Essays · Movies

Anatomy of a Spinster: 6 Species of Cinematic Old Maids

Each one greater and more terrible than the last.
Cinematic Spinsters
By  · Published on May 11th, 2017

An important thing to know about me is that I own and cherish a 16 oz plastic wine glass that reads “recently divorced.” I’ve never been divorced (let alone married), but I relish the premise: the simple pleasure of being blissful, enthusiastically alone. To me, it is a triumphant vision: lounging in a silk bathrobe, in proximity to chardonnay, perusing the obits section.

In film, spinsterhood tends to figure as an inscrutable, and distinctly feminine, brokenness. Plenty of movies see her solitude as something the plot must overcome to achieve a happy ending: in Cactus Flower, the rakish Julian makes the once-prickly Miss Dickinson “bloom”; The Doctor Takes a Wife stages a similar scenario, as does The African Queen, Now Voyager, and Quality Street. In this way, the spinster has no true male peer. The staunch bachelor may be unwed, but he is never demonized for his singlehood; never dismissed as self-absorbed, unfulfilled, or abnormal for choosing not to marry. The bachelor is regular, every day; he can never sublimate into myth.

I won’t deny that the cinematic spinster is wrought with problematic and negative connotations— but I reject them in favor of a more celebratory reading. Below, I have assembled a cohort of fictional women who sought definition outside of matrimony, who achieved the eternal joy of being left the fuck alone.

Because the spinster requires a degree of financial independence, you’ll find the list below runs fairly rich (and consequently, fairly white). You’ll also note that, while at odds with my beloved wine glass, I’ve disqualified films concerning liberated divorcees (e.g. Auntie Mame, Living Out Loud, and An Unmarried Woman). These are not quite spinsters, but soft, milquetoast shades of the real deal.

Speaking of which…

The Woman of Letters

Top: (L) Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson; (R) Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie — Bottom: Judy Davis as Sybylla Melvyn.

Jane Hudson — Summertime (1955)

Jane is an Ohio elementary school secretary fulfilling her lifelong dream of vacationing alone in Venice. Along the way she has a fling with thirsty stereotype Renato, and observes the fragility of her fellow travellers’ marriages. Jane enjoys the affair, but knows nothing can come of it. Peacefully waving goodbye to mediocrity, she abandons her emotionally distraught fuckboy at a train station — after which she presumably moves to Tuscany, buys a vineyard, and lives out her life as a legendary hermit.

Jean Brodie — The Prime of Jean Brodie (1969)

Jean’s not a regular boarding school teacher, she’s a cool boarding school teacher. She strays from the curriculum, takes her students on unconventional field trips, and is transparently, enthusiastically, unwed. Unswayed by insipid marriage proposals to lackluster suitors who will never be enough, Jean is devoted, a-line collars and all, to tuning her students to her independent streak…for better or worse.

Sybylla Melvyn — My Brilliant Career (1979)

Sybylla wants two things: to write for a living, and to not marry Sam Neill. Filled with determination to get to know herself, Sybylla eludes monogamy, perfects her messy bun, and gleefully disappoints her parents. Presumably her “Brilliant Career” was finding creative ways to get men to go fuck themselves.

The Noble Eccentric

Top: Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper — Bottom: (L) Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as Frances and Jet Owens; (R) Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla Cuthbert.

Rachel Cooper — The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Rachel Cooper has no time for Reverend Harry Powell’s charismatic serial killer nonsense. She’s a tough old broad-armed with the fear of God and a Remington Model 10. She’s “get off my lawn” personified. While she considers children the best of humanity, men are shit in the wind to Rachel. And she’ll be there, alone, shotgun in hand, “a strong tree with branches for many birds.”

Frances and Jet Owens — Practical Magic (1998)

Witchy aunts Frances and Jet Owens are subject to a family curse: any man they fall in love with dies. They’ve had heartache in the past — but have found unconquerable happiness in each other’s company; in midnight margarita parties, in floppy garden hats, and in mentoring the next generation of hermetical Massachusetts witches.

Marilla Cuthbert — Anne of Green Gables (1985)

Marilla lives in rural P.E.I. and has no interest in being a mother — but she does need some child labor to help with farm chores. Cool, formidable, and crisp were it not for her softy brother, Marilla would 100% have sent Anne packing. Fortunately, Marilla clocked a kinship with Anne — a fierce desire for independence most properly edified by an elder spinster.

Pages: 1 2 3

Related Topics: , , ,

Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).