything Else”)

Sometimes you look up and around in your life and everyone who was there before was gone, and that is what being alone is. Sometimes you have always been alone because you like it better than people. Sometimes you want to be alone sometimes. Sometimes being alone is hard because of how other people look at being alone. You know about this. Poet Tanya Davis knows this too, and she made a poem/video/moving doodle/piece of art about it. She wants to help you figure out how to do this, this being alone. Her advice ranges from what some have called the slightly “twee” (for instance: dancing alone in a bar) to the more practical, the more gutwrenching (“You could be, in an instant, surrounded if you needed it… there is heat in freezing. Be a testament.”) . You can watch it for yourself here (via Jezebel):

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Davis’s poem and the video, made by filmmaker Andrea Dorfman, has garnered almost a million views on youtube, which to me says that it gave a lot of people a lot of feelings. Maybe it gave you some feelings, too. But you’re going to have to put those aside for a minute and simmer down, because A Man has also viewed this video, and he needs to share his thoughts.

According to Russell Smith, this video/poem isn’t quite the whimsical-but-brave declaration of independence that it first appears to be. It’s actually a betrayal of feminist ideals, predicated on the idea that “women are weak” and not inherently capable of being on their own, and therefore need explicit instructions on how to handle this. He assumes it is “about dealing with the angst that comes after a breakup,” and says that, “Basically, I consider this kind of pair-bonding-obsessed weepiness to be anti-feminist, retrograde and disempowering to women.” According to him, the title of the work – “How To Be Alone” – isn’t an artsy-but-honest move in the style of Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good or Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be A Writer” or even in the same spirit of Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone – but an instruction manual for a hypothetical audience of women who are terrified of waking up alone without a boyfriend or husband or even sleazy one-night stand by their side. According to Smith, it’s downright insulting in its underestimation of and patronizing attitude towards its assumed-to-be female listeners. (@globeandmail)

I actually read that piece, and Jezebel’s deconstruction of it, before watching the video for the first time. With his article in mind, and with Jezebel’s description of the piece as “a statement on self-nurturing and not depending on others to help you lead your life—to love yourself without having to be validated by the love of someone else,” I watched the video prepared to play a mental game of bingo with references to marriage, spinsterhood, being a strong single woman, Beyonce, etc. To my surprise, none of those things were mentioned! In fact, gender wasn’t even mentioned. Relationships weren’t a focus. The word “dating” was used once, but i can’t find a single reference to a single breakup. As Jezebel notes, although the person the camera follows appears to be female-bodied, there’s no indication from the wording of the poem that we’re talking about a woman, or that the poet is talking to a woman. As far as I can tell, this work could just as easily describe an elderly man whose children have all moved out of town as a single woman yearning for matrimonial validation.

The disconnect between Smith’s outrage at the “anti-feminist” poem and the tender, courageous, virtually genderless thing I had just watched was completely mystifying. It was as though Smith had watched some other film, one where the person in the frame goes through the painful dissolution of a heterosexual marriage, and then immediately afterwards the painful dissolution of an intense rebound relationship, which she unpacks over the course of the film with a series of (mostly male) friends, and ultimately ends up looking for love again because being alone isn’t sustainable as more than a temporary condition.

And then I realized that that film actually exists, and Smith had chosen to protest this video instead, and I was just totally lost.

As a disclaimer, I’m not here to hate on Eat Pray Love. I have read significant portions of the book and enjoy them. While I don’t think it’s life-changing, and while I’m following the stories about the accusations leveled against Gilbert’s guru, I think Ms. Gilbert is a lovely and intelligent person, and I’m appreciative both of her work and her strong support of LGBT rights. But ultimately, Eat Pray Love (the book, at least, and I suspect also the movie) is about learning how to be alone without a man, without a series of men, and “How To Be Alone” actually isn’t. At all. And while Smith is just one man on the internet, and his views don’t necessarily represent any kind of majority opinion, I still think it’s worthwhile trying to figure out how he accomplished this Freaky Friday-esque switcharoo.

While the Eat Pray Love franchise has been wildly successful for a number of reasons, including Gilbert’s genuine talent at writing and her compelling personal story, I would argue that it’s become so popular mostly because it gives us the story of a woman who puts herself first – before a man, before a marriage, before a family. Especially within the book, this is indisputable. Gilbert goes into great detail about how much she knew she was supposed to want to settle down with her husband and future children forever and ever, and how painful was the growing knowledge that that wasn’t what she wanted.

This is poignant, and her eventual acknowledgment of this fact is admirable. Without discounting the importance of Gilbert’s decision, though, it can’t be removed from its context: it’s a story about choosing self over prescribed generic femininity, a world of your own making over the deeply patriarchal American upper-middle class. Even if it’s ultimately about rejecting it, about defining yourself, this story can’t exist without heterosexual relationships, without the knowledge that that is how we are supposed to be defined. And in this way EPL walks a delicate line; it introduces us to something new and special without removing us from the world we already live in, a world where the only way to truly find yourself as a woman is with a divorce lawyer.

“How To Be Alone” does not exist in this universe. I don’t know what universe it exists in. There are no husbands there. There are no divorce lawyers. Do you know why? Because you’re alone. It’s not about the people who were there before that made you not alone, or about theoretical future people who might be around you to make you not alone. That’s not how things are.

How things are is:

You’re alone, and you need to know how to do that. There is no paradigm that this work of art exists in; it doesn’t address a specific social problem or speak to a certain group, unless you include “23-year-old girls who wear glasses and use tumblr and read Jezebel and Emily Gould” as its target audience. (And I don’t know if I would; Davis doesn’t strike me as a Jezebel reader.) There is no patriarchy here; there are recorders and mittens and train tracks.

I have nothing to go on here other than gut instinct, but my gut instinct says that this shiftless, uncategorizable quality made Smith feel weird and uncomfortable. He didn’t know what Davis was talking about, or where she was coming from. In the absence of any context or clues about how he was supposed to read this, I suspect that he made up some of his own. I think he superimposed his own ideas onto this – that it was made by a woman, that it was about feelings, so it must be for women; and that when it talked about being alone, it really meant “without a man,” because aren’t those the two discrete states that women exist in? Alone or with a man? Alone/with man? Aloneorwithaman? What else could there be? Even after doing this, though, maybe he still felt a little weird and confused, maybe it still didn’t make a lot of sense. And so armed with his newfound insights, he went on to tell the rest of the internet how to feel about this and that they shouldn’t take it seriously, because they might not know what’s feminist or not feminist without a man to tell them.

Smith writes that “…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.” There are a number of things that can be said about this – for instance, how glad I am that men are now such enthusiastic supporters of feminism that they’re motivated to exhort women to start doing feminism better, because clearly without some pointers from them we’d be back in 1920. But more importantly, if this is really how he feels, is this one poem put on youtube by two women really the place to fight that battle? Does that make sense? I think no. (It’s comforting that so far at least, the commenters on the article seem to agree.)

As Davis herself says, “Society is afraid of alone.” This is the only explanation I can think of, because if Smith were genuinely concerned by presentations of women who flounder outside of heterosexual relationships, it’s kind of unthinkable that one of the biggest cinematic events of the year, a movie that happens to deal with that very topic in a very upfront way, would just slide right off him like water off a feminist’s back. My guess is that everything about Eat Pray Love in fact feels fine to Smith, because it all sounds so familiar; a woman who’s self-assured and comfortable in her singlehood, but had an emotional uphill battle to get there, and who ultimately ends up in another committed hetero relationship, albeit a very healthy and enlightened one. Because that’s what feminism is, right? Learning how to be alone, but only for as long as you can afford to be.


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Other Reading:
Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, by Anneli Rufus

Solitude: A Return to the Self, by Anthony Storr

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1047 articles for us.

51 Comments

  1. I’m confused by these parts of his article in particular:

    It reflects a world of women knitting and playing instruments and feeling lonely, a place of purely old-fashionedly feminine interests

    Is he saying that playing electric guitar is an old fashioned feminine interest? Do we live in the same universe?

    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.

    Don’t you understand?! He is an all-knowing feminist! Only he is intelligent and clever enough to really SEE the sexism that pervades our society aka youtube videos created by women!

  2. Thank you thank you thank you for writing about this. I read that Globe and Mail column when it first came out, and I was totally taken aback/offended. I actually couldn’t believe that the author had watched the same video as I had. I’m so glad to hear that I’m not crazy.

  3. So Smith is concerned about backsliding feminism, 19th Century ideals, and a cultural obsession with romantic commitment.
    Never mind Eat Pray Love, has anybody told him about Twilight?!

  4. oh rachel, this is good. i keep seeing this video places but haven’t taken the time to watch it so i’m glad i did. i’ve also never read or seen eat pray love, but from my unknowing perspective, i think this is nicer.

  5. this video gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling. that being said, i hate when i have a warm and fuzzy feeling, and some asshole ruins it by making a comment thats supposed to make me feel less smart because i had such feelings. thanks rachel.

  6. When I Tanya Davis’ video, I didn’t think, “Ooh, an easy solution to my woman-problems!” I thought about friends who went out every night of the week and constantly surrounded themselves with other people, because they DIDN’T know how to be alone, and not a lot of people do. And I thought of how empowered/awesome I felt when I realized that wanting to spend time by myself at home/at the movies/at concerts/at coffee shops didn’t mean that I was uncool, and how for my 50-something mother, travelling alone across Alberta might have been the most radical thing she’s ever done.

    I’m kinda sick of the idea that anything made by a woman is automatically geared only at women, because apparently only men can send universal messages.

    Also, this: http://laughingsquid.com/eat-brains-love/

  7. Seriously, all I got from this video was warm fuzzies and a sense of calm. Really, how often does someone tell you “it’s okay to be alone”? Or, more specifically, “it’s okay to spend time with yourself”? I liked this video. I watched it before reading the rest of the article; I noticed no “anti-feminist backsliding themes of DANGAR”…the only bullsh*t I found anywhere were the quoted segments of Smith’s article. All of Rachel’s words were amazing, though, as was the video itself. 🙂
    As a person about to enter college and begin the transition into adult life, I found this video very comforting, because I will probably be alone at some point in my life. (Living alone, living somewhere new before I meet people, etc)

    …At the risk of seeming trivial I would also like to mention that I wouldn’t mind having that girl’s hightops. ahem.

  8. The thing I relate most in the video is that it makes a huge difference going to a new city alone or with a friend / partner. There’s so much you can miss if you are NOT alone going to a new city.

    But this is true even if you stay at home and live alone. So many thoughts you can have, so many things you can think, if you are alone. Company is for those who don’t like thinking, maybe, I don’t know.

  9. I think Russell Smith would implode if he were alone because no one would be around to hear him talk.

    Look, I deal with this a lot. Not just me personally, but freshmen that come from their circles and circles of friends back home and suddenly they’re in a strange town and they no know one. Go home and read a book alone? Even if we’re alone, we’re not really ever alone because there’s phones and the internet. A lot of the youth I work with really struggle with the concept of being completely alone.

    It has nothing to do with feminism, with independence, etc. It has everything to do with connections and relating to yourself just as well as you relate to other people.

    This is beautiful, Rachel, well done.

  10. Something’s been bugging me about his 1960s comments.

    “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.”

    “It seems to be from a time before the feminism of the 1960s, before the sexual revolution”

    He thinks it’s anti-feminist because he thinks she isn’t sexually liberated. She’s not sexy to him. He’s boiled feminism down to the sex-positive movement and sexual liberation. And this wasn’t about sexuality….not that it was absent, but it wasn’t the focus. Because you know, we’re whole people.

    Feminists aren’t monolithic. It’s supposed to be about women being able to do what they want without feeling ashamed or like they’re being judged…whether for being “too sexual” or “not sexual enough”.

    • Yes, this! I was stewing over this as well.

      He’s done the exact opposite thing to feminism that the religious right has – he’s made it uber glamorous and sexy and fashionable. Which is better than what some say about feminism, but I digress.

      Feminism is about making your own choices and having the power to do so. If I wanted to go back to Mormonism and marry a man and have 2.4 kids, a true feminist would say have at it. But the key is that I would have to WANT to.

      Maybe if she’d fucked her way through Italy, Indonesia and India he’d be more interested. That idea makes me frustrated.

    • actually GrrrlRomeo I think you are completely right, b/c men kind of always think feminism is about sex and that any woman talking about anything that’s not making him a sandwich is a militant feminist. I wish I had thought of that before writing this article, but I didn’t. And he’s wrong, also, because knitting is really sexy.

  11. I find Russel Smith’s article personally offensive. And here’s why.

    The first thing I did after I watched that video was go and post it on my brother’s Facebook wall. I did this because it reminded me so much of his situation. About 4 1/2 years ago, his fiancee suddenly passed away. This was a horribly painful experience for him. Since then, he hasn’t had any significant others… or as far as I know, any dates (and we’re very close, so I think he’d tell me if he got a date with someone). He’s not exactly happy with this, but at the same time he does seem to get strength from aloneness.

    And yet whenever people (who know about Lily) ask after my brother, one of their first questions is, “has he found a new girlfriend?” As if that’s going to solve his pain. As if that means he’s “fixed.”

    Dammit, he’s not even broken.

    And in stomps Russell Smith, saying that only women have that pressure to find “someone.” BULLSHIT.

    Obviously this touched a nerve…

  12. Bravo! Thanks for this piece. It’s absolutely refreshing to read something so well thought-out and well-written. This site feeds me in so many ways (like, literally with that most recent bread post), and I love how I am allowed to think on a number of issues by way of the posts here. Thanks again for this great insightful writing on this topic.

  13. I am rarely alone. For the past 17 years, I have lived with my partner. For the past 9 years, I’ve lived with children. I don’t always know how to be alone but believe that it is something I need to learn. That is the beauty of Tanya Davis’ video. It is not a video for those who are desperate for the love of another. It is an effort to engage us all in saving a lost art – the love and appreciation of one’s self.

  14. It’s all in the mindset you have. Being alone. I for one enjoyed the video. Going to watch the movie tomorrow. Plus I agree with emily, take it for what it is. Someone’s point of view which is harmless. Doesn’t need to get so deep and serious.

  15. Thank you for this. The hype around Eat, Pray, Love is borderline creepy to me. In the airport a year ago, before I knew anything about this book, I saw not one, not two, but FOUR women reading this book. I said to my wife, “what the &*#$ is up with eat, pray, love” and the gay boy in front of us in the security line chuckled and said, “yeah, i know, my straight (female) roommate is OBSESSED with that book.” we all giggled together, understanding that for whatever the book’s merits might me, it’s something largely reserved for those wacky heterosexuals. not that there is anything wrong with that.

  16. rachel, i really like your words. also, when i first saw this video i was like high five for hanging out with yourself! i do it all the time. by choice. i used to feel like one of the only weirdos who likes a decent amount of solo time, until i went places alone and noticed that i was not, in fact, alone in being alone. ex: the benches made for sitting where you get to meet strangers. win!

    • yeah i actually prefer to be alone, though i suppose my ideal state in life would be also to have a person, or many people, around me who i can be alone with, too, sometimes, because i’ve noticed while working for autostraddle in my cave that i have a capacity for loneliness i’ve never felt before like, this year?

      i’ve been going out to eat, going to movies and going to plays and traveling by myself for so long i’m sometimes shocked to find out other people have not. i savor long stretches of alone time outside of my room, like walks or trains. i’m more used to being alone than not being alone.

      tho i can’t imagine dancing alone in a club, i can only dance alone in my room.

      • >>suppose my ideal state in life would be also to have a person, or many people, around me who i can be alone with, too>>

        This really resonates with me. My partner and I (and often her sister and her sister’s boyfriend) spend a lot of time alone together, and I really enjoy that. Sometimes it’s nice to do stuff together, but it’s also great to be doing your own thing in the company of others!

  17. i enjoyed this post.

    thank you for this rachel. 28 (ancient here in AS) – i’ve been consciously choosing to be alone for sometime now, not single, just alone – in myself.

    its empowering most days but you do get the blues and ALONE is lonely too sometimes (2 totally different words) – but so with other relationships we create outside of ourselves.

    enjoyed the vid and reading the posts, now i know i’m not alone in this alone thing – which is the irony

    anyway, I have AS to come and “talk” to at 2.54am – i guess i have a rel. with you then – would you accept?! 🙂

  18. first, rachel, i absolutely adore your writing. but we’ve probably discussed that. or at least i have discussed it with myself. you are so good at the words and the thoughts and the internet for sharing them with us.

    SECOND. the poet/woman’s voice is so soothing. her speech cadence! her accent! amazing!

    beautiful video.

  19. The video gave me warm fuzzies all over my insides. Then I made the mistake of reading Smith’s criticism after watching it. Goodbye warm fuzzies, hello tense paranoia.

    I agree completely with this article. Especially this:

    “I have nothing to go on here other than gut instinct, but my gut instinct says that this shiftless, uncategorizable quality made Smith feel weird and uncomfortable. He didn’t know what Davis was talking about, or where she was coming from. In the absence of any context or clues about how he was supposed to read this, I suspect that he made up some of his own.”

    I can’t imagine any other excuse for his bizarre interpretation of the video.

  20. Autostraddle has quite the collection of Rachels, let’s be honest. Probably the only thing there are more of is lesbians. Lesbians and then Rachels. A huge collection of Rachels. And you are my absolute favourite one. You are the best.

    I always feel okay about things when you write about them. When I have a day of feeling sad, I’ll come back to this post. This post and that video. Which is beautiful and lovely and which I’m appreciative to you for sharing with me. <3

  21. Solitude is a very wonderful place/state in which to exist. I think most creativity eminates from its quiet freedom.
    Thanks for the video, which I loved and had not seen. Thanks for the interesting write-up, Rachel.
    I’m kind of an old fart, loved the book EPL. Haven’t seen the movie, but I’m not liking the trailer much.
    And I did follow the same gorgeous guru for 12 years before deciding she was a little too glamororus. Now my guru is an 80s something Indian man. Hinduism resonates for me spiritually. Been to India 6 times. Have Indian wife. etc etc

  22. i find this all very sad….as a relic from the 60’s, when real feminism first flourished and wakened me and millions of other guys to seeing women as equal partners and not objects, the descent into the trivializing of empowerment and hitching on to light, bright and trite is discouraging….the world has become such a self-indulgent place where everything is about “me”…..dump your husband, go an upper middle class search to beautiful parts of the world, sleep with guys…..we would be bored out of our gourds if a guy did this, dumping his wife, sleeping with lovely women, going around the world, etc…zzzzz….can we just get back to being ourselves without making mountains of every little thing we do……are women checking their brains at the door?…..i gave up on guys long ago as the superior sex…women, dont descend to our level of the trivial…rise up!

  23. I’ve been crying all night because I’m going through a breakup and I could hardly stand being alone. This video helped immensely. Thank you thank you thank you.

    I think I will go to the museum alone tomorrow.

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