Spinster:  An Evolving Stereotype Revealed Through Film
by
Deborah J. Mustard

On-line publication date: January 20, 2000, Journal of Media Psychology
Hard-copy designation: Volume 4, Winter 2000, Journal of Media Psychology
 
 
 

Introduction

     Modern American culture has raised generations of women who believed that their true and most important role in society was to get married and have children.  Anything short of this role was considered abnormal, unfulfilling, and suspect.  This female stereotype has been exploited and perpetuated by some key films in the late 40’s and early 50’s.  But more recently we have seen a shift in the cultural view of the spinster.  The erosion of the traditional nuclear family, as well as a larger range of acceptable life choices, has caused our perceptions of unmarried women to change.  The film industry has reflected this shift with updated stereotypes that depict this cultural trend.  The shift in the way we perceive spinsters is the subject of current academic research which shows that a person’s perception of particular societal roles influences the amount of stress or depression they experience when in that specific role.  Further, although the way our culture perceives spinsters and the way the film industry portrays them may be evolving, we still are still left with a negative stereotype.

The Spinster Stereotype
     The word spinster came into common use during the early 19th century when the thankless task of spinning cloth had been pushed off to unmarried women as a way to earn their keep in the home (O’Brien, 1973).   Contemporary use of the word conjures up a mental image of a childless, frumpy, middle-aged woman who is somewhat depressed, and is longing to be like other “normal” women.  She is usually alone, or living with an extended family.  She is considered a societal outcast living in the shadow of others.  She makes those around her uncomfortable.

     Haskell (1988) succinctly describes our collective uneasiness with the stereotype:  “Like witch, spinster was a scareword, a stereotype that served to embrace and isolate a group of women of vastly different dispositions, talents, situations, but whose common bond – never having become half of a pair – was enough to throw into question the rules and presumed priorities on which society was founded” (p. 18).

    In Now, Voyager (1942), Bette Davis plays the role of Charlotte Vale, the troubled, unmarried daughter of a domineering mother from an apparently affluent upper-class family.  When Charlotte makes her initial appearance, the audience has a pretty good idea of who and what she is at first glance.  She fits the classic stereotyped image of a spinster and we have compartmentalized her as such in our minds before she has a chance to speak her first line.  Charlotte is dressed in a drab, ill-fitting dress; her hair is pulled back in a bun; and she wears old-fashioned, wire-framed spectacles.  Her presence screams “spinster”:  her demeanor seems mousy, her eyes are cast down, and she is constantly wringing her hands as if she is uncomfortable with herself.  Obviously, there is something abnormal about her entire demeanor.

     Similarly, in The African Queen (1951), the character Rosie, played by Katherine Hepburn, fits another visual concept of the spinster stereotype.  With her high-necked dress, long hair pinned up in a severe knot on top of her head, and extremely proper manners, Rosie conveys that she is a tight, restricted, and overly-moral person.  Her character is that of a female missionary deep in the African jungle, selflessly helping her brother minister his congregation.  She apparently does not have the womanly attachments of a husband or children and has therefore attached herself to her brother.

    When a stereotype is outside or deviant from what people generally consider normal, Peach (1998) proposes that these stereotypes function as a form of social control.  In fact, historically spinsters have been controlled by society.  Until the late 19th century, unmarried women could not own property and were subject to the financial control of the family hierarchy (O’Brien, 1973).   An illusion is made to this type of financial and social control in Now Voyager when Charlotte, in an attempt to defy her mother, is threatened with being cut off from receiving her inheritance.  In fact, we are told that her inheritance is less than that of her brothers because as a woman it is simply assumed that she will be taken care of by her husband.  Charlotte’s own mother refers to Charlotte as a guest in the house and tells her that she should be grateful to be given a place to stay.

    Another aspect of the spinster stereotype is the relegation of the individual to the role of caretaker.  Since unmarried women stayed at home, they were expected to take care of elderly or ill relatives, selflessly devoting their time and energies to them.  And why not, since they had no life of their own.  In Now Voyager we see Charlotte as the caretaker of her elderly mother.  It is her naturally assumed lot in life since she is not married and lives at home.  She doesn’t escape this role until her mother’s death.

    An updated version of the spinster as caretaker stereotype is seen in the role of Bessie played by Diane Keaton in Marvin’s Room (1996).   Keaton plays the unmarried daughter who had returned home years ago to care for her Alzheimer father and senile aunt because her only sister was too busy with her own life and children to be bothered.  By default Bessie was designated the caretaker of the family since her sister had more important things to do (raise her own family).  Bessie had no such obligation and without question the caretaker role was hers to assume.  Ultimately, Bessie apparently becomes at peace with this role, and claims to have found great satisfaction in it.  This portrayal is a weakening of the spinster stereotype in that Bessie accepts and enjoys her role rather than agonizing over it.  The portrayal contrasts sharply with that of Charlotte in  Now Voyager, who fought to overcome her role and always resented it.  Charlotte is seen as a victim in her role, but Bessie is able to convince herself that caretaker is a role she chose.

    Peach (1998) says that when women have not been biological mothers, they are expected to fulfill the role of “social mothers.”    Since a spinster has no children of her own, society expects her to step in and fulfill a generic mothering role when called upon – it’s her duty.   This societal duty is clearly depicted in Now Voyager when Charlotte takes on the responsibility for caring for the unwanted child of her lover, a man she can never marry.  Neither the child’s psychiatrist nor the natural mother has been successful caring for her, so it becomes Charlotte’s duty to step in and be the social mother.  We are left to conclude that Charlotte’s ultimate self-sacrifice of caring for this unwanted child is a noble, and perhaps expected, thing to do since she has no child or husband of her own to care for.

    This role of social mother is also portrayed in Summertime (1955) between Katherine Hepburn and the homeless local boy who tags along in the guise of being her protector and guide.  The boy represents what is missing in her life and when he disappears at one point in the film, she is worried about him.  Her care and motherly concern for this street child fills society’s expectation of her as a social mother.

     In The Woman Alone,  O’Brien (1973) addresses society’s fear that spinsters might just find their unmarried role satisfying, and that they might be able to feel complete without marriage and motherhood:

     “Underlying all the criticisms and attacks on women along through history has been the uneasy fear that women who seek alternatives to marriage and motherhood might very well find them satisfying.  The images of themselves that women have been presented with (and helped perpetuate) are intended to discourage or intimidate.  And even though as a nation we are committing ourselves to cutting back the birth rate, women who do not marry pose questions about the structure of society.  Those questions are difficult to articulate, because they are so deeply rooted in our anxieties about what we are.  If women are allowed to flee on their broomsticks, couldn’t they possibly destroy all that has been so  carefully put together by men?”  (p. 74).

     The stereotype of spinster has been universally understood to be feminine in nature.  Words like “spinster” and “old maid” pertain to the sexual as well as marital state of a woman (Schur, 1983).  The words used to label the spinster’s male counterpart do not parallel in meaning.  “Bachelor” typically implies that a man is young, virile, and available.  It doesn’t have the same negative connotations as that of ‘spinster.’  The word bachelor alludes to a healthier sexuality, more normal than the implication for the unmarried female.  A bachelor could have numerous partners, but it would be immoral for a spinster to do the same.  Only in a few film portrayals has the male stereotype been interpreted negatively (e.g. the fuss-budget  character, Felix Unger, in the 1968 film The Odd Couple).  More typically movies such as The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Bachelor in Paradise (1969) shaped our unmarried male stereotype.  Unlike the spinster, the fact that a man is not married does not necessarily imply a deficiency in his character.  Females have been called the “heretics of love,” but Haskell (1988) assures us that males are not viewed in the same manner.

Historical Perspective
     After WWII, there was an overwhelming resurgence of family values – the world needed the naturally gentle mothering of women after all it had been through (O’Brien, 1973).  In the United States, the pressure was on for women to marry, raise families, and fulfill the American dream.  After all, these were the values that we were fighting for in the war.  Because women had assumed employment in various occupations to help the war effort, it was now acceptable for single women to work.  But it still wasn’t acceptable that that ultimately these women might not marry (O’Brien, 1973).   It was expected that most women would leave their jobs, now that the men were returning home and rejoining the workforce, and go back home where they belonged in their domestic role of wife and mother.  Margaret Meade surmised that in the 1950’s unmarried women became virtually non-existent because society couldn’t afford to tolerate them (O’Brien, 1973).  But this wouldn’t last for long.

     Single women were caught up in a strange dichotomy during this time.  They had become more independent both financially and emotionally by being part of the workforce.  They were gaining more acceptability by society as viable, contributing members.  But all of this success was at the expense of ‘the family’ because they were taking away jobs from men who needed the work to support their wife and children.  More recently, American culture has found it more acceptable for single women to be independent and have meaningful careers.  But the underlying threat to men and the family is still part of the modern spinster stereotype.  This is evidenced in the many films that portray single women as having very responsible careers, but who have some sort of break down (or eventually settle for something less than they really want) because they are not fulfilled (e.g. Fatal Attraction, 1987; Crossing Delancey, 1988; Broadcast News, 1987) (Faludi, 1991).  In Fatal Attraction, our initial impression of the lead female character, Alex, is a positive one – she is a career woman with a responsible position in publishing; she is dynamic, articulate, and knows what she wants.  But our initial impression soon fades as it becomes apparent that underneath she is really a desperate, conniving woman who becomes homicidal in her pursuit to satisfy the ticking biological clock within.   This over-the-top portrayal of the desperate single woman is juxtaposed to that of the (equally over-the-top) demure, defenseless, betrayed wife who represents what Alex can’t have.  It seems to come down to an either/or proposition for spinsters – either you conform to society’s role of wife and mother, or you will pay the price psychologically and emotionally.

     A new spin on the image of single women is depicted in Single, White, Female (1992).  One of the female leads (Allison, played by Bridget Fonda) is a chic computer consultant; the other lead (Hedra, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an ugly duckling bookstore clerk.   Hedra begins to imitate Allison, using her as the ideal role model for what a single girl should be, and as the story develops we see to what extreme lengths Hedra goes to become just like Allison.  This portrayal, while a bit on the psychotic side, nevertheless extends our screen stereotype of unfulfilled females.

     The population of single women has been on the rise over the past several decades.  The proportion of women (aged 25-29) as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau who have never married has risen from 10.5% in 1960, to 18% in 1978 (Schur, 1983).  This can be attributed to many different factors but particularly to acceptability of alternative lifestyle choices for women, such as living together with a different or same sex partner without being married, having or raising children without a husband, and marrying at an older age.  The influence of these lifestyle choices on women in society is portrayed in films like Baby Boom (1987), Private Benjamin (1980), and Thelma and Louise (1991).

Psychological profile of stereotype
     There are several psychological characteristics associated with the spinster stereotype.  These characteristics help use define and label our mental image of spinsters and allow us to call upon that profile when confronted with such a person on the movie screen (or in real life).   Some of the common characteristics that contribute to our psychological profile of spinsters are described below.

     Abnormal.  According to Peach (1998), motherhood has been considered a natural part of a woman’s life.  Since spinsters (in the traditional sense) don’t have children, they are viewed as abnormal.  Something must be wrong with a woman who does not have, and maybe even does not even want, marriage and children and who does not fulfill the role that society has proscribed for them.  Therefore if being married is the norm, then being a spinster can be considered a norm violation.  This sentiment has prevailed through the 1970’s.  However, a more recent view of this is that the norm is not as absolute as it once was (Schur, 1983).  This shift in thinking will be addressed in more detail later.

     Pitiful.  Spinsters have been the objects of society’s pity.  They are viewed as being on the periphery of life:  close but never quite able to join in.  One logical conclusion due to this lack of participation is that spinsters must be unfulfilled.  How could they be happy not having what everyone else has?  In sum, absent a husband and children, they cannot have true meaning in life and therefore deserve our pity.

     Unfulfilled.   By definition spinsters do not have what ‘true’ women have (i.e., husband and children).  They are alone in life, waiting for the scraps from the tables of others.  In Summertime (1955) Katherine Hepburn portrays a stereotypical American spinster who travels to Venice looking for something that is missing from her dull, lonely existence.  She wants to let loose and find out what she is missing so that she can go home with a sense of what life could be like.  She falls in love with a man, and is devastated when she later finds out he is married.  But she is so desperate for romance in her life that she overlooks society’s disapproval to gain a once in a lifetime experience.

     Suspect.  The stages of infancy, childhood, and adolescence are temporary and considered part of normal development.  But when a person remains in one stage too long (i.e. spinsters staying single), this behavior is looked at suspiciously.   O’Brien (1973) says that “..the single woman has historically been both intriguing and a challenge to men when she is young.  But prolonged singleness—even prolonged virginity—is still suspect” (p. 74).   Furthermore, married women tend to be suspicious of single women and view them as either a personal or societal threat.

Cinematic Phases in the Spinster Evolution
     Film has captured society’s changing attitude toward single women.  In the 1930’s, Mae West played characters who were tough, independent, and who could certainly take care of themselves.  William Randolph Hearst was quoted in Faludi (1991) as referring to West as “…a menace to the sacred institution of the American family” (p. 114).  Obviously her characters challenged the status quo of the day.  Later, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell gave viewers a image of socially-accepted, tough working women (sometimes married or divorced) in movies such as Woman of the Year (1942), Adam’s Rib (1950), and His Girl Friday (1940) (Faludi, 1991).

     In the early 1970’s, Newsweek ran a cover story about the joys of being a single woman that applauded a rediscovered independence (Faludi, 1991).   Women were beginning to rethink their traditional roles and found support and encouragement by what was being reported in the media.  Faludi (1991) says that this magazine article was the beginning of  a phenomenon she calls the “Spinster Boom,” the ramifications of which we saw cinematically a few years later.  Films such as Baby Boom (1987), Private Benjamin (1980), and Thelma and Louise (1991) (mentioned earlier) represent this shift in perception that says women are entitled to determine their own lives and that they don’t have to follow society’s rules.

    Faludi develops this idea further into a belief that there is a backlash for this behavior -- liberated women who were denied marriage and motherhood because they followed this single myth now believe that they were duped (Faludi, 1991).  This puts us right back into the age-old stereotype of spinster:  no man, no children, no fulfillment.

Contemporary Issues
     Today’s culture is more accepting of alternative roles for women.  With the availability of birth control, women are more in control of unwanted pregnancy and able to construct their own identity (Peach, 1998).  This challenge to our cultural stereotype of an unmarried woman can be seen in Madonna, a leading music and film star of the 80’s and 90’s.  She flaunts her singleness and independence and creates controversy over the notion of her own unique form of feminism.  In Kellner (1998), Madonna is identified as someone who has successfully affirmed her own power and sexual identify, and thus defies conventional stereotypes.  For earlier generations, the stereotype of spinster was much more confining and did not allow women the ability to break from convention.  Our control of unmarried women as a group was much tighter.  Also, there was less tolerance of people who threatened the societal image of the family (including homosexuals).   Today, it is believed that our period of narcissism and assertion of the individual that began in the 1980’s is not yet over (Peach, 19998).  There is still more cultural change and breaking of stereotypes ahead for women.

     A major rethinking of the spinster by King (1993) portrays unmarried women as true feminists.  He says that these spinsters were the ones who gave women a good name.  King believes that instead of using the title ‘Ms.’ to conceal their true identification, ‘Spinster’ should be a choice on applications for those who have chosen the unmarried life (King 1993).  This view applauds a single woman’s ability to make choices that married women are unable to make because they have  given up a part of their freedom when being tied to someone else.

     Recent research by Tucker and Mitchell-Kernan (1998) has explored the connection between psychological well-being of a woman and her perception of marital opportunities.  They have found that marriage behavior has been affected by the decrease in availability of marriage partners, and that this has led to a delay in marriage as well as a lower marriage rate.  The study also concluded that as singlehood becomes more common and there are more single role models, the negative sentiment for being single diminishes (Tucker and Mitchell-Kernan, 1998).  In addition, another study (Simon & Marcussen, 1999) shows that depression levels were significantly less for people who married than those who remained unmarried.

Some Final Thoughts
     The struggle for single women to become a respected part of society has been going on for centuries.  This struggle has been documented for us in more recent years by motion pictures.  Films have reflected society’s compartmentalization of the unmarried woman.  She’s been portrayed along a broad, changing spectrum – from a pitiable soul who could be made whole by marrying and having children, to an independent person who has many choices in her life to be fulfilled.   Even though there has been a shift in our perception of this creature, the spinster, we still are not comfortable with her.  There is still something suspect about female independence, something that still threatens the status quo.  The film industry gladly has updated this stereotype and has capitalized on the idea of that biological clock ticking away in each childless woman.  But no matter how updated it is, the film stereotype still remains—perhaps more negatively than before.  We’ve seen the spinster step out of her role and gain independence, but Hollywood has not quite decided if she is still benign or will become a more menacing icon.

 References

Faludi, S. (1991).  Backlash:  The Undeclared War Against American Women.  New York:  Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Haskell, M. (1988).  Paying Homage to the Spinster.  New York Times Magazine, May 8, 18-20.

Kellner, D. (1998).  Madonna, Fashion, and Identity (excerpt).  In L. J. Peach (Ed.), Women in Culture:  A Women’s
    Studies Anthology.  Oxford, UK:  Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

King, F. (1993, July 19).  Spinsterhood Is Powerful.  National Review, 45(14), 72.

O’Brien, P.  (1973).  The Woman Alone.  New York:  Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company.

Peach, L. J. (1998).  Women in Culture:  A Women’s Studies Anthology.  Oxford, UK:  Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Schur, E. M. (1983).  Labeling women deviant: Gender, stigma, and social control.  Philadelphia:
    Temple University Press.

Simon, R.W., & Marcussen, K. (1999).  Marital transitions, marital beliefs, and mental health.  Journal of Health and Social
    Behavior, 40, June 1999, 111-125.

Tucker, M.B., & Mitchell-Kernan, C.M. (1998).  Psychological well-being and perceived marital opportunity among single
    African American, Latina and White women. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 29(1), Spr 1998, 57-72.

Back to index page