Dear Rick Moody: Why Do Men Spinster-bait?
Rick Moody, Life Coach, on Male Fear of the Symbolic Feminine
Dear Rick Moody, Life Coach,
I was wondering if you might entertain the concept of spinster-baiting, and explain why it is an urge and temptation for some men. What are the pleasures derived from this behaviour? I am 56 and somewhat sensitive to this reality.
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Your letter asks me to perform an activity that is in some ways inimical to my well-meaning activity as Life Coach. That is, you are asking me to “entertain” a concept of which I do not approve. “Entertain” in this sense means “give attention or consideration to.” But it is, I am happy to say, difficult for me to give consideration to “spinster-baiting,” when this activity does not come naturally to me, could not do so, nor does it come naturally to the vast majority of sympathetic and feeling individuals. In fact, if I correctly understand “spinster-baiting,” it is a thing of horror to me, a gruesome thing. As a life coach, Elinor, my role in any correspondence is usually confined to supportive and good-natured exhorations, in which I help articulate and create rationales for morally or practically sound approaches to the vexations of life. In a way, “entertaining” the concept of “spinster-baiting” is incompatible with my job description. You are asking me to coach for the wrong side.
Nevertheless, when you asked me to perform this delicate and complex act, I was suddenly reminded of a video I’d once seen online in which David Lynch was asked what he thought about product placement in modern filmmaking. I’m going to see if I can find the exact link. Ah, yes. I must say, this clip is precisely as great as I remembered it to be. The way the question about product placement uses up the better part of the video, the way Lynch is totally at peace during the long spiel by the interlocutor, and the way Lynch confines his response to the most brief, and totally unrepentant invective. David Lynch is a person I greatly admire, and this footage is an indication of why he would merit such admiration.
What does this link have to do with spinster-baiting, Elinor? It has to with spinster-baiting because there are certain contemporary issues wherein the moral dimensions under scrutiny should be utterly transparent. It may appear, in certain backwaters, that these issues are not morally transparent, especially when moral consideration is itself somewhat subject to debate, but upon reflection, our perception is otherwise. When Lynch says what he says about product placement, he tilts the entire question away from tolerance (hey, product placement is helping to finance our films!), a tolerance that is, as far as I’m concerned, the moral equivalent of heating the frog slowly in the saucepan so that the frog does not know it is about to become an entree. We are so inured to little moments of product placement (I saw Time Out New York prominently featured in a recent episode of Broad City, recently, in a way that disappointed me), that we just sort of think that’s the way it has to be. Until David Lynch speaks.
“Spinster-baiting,” as a term, makes clear the moral implications of the discussion we mean to undertake here. It is inherently repugnant. We have not discussed in what venues the baiting you refer to is taking place, whether online, or on dating sites, or whether in a library, or whether in a health-food restaurant, or at church, or what have you, but the term makes a certain assumption about what is happening—that older, unmarried women are being harassed or perhaps forcibly being treated as though invisible or supernumerary—and our reaction should be, and largely is one of horror, and a wish to rush to the defense of the aggrieved parties. It is absolute fucking bullshit, as David Lynch might say.
By the way, Elinor, as I write these lines, I am rolling downhill toward my 55th birthday, and in no way can I completely endorse the idea that at 56 you are a “spinster” according to the common usage of the word. I think of 56 as being vital, engaged, wise, sympathetic, and brave, fully integrated into the mass of homo sapiens sapiens, not even particularly middle-aged, and so I find “spinster,” which is from the Middle English (a woman who spins), and only in usage derogatorily since the early 18th century, unjustifiable in your case. I recently had brunch with a college friend, infrequently seen by me, who is six months older than I, skinny and silver-locked, who wore reading glasses to read the menu, who has two college-aged daughters, and my thought was: I love and have always loved this friend of mine. Her wisdom, and experience, her gentleness, her bullshit-free banter, these I found, and find, attractive and charming and lovable, and I feel very happy to know her, that we have been on our life’s journey together ever since she was my apartment-mate on Barnes Street, in Providence, RI, in 1982. The ingénue version of her is long since effaced, and yet I feel all the narratives of the years are still present in her now, and that layering of time and adversity and triumph makes her even more wonderful now than she was then.
You know what else happened in the early 18th century? Beside the first usage of “spinster” to mean beyond the age of marriage? Why, it was the birth of Donatien Alphonse Francois, better known as the Marquis de Sade. Coming in 1740, his birth postdates the earliest usage of derogatory “spinster” by only 20 years. In some ways, the Marquis de Sade was a fellow traveler of the French Revolution, and thus an emblematic character of the Enlightenment, what with his single-minded purpose, his total confidence in his world view, his robust imagination, and his rhetorical chops. But the Marquis de Sade’s absolute faith in his own liberty gave us a couple of strains of literary thought that have never since vanished from the public consciousness, and among these are sadism or the inflicting of pain on others as a pleasurable act, and misogyny, the hatred of women.
My undergraduate teacher, Angela Carter, wrote a book called The Sadean Woman, in which she went to considerable lengths to argue that women are liberated by being utterly worthless to the Marquis, in view of the fact that the protagonists (Dolmance, e.g., in the truly revolutionary Philosopy in the Bedroom), the men who are the puppeteers in his work, are terrified of the uniquely womanly anatomy. The marquis mainly liked to penetrate poor Justine and Juliette in the same ways that he liked to penetrate his male collaborators. I think Carter’s work is valiant, and interestingly political, and besides it was the work of a middle-aged woman trying to reclaim degraded literary terrain for her own. And yet: the more frequent argument would be that the marquis allowed for the subjectivities of women, for their full and complete individuation, mainly after he had tortured them and used them up.
The idea of the older, unmarried woman as superfluous, or as (when beyond marriage) of no significant import, except insofar as she can spin, or knit, or work the sweatshop, is, therefore, historically related to the idea that the ultimate expression of liberty is to be found in inflicting pain on women, and treating their sexual pleasure as a thing to be derided or ignored. Such is the 18th century. The 18th century, that comic storehouse of great riches, that era of political turmoil, that fluvial source for all that is contemporary democratic civilization, is also founded on gender inequality and sexual torture. While rape happened before the 18th century, the 18th century democratized and rationalized it.
Were I to entertain or give consideration to the idea of spinster-baiting, Elinor, it would be along these lines: that the guys doing it, the men doing it, are sadists, that they are afraid of feminine power, that they are afraid of feminine anatomy, and that they are afraid of the full expression of women, and that their weakness (what a perfect word under the circumstances) is their most apparent trait. What does it get the men who do it, this baiting? Some brief respite from the recognition of their own flaccidity, and their own imminent demise, their own galloping infirmity, each day a little less potent, to the point of ultimate decrepitude. I would go slightly further and say that the majority of heterosexual men, to some degree, fear their reliance on women, fear their own origin in the feminine, fear their mothers and the distaff narrative in them, fear women even when married to women. Expressions of machismo and misogyny are all about this fear, this systemic fear. The ideas of nurturing and selflessness that we associate with the feminine are the site for masculine attack, because it is in the feminine that men are woven into life. The “spinster,” the woman who is not prone to think of patriarchal power as tolerable or important in any way, has to be cut off from the herd, simply because she is in a very good position to articulate the moral dubiousness of the whole patriarchal charade.
Now, you know and I know that sadism is a go-to approach in the digital 21st century. We see it online all the time. Online life, in fact, if it has an uppermost feature, a defining characteristic, it is the sadistic tendency. It appears we cannot express our differences online without quickly insulting our addressee, but it is there in subtler ways too. Even the most casual online exchanges can be noteworthy for the mitigated humanity in which sender and addressee apply themselves. When you speak to “spinster-baiting,” Elinor, my hunch is that some of this is taking place in online settings, because in no other place is the sense of delusional self-satisfaction and entitlement quite as keen. Sadism is to the electronic frontier as Indian-hating (here I’m paraphrasing Melville) was to Westward expansion.
What to do about it? There should be so many other words for the condition of an older unmarried woman that do not prefigure the hurt that the sadists of the world would so like to inflict. Especially because we all know that the moral coloration of this matrimonial issue inheres in the fact that marriage (at or near a 50 percent failure rate in our country) means nothing like what it meant, e.g., in the 18th century, when it was about uniting powerful families, or about transmitting property, nor even what it meant in the 20th century, when it was about securing a stable future. Marriage in the 21st century means something entirely otherwise, something more uncertain, more quixotic, more ephemeral, most unstable, and women who choose not to participate in matrimony, whether by inclination, or lesbianism, or asexuality, or by happenstance, for whatever reason, have ample reason for doing so, as do men who choose not to marry. There should be better terminologies for this, and the search for less judgmental alternatives would launch is the direction of the esteem that the unmarried rightly deserve. The word “executrix” would be good from my point of view, because unmarried women of a certain age are bound to get a lot more done. Or what about “homester,” because it implies that unmarried women of a certain age are at liberty to have imagine and follow through on ideas of a feminine home, unencumbered by pressures without, not having to compromise with another on how this home should be iterated. Or how about “wanderluster,” since an unmarried woman of a certain age is free to travel according to her wishes (and here certainly she is the subject of great envy). There could be many other such words that enter the vocabulary in interesting ways. Feel free to suggest some.
Freedom, in fact, is the operative word here. When Donatien Alphonse Francois was jerking off in the Bastille over his unsuppressed desire to sodomize and degrade women, slaves, and young men, and whoever else he could get his hands on, and couching his libertinage in a philosophical argument that leads directly to the libertarians around us now with their let-the-markets-decide politics, one thing he was trying to do was to curtail the liberty of women, as though any feminine liberty would result in some diminishment of his own. The best response to this, and to the misogynists around you, is to feel the pure liberty that is yours in this time. You truly can call the reprehensible reprehensible, without any danger to your situation and station. You really are free. There’s a jouissance in that, in the feminine pleasure that men fear is more pleasurable than of which they are capable. Your freedom is vital, and energized, and any who oppose it degrade themselves in doing so. On some deep, inarticulable level, they know this is the case. They know they are weak, they know they are degraded, and they lash out in an attempt to disguise it.
Another way of saying it, Elinor, is that spinster-baiting is absolute fucking bullshit.
Rick Moody, Life Coach