EssaysFeatureSex & Gender

A Table for One: A Critical Reading of Singlehood, Gender and Time

An extract from Kinneret Lahad’s recently published book

From Chapter 4, ‘Facing the horror: becoming an “old maid”’

Age and Singlehood

In her analysis of single women in popular culture, Anthea Taylor (2012) proposes that the study of single women opens a window on how heteronormative and patriarchal frameworks operate in new and sophisticated ways. Inspired by Taylor’s study, I contend that current categorizations of the “old maid” are deeply embedded within the context of heteronormative culture. According to Berlant and Warner, heteronormativity is:

The institutions, structures of understanding and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent — that is, organized as sexuality — but also privileged. Its coherence is always provisional, and its privilege can take several (sometimes contradictory) forms: unmarked, as the basic idiom of the personal and the social; or marked as a natural state; or projected as an ideal or moral accomplishment. It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than of a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations — often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions. (Berlant and Warner 1998, 548)

The privileging of heterosexual and familial bonds has the pro-active force of structuring normative understandings about single women and aging. In this manner, as Taylor (2012) writes, single women are situated in relation to, and as against, the married/single binary, and are construed as figures of profound disparity. These sets of assumptions become ever more unforgiving as single women age. In their discussion of single women’s accounts of their single status, Anna Sandfield and Carol Percy (2003) note how references to older single women are generally derogatory, as well as how older single women are perceived as lonely and isolated. According to Sandfield and Percy, all the participants in their study demonstrated an awareness of the status-related expectations associated with age (ibid., 480). I concur with Sandfield and Percy’s findings, and stress that socially produced consciousness is embedded in the age conventions guiding mundane social interactions, and plays a key role in the discursive construction of thirty-plus single women.

Scholars such as Hazan contend that the omnipotence of age is revealed in the fact that age is perceived to be an objective, universal, natural fact, and beyond dispute:

Age is mistakenly considered to be a universal category. Although it is often endowed with the analytical status of a “variable,” it appears as something which could not be explained… This mistake stems from a lack of critical deconstructive thinking about the concept of age. The identification between biological, social, psychological and chronological age is affirmed in developmental psychological theories which constitute age clusters at different stages of the life course and bestow age with features which are beyond its classificatory marker. (Hazan 2006, 82)

In his writings on the reasoning of bureaucratic logic, Don Handelman discusses the effectiveness of age as a taxonomizer which constitutes the temporality of the individual, “smoothing him into the bureaucratic order” (Handelman 2004, 88). Accordingly, each life phase defines its own age-appropriate behaviors, and serves as a key tool for producing knowledge, coherence, and meaning. As Handelman suggests, “Knowing one’s own numerical age — one’s exact location in time, synchronized precisely to all other individuals — is considered an elementary index of competence” (ibid., 59).

Prevalent images of single women suggest that passing, or being around the age of thirty demarcates a crossover zone. In this sense, the knowledge of one’s age discursively constitutes the single woman’s status, and provides allegedly significant evidence for determining who the single woman is and what she ought to be. This also stands in tandem with Cheryl Laz’s (1998) research on the performative aspects of age. Laz views the category of age as an accomplished one, or as she puts it: “We collectively do it right” (ibid., 99). I can locate my book within the broader visions of feminist theorizing about aging. A common-sense view embedded within our patriarchal and youth-oriented culture is that as women age, they move away from current beauty ideals, and accordingly need to develop age concealment techniques.

As Catherine Silver observes:

Older women’s bodies are more likely to be perceived as deformed, ridiculous looking, and desexualized. They become frightening, “crones” and “witch like,” as imagined in children’s books and fairy tales. The language that describes older women is indicative of deep-seated, unconscious fears and a rejection of the aging female body, with its connotations of danger and contamination that need to be kept separate and isolated. (Silver 2003, 385)

Silver’s reflections accord with Susan Sontag’s statement in her celebrated essay, “The Double Standard of Aging”:

[Women are considered] Maximally eligible in early youth, after which their sexual value drops steadily; even young women feel themselves in a desperate race against the calendar. They are old as soon as they are no longer very young. (Sontag 1983, 102)

Here, Sontag gives us insight into the deeply ingrained symbolic order that defines a single woman from a certain age as “no longer very young.” Sontag’s explanation is also especially relevant to understanding the gendered aspects linking aging and singlehood. The single woman’s aging process is a marker of her gradual withdrawal from the market, signifying her diminished sexual and reproductive value and functions.

Debating the thirty-plus-year-old “old maid”

In what follows, I seek to understand some of the discursive mechanisms by which the pejorative “old maid” label continues to be reproduced. The following analysis shows that the well-worn trope continues to prevail, in contemporary Israeli culture as well as in many societies where singlism reigns supreme.

Orit Gal, a single woman writing on the Ynet portal claims:

From a certain stage, every single woman will be tagged as a shriveled old lady. She will be pitied by her surroundings including her friends, family and colleagues for being an old hag. She will pass her nights by watching television, eat without control and share her bed with cats as no normal men would want to touch her. (Gal 2010)

Gal refers to the transition point through which women turn into old maids. The very process by which single women “age faster” than their married counterparts is loaded with sexist and ageist assumptions. Deeply entrenched within these presumptions is the perception of the single woman as a site of danger and contamination:

[The image of an “old maid”] is a warning signal that embodies the cruel destiny which awaits a woman who remains single. She might find herself cast as the “crazy cat lady”; this aging, solitary, poor woman who hangs around the neighborhood with her night gown on and feeds all the neighborhood cats. (Banosh 2011a)

As Noa Banosh, the single woman whose column was published on Ynet, comments, the image of the single woman as the “crazy cat lady” is one of the more common stereotypes that crosses cultures and time. Therefore, it is not surprising that columns and commentary like the above turn to this specific image when predicting the future awaiting single women. The common reference to cats is worth mentioning; indeed, as single scholars like DePaulo (2006) have observed, the unmarried woman is regularly stereotyped as lonely, miserable, and with no alternative but to fill her empty life with cats. Thus, the presence of cats have come to symbolize the lack of men in single women’s lives, as by this point in their lives they only have cats to keep them company. Moreover, this could be seen as a metaphorical representation of the inferior status bestowed upon single women by society at large. As feminist scholars have argued, this association of women and animals resides within a patriarchal, heteronormative conceptual framework, one which justifies the domination of women and the superiority of men over them, as they are presumed to be more primal and animalistic than men (Donovan, 1995; Spelman, 1982).

These accounts provide insight into the ways single women internalize widely held views about single women. Although often executed with humor and irony, by referencing this set of images, many single women embrace the typical image of the aging spinster living alone with her cats; to a certain extent, they even participate in keeping this image alive. By doing so, they also observe themselves through a patriarchal and sexist gaze, through which they become dominated and objectified. Hence, even though they realize that this image functions as a disciplinary mechanism, they cannot resist the cultural scripts which refer to long-term singlehood in terms of emptiness, loneliness, and loss. This formulation conveys a horrendous future: if they don’t find a partner at the right marriageable age, they will end up living a lonely, mentally unstable, and socially marginal life.

The image of the crazy cat lady also represents the pathologization of older women in our society, women whom, as Silver (2003) notes, should be isolated because of the fear of contamination. The above quotations also exemplify the process through which women internalize the normative gaze to which they are subjected. This is reminiscent of Sandra Bartky’s explanation concerning how women subject themselves to the normative gaze and judgment of men:

In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: they stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment. This is a process through which they become isolated and self-policing subjects which internalize the male normative gaze and are controlled by it (Bartky 1990, 72).

Through an adoption of the male connoisseur’s panoptical gaze, the loss of youth, beauty, and reproductive power turns women into social rejects. Within the context of this study, single women can be expected to experience relentless anxieties about their age, beauty, and reproductive abilities. Clearly, single women above a certain age cannot possibly compete with younger women, given that they are on the verge of losing what are considered women’s most important social assets: their appearance and their reproductive potential. This particular form of age hierarchy will be further explored through what I describe as the single woman’s accelerated aging process.

Accelerated aging

Central to our discussion is the manner in which sexist and ageist beliefs produce a particular kind of accelerated aging. The data analysis indicates that to a certain extent, single women “age faster” than married ones, and it is this very symbolic social process that contributes to the stigmatization and devaluation of single women. This analytical concept demonstrates how we are aged by culture and narratives about time (Gullette 2004), and sheds light on how perceptions of the aging process are determined by age-appropriate behavior and age norms. My use of the term “accelerated aging” draws from a study about aging among gay males, conducted by Keith Bennett and Norman Thompson (1991). In their study, they argue that:

Homosexual men are considered middle-aged and elderly by other homosexual men at an earlier age than heterosexual men in the general community. Since these age-status norms occur earlier in the gay sub-culture, the homosexual man thinks of himself as middle-aged and old before his heterosexual counterpart does. (ibid., 66)

In a similar vein, Julie Jones and Steve Pugh (2005) contend that in a society where ageism and homophobia are endemic, to be old is bad enough; but to be old and gay is to double the misery. Jones and Pugh’s observations can be extended to the study of single women: to age as a single woman triples this misery. Bennett and Thompson’s research joins other studies that have analyzed different forms of premature aging, such as with ballet dancers, table dancers, and athletes (Ronai 2000; Turner and Wainwright 2003). For example, Carol Ronai’s (2000) study of “aging table dancers” examines the social process through which table dancers are perceived as being older at a relatively young age.

As chronologically young as she [the dancer] may be, she can be old. Her body is not as supple and her dance not as animated as it once was. Her gestures toward customers are construed to be abrupt, demanding, nagging, less patient than before. A dancer’s sexual utility and the sincerity of her presentation come into question. (ibid., 315)

Drawing on these observations, I found that the concept of the thirty-five-year-old single woman is a vivid expression of accelerated aging, which in turn construes dif- ferent timetables and rhythms for single women. This process is vividly exemplified in the next column, written by Tal Hashachar, a single woman and columnist on the Ynet portal:

You are already twenty-three years old, you better not rest on your laurels — beauty does not last. You should begin to compromise… You better understand honey, that women age and men grow up. Very soon you will be considered an old maid and you ought to begin to think about a name for your cat… If you don’t compromise, and as soon as possible, it will be catastrophic. And if you’re not married or on the path to marriage by the age of twenty-five in a magic spell you will realize that you have turned into an old and ugly maid and feel remorse about all the ugly ducks that you have rejected in the past whom by now have turned into swans without you. (Hashachar 2011)

This account illuminates how the process of accelerated aging takes place even when one is twenty-three years old. To some extent, the author echoes the feminist critique on age and aging when she states that “women age, men grow up.” She is very much aware of the gendered process of aging and the hierarchical relations that this produces. In this context, her analysis is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s (1983) and Judith Gardiner’s (2002) observations, that the aging processes of men and women are culturally marked in highly asymmetrical ways. This process of devaluation is based upon the premise that a woman’s value is dependent on her appearance and reproductive capabilities. Hence, the warning addressed to single women is clear: they cannot rest on their laurels, as evidently they are in danger of losing their ability to perform as objects of sexual desire and to fulfill the role of future mothers.

For that reason, single women are obliged to compromise. As Tal explains above, the men whom single women rejected in the past have now “turned into swans”: that is, as the “market value” of a single woman decreases, that of a single man increases. According to this perspective, men age well and younger single women possess a natural superiority merely by virtue of their age and gender status. Giga, another columnist writing on the Ynet portal, also reflects upon the stigmas attached to her age and single position:

I am thirty-six; the truth is that I’m almost thirty-seven. So come on, you enlightened men; hang me at the outskirts of the city and don’t forget to hang above me a sign denoting that I am an old single woman, a “rotten tomato,” “damaged goods,” or something similar. I am sure you have an abundance of nicknames for girls my age. And to the women who have not experienced the dubious pleasure of being single above the age of thirty-five: continue nagging me with fertility tests and stories of single motherhood, menopause, and the state of my ovaries. This will definitely help me find a groom tomorrow. (Giga 2007)

Being called a “rotten tomato” or “damaged goods” alludes to the age-based market from which single women are in danger of exclusion. This perception of “the single woman’s short shelf-life” will be further developed in the next chapter. However, within this context I wish to stress how the cult of youth is given absolute priority. Accordingly, women are socialized from early stages in their lives, to be wary of losing their beauty, sexual desirability, and reproductive functions. Such a loss will most likely disqualify them from competing in the heteronormative dating market. The temporal logic of the market is articulated as an absolute, timeless truth, one which abolishes all other social experiences. These claims are cast as deterministic, whereby single women have to adjust to laws of supply and demand. A single woman within or beyond the marriageable phase should be particularly cautious about her aging process.

In this light, the continued presence and threat that the “old maid” represents in the public imagination reaffirms the heteronormative, familial, and age-obsessed ethos. The fear which this image evokes can be linked with what Sherryl Vint (2007) describes as a new kind of backlash, one which frightens women into accepting traditional gender roles and convinces them that their lives should be focused around heterosexual marriage and motherhood. In fact, the construction of the old maid as a source of collective fears bestows more ideological force to the idealization of the conjugal and maternal bonds, and construes neo-traditional models of the post-nuclear family.

Complying with the heteronormative and familial models represents successful timing. This perhaps can shed some light upon why thirty-plus mothers are called “young mothers,” while single and childless women of the same age are termed “old.” The label of “the crazy old hag” or “aging old maid” is another indicator of how the chronological aging process of women is embedded within heteronormative, ageist, and sexist assumptions, through which they are devalued and socially marginalized. In this context, this stereotype designates the social death which awaits them.

Kinneret Lahad

Previous post

The Equifax Hack

Next post

Full Frontal Feminism