“It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of 40,” a co-worker informs Annie (Meg Ryan) in Sleepless in Seattle.
“That statistic is not true!” Annie protests.
Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) settles the debate. “That’s right—it’s not true,” she says. “But it feels true.”
It feels true is, in retrospect, a perfect way to sum up the thing that gave the grim statistic its staying power, both in the canonical ’90s rom-com and in the culture at large: an article that graced the cover of Newsweek in early June of 1986. The piece, inside the magazine, carried the headline “Too Late for Prince Charming?” But it was presented to the public, via Newsweek’s cover, in more alarmist tones. It looked like this:
Thirty years later—the publication date of the article was June 2—it’s easy to forget that the so-pervasive-as-to-be-Ephroned marriage-and-terrorism stat was plucked from a single piece of journalism that was in turn based on a study that was, at the time of the story’s publication, unpublished. It’s also easy to forget, given its resonance, that the stat comes from an article that has since been so thoroughly debunked, by demographers and sociologists and media outlets alike, that Newsweek, 20 years after the fact, retracted it.
And yet: It felt true. The empirical reality, as so often happens, became unmoored from the hazier human one. “For a lot of women,” The New York Times put it, wearily, in 2006, “the retraction doesn’t matter. The article seems to have lodged itself permanently in the national psyche.”
The original version of “Too Late for Prince Charming?”—which was more than 3,000 words long, and named six different reporters in its byline—is available today, best I can tell, only in spectral form: You can find it online not through Newsweek’s site, but through a Lexis-Nexis search (and the hackily copy-pasted results thereof). That makes some sense. On one level, the piece is very much a product, and a reflection, of its time—a time when Americans were navigating the consequences of the baby boom and the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution and the advent of the birth-control pill and economic recession and economic prosperity and the many, many other events that made the ’70s and ’80s times of simmering cultural anxieties.