Jess McCabe // 2 October 2008
Spinsters – not a word you hear so often anymore. I’ve always understood it as a term of abuse for women who don’t marry men, a cultural archetype meant to keep women in their place – the flip side of the wedding-industrial-complex.
When I started thinking about my concepts of spinsterhood I had a lot of powerful images and media messages that flooded my consciousness. Spinsters are old and ugly and they turn mean or unstable without a man.
My mind can see cartoons with the Sea Hag and Alice the Goon as spinster role models. The many variations of the shushing sexually repressed librarian. The Jane Austin books that put the word out that you better hook up with someone or you might have to depend on the kindness of flipped out relatives or dark, powerful but aloof men. I’m thinking there has got to be a positive spinster image somewhere in my mind.
Meanwhile, this kicked off a great post over at Jezebel, where Sadie Stein talks about looking up to spinsters as a teenager (she had the email address email@example.com!), and the interesting potential for spinsters to make great role models for girls.
She makes some great points, particularly on how – if you take away the negative stereotyping and presentation of spinsters – what you’re left with is women who refused to be defined according to their relationship with men:
I do fully believe that the single woman is a historically thorny issue for people, and filmmakers, writers and generalizers alike, when they can’t quickly transform their lives via heroes ex machinae, slot them into ‘sinister witch’, ‘terrorized old maid’ or bitter, sexually-repressed misanthrope, essentially tragic and fearful. The thing is, though, the spinster is too complicated — and too awesome ‚ an archetype to dismiss like that.
To me, a spinster isn’t just an unmarried lady. Rather, I’ve always thought of her as a woman who, for whatever reason, chose not to define herself through a man, in a time when that was de rigeur.
Sadie also draws attention to the fact that a number of literary women were “spinsters” – including Jane Austen and Barbara Pym.
Film gives us such stalwarts as Lillian Gish’s heroic child-defender in Night of the Hunter, Marilla Cuthbert, or weird as it sounds, the fairy godmothers in A Sleeping Beauty — benevolent characters who, while maybe secondary, manage to provide a singular tartness and goodness which, whether people realize it or not, is as essential to our cultural view of the spinster as is the bitter recluse. In a sense, it’s an archetype with the energy to be sensible — you could argue there’s a backhanded misogyny to that, the notion that asexuality is a sort of pathway to wisdom — but one which is every bit as enduring as the negative stereotypes discussed.
Photo by Cross-stitch ninja, shared under a Creative Commons license