For as long as I can remember, the words ‘bachelor’ and ‘spinster’ were universes apart. A bachelor is this cool, good-looking guy who can be in a relationship, but chooses not to. He probably lives in a penthouse with a lot of leather furniture and blue-grey decor, and a turntable playing smooth jazz; a different woman stays over every other weekend a la Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men. The charming, eternal bachelor (never a slut) looks at his monogamous friends and sighs; attends weddings and mourns the loss of another brother in arms – after fully enjoying the Stag Night. Being a part of Bachelorville is a magical thing brimming with slick hairstyles and chiseled jawlines – sharp suits and naughty nightcaps.
But Venus help you if you and your uterus are single after a certain age, because you’re this strange creature with scaly green skin, three rows of teeth, and a gnome where your lady-business should be, frantically searching for a mate before those all-important child-bearing years are over. A wild Homo Innupta Tristis – a sad spinster, thrust out into the wild armed with little more than a DVD box set of Bridget Jones’ Diary, a pack of tissues to wipe your salty tears, and your pet cat, probably named Morris, there to keep you company.
Oh, and you’ll have already noticed that the world of bachelors and spinsters is completely heterosexual and cisgender, too. Add that to the list of questions.
I always felt that there was something not quite right about this uneven split, even though I couldn’t always articulate it. I’d scratch my little head and wonder what exactly the right word would be for a lady who was quite happy to be single (like Charlie Sheen or otherwise). Defeated, I just stuck to an un-imaginative ‘not married’. Or ‘single lady’ (my inner-teen was very excited when Beyoncé released her hand-twisting hit into the world). But once I’d come to terms with that one, my next question was: what do we call a man who’s a spinster? Cue frustration. Enter exasperated tween. Give up and play video games ad nauseum. Give it a couple more years, and I’d soon start asking why we felt the need to assign names to people based on their sexual/relationship status or levels of perceived desirability – that bit came a fair while later.
We’ve tried to sort this out by coming up with the word Bachelorette – which actually isn’t a bad one, but doesn’t solve the problem of double-standards on its own. We need to dig a little deeper into the ideology behind the words. The problem is that with or without those all-important signifiers, males and females are judged differently once they reach a certain age and happen to be single and – yes – childless. And that’s where the biological matter of sex fades away, and the cultural issues of gender and, more specifically, gender roles, come into play. Yes, I’m dropping the G-bomb. Don’t panic.
The mental knee-jerk reaction we experience when we hear words like ‘bachelor’, ‘spinster’ or ‘bachelorette’ is based on the way we’ve been taught to perceive and understand the world around us. Before we’re even old enough to mumble one-syllable words like ‘no’ and ‘ka-ka’, the world around us starts to build us into boys and girls, men and women. Blue for boys, pink for girls. Boys play with cars and wear super-hero t-shirts, girls play with Barbies and toy babies, and wear dresses. This might seem absurd to some, but I promise you that that’s just how early it starts – and it just continues, over time, in the subtlest of ways.
Human beings are uncomfortable with anything that can’t be identified, categorised, and slotted into a box for convenience – genres, animal species, men, women, spinsters, bachelors, sluts, players, nerds, geeks, bimbos, and so on and so forth until the end of time. We like clear-cut lines and definitions. We like naming things. When you disrupt this black-and-white division of the world, you cause some serious turbulence. You’re a scary thing that broke out of your category. Where are we going to put you now, weirdo?
An unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage, without children.
The gender problem I outlined earlier is captured quite neatly in this straightforward dictionary definition. This word defines a woman based on two key assumptions:
- All women should aspire to be married to a man by a certain age
- All women want to have children and be married to a man by a certain age
The view that women are essentially baby-factories waiting for a dapper prince charming to roll up and woo them into oblivion is supposedly convenient for society in the wider sense, but is vastly out of touch with reality. Some women want children, some don’t. Some women get married, some don’t. Similarly, some men prefer staying single, others would rather like to get into a relationship, raise children, et cetera. There’s no good and bad about it, however there is a massive misconception surrounding the subject of singledom. The driving force behind the words ‘bachelor’ and ‘spinster’ is the notion that a man can choose to be single, promiscuous, and not want children, while a woman is single because of some intrinsic flaw that marks her as ‘undesirable’, on the shelf. If she also happens to be promiscuous, then she’s called a slut, by the way.
So perhaps, like many things, it boils down to the question of choice. The fascinating thing about language is that it reflects the culture that creates and uses it; if we look a bit closer, there’s that small suggestion that the word ‘spinster’ is a pretty good snapshot of our society. The word captures this blurred image of a nameless woman, deemed undesirable, who can’t choose to be single or without children. It’s something that happens to her, a melancholy condition she has to ‘cope’ with.
Unless, of course, I’ve missed some critical part about being a human being who happens to have a uterus. Do I not get to level up if I decide not to have kids? Is there an exclusive Femininity Club I can’t be a part of if I don’t have a significant other? Will my ovaries explode if I don’t need to be desirable to men to have a good sense of self-worth? So many questions.
Anyway, this is a little ramble that came up when I was sipping my cappuccino. What other pairings do you think are total bullshit? Hit the comments and let’s talk about it!