Thursday, January 7, 2010


When I showed up at my friend Nelson’s house, his sofa was gone.

“It was really torn up,” he said. “I’m going to get a new one.”

He paused for a moment, hesitating to explain further.

“I’m thinking of getting a leather couch,” he said, a wary tone in his voice, as though he was testing my reaction.

Our other friend, Prospero, looked at me expectantly.

“I have a leather couch,” I said. “I like it.”

“What color is it?” Prospero quizzed me, his voice conveying that my answer would carry some significance.

“Black,” I said.

Prospero furrowed his brow. It seemed that I had given the wrong answer. “Hmm,” said Prospero.

“Why?” I asked.

“Prospero thinks that getting a leather couch means you’re a confirmed bachelor,” said Nelson. “Especially if it’s black.” His tone seemed to indicate that I had invalidated this theory.

Nelson and Prospero are both single, childless men in their forties. I’ve been noticing that virtually all of my older male role models seem to be destined for permanent bachelorhood. They travel a lot by themselves, for work and fun. They have set routines that would make it difficult for them to share their lives with someone else. I gather from comments they make that they sometimes date, but they don’t ever talk about who they are dating or bring the people they are dating around to any social events that I am at.

This is the key element defining bachelorhood: the lack of interest in finding a partner who will be integrated into one’s life in a meaningful way. Wikipedia says that one usage of the term refers to “men who do not have and are not actively seeking a spouse or other personal partner” (my emphasis). In other words, the term suggests not only unmarried status, but a commitment to an ongoing life of singlehood.

Many of my older female role models are single as well. But their attitudes about relationships seem to be different than those of my male friends. So far, my female role models all express the goal of finding someone to be in love with, to spend the rest of their lives with, even when this goal is contradicted by their tendency to date men who do not share it. My friend Loretta is very similar to Nelson and Propero: she is in her forties, independent, owns a house, has an active social life, and is usually dating somebody whom most of her friends don’t know very well or at all. She doesn’t get to be a bachelor, though her gender is one of the only things keeping her from being one. The only other difference is that, unlike my male bachelor friends, she claims to be looking for a permanent partner, though I don’t believe it’s a priority for her.

The distinction between bachelors and unmarried women is that the men are seen as mysterious and independent, while the women are a confusing aberration. Men are given permission for their relationships to not invade the core of their identities. People assume that a bachelor is dating somebody, and that it doesn’t really matter who that person is. But a woman who does not integrate her lover into her social life is seen as sexless (she must not have a lover) or as predatory and masculine (think of Samantha on Sex and the City), a loose woman who, as she enters middle age, will have her own gender-specific term applied to her: cougar, a word that gets applied to women who date younger men, even when the age difference is as small as five years, a gap that is not considered noteworthy if the genders are reversed. As a society, we don’t have a ready-made concept for a mature woman who is single, independent, and sexual.

Women don’t get to be bachelors. We have words like “spinster,” “old maid,” “maiden aunt.” Our decision to remain perpetually single is not glamorous but rather pathetic, a sign of our lack of desirability or sexuality. When entertainment magazines call an older male celebrity like George Clooney a “bachelor,” it adds to his mystique, precisely because of the sense of individualism and even selfishness that it suggests. When they refer to an unmarried woman, like Cheryl Crow, she has simply failed in her attempts to stay with the men who she has been publically connected with.

Why did Prospero associate leather couches with bachelors? Presumably because they have many of the qualities favored by bachelors: they are durable, practical, easy to clean, not fussy, not warm or excessively comfortable. Those are, incidentally, all of the reasons that I enjoy my leather couch.

“I guess I am sort of a bachelor,” I said to Prospero.

Or at least I hope to be one. I’m still at an age—my mid-thirties—where unmarried people are still considered to be not yet married, where we have not entered into the post-childbearing era of confirmed bachelorhood yet. I figure I have until forty or so before I am officially an unmarried lady. I’m hoping by then that the meanings of words will have shifted, and I will get to be a bachelor instead of a spinster.


Jessica said...

I loved this entry. I wish you had explored your thoughts about why "bachelor" women seem to pay more lip service to the idea of relationships than bachelor men... do you think it's nature or nurture?

Erin said...

I would argue that the concept of a cougar, while still relatively ridiculous and constraining, is at least more diverse than what we had before: a single sexless designation for single women 'of a certain age'. It may not be much, but at least it is a step toward variety in how we view unmarried women, as well as a chance of playing a more empowered role.

Although the cougar concept may not be socially acceptable in some ways, the idea of an older woman who doesn't follow traditional roles or rules, who seemingly takes what she wants, who is sexually potent and who presumably has younger conquests, is much more powerful than that of an 'old maid' who one assumes is only unmarried because she was not desirable to anyone.

We still view cougars with some derision certainly, and for the most part they are portrayed as a caricature, but it still seems more positive than the concept of spinsterhood, which is a role of passivity and rejection.

Karin Spirn said...

I think you're right, Erin--cougar is better than spinster for sure.

About my bachelor women friends, Jessica: I have wondered the same thing. I tend to think it's cultural...but of course there's no way of knowing. But there is a lot of pressure for women to want a permanent partner. When I tell people that I don't necessarily want one, they assure me that not only do I want one, but I "deserve" one.

Jessica said...

I agree with Erin about cougars-- the term is certainly sexist in the way it's generally deployed, but I think a lot of the derision is based on cultural fears of powerful older women. It reminds me a little bit of cultural fears of witches in the 17th century-- accusations of witchcraft were frequently leveled at women who were a little too independent and powerful for the comfort of polite society.

Karin Spirn said...

Good point. If someone ever calls me a cougar, I'll take it as a compliment!

Krystal said...

love it! I remember the occasion you describe clearly, and my thought at the time was, like you said, that leather couches are easy to clean; especially convenient if they are getting a lot of "action". ha!

Karin Spirn said...

Ewww, Krystal! :) I do not want to think of either "Nelson" or "Prospero" having sex on a leather couch (unless maybe it's with each other, that would be sort of cool).

I'm glad you remember this weird conversation as well so I know I didn't make it up.

Melinda said...

I have been a cougar since the age of 18, so I find it funny that there are even seminars now that will "teach you" to become one. In my mind, you're pretty much born with the cougar instinct or not, like brown eyes or longer middle toes (I have all 3).

Karin Spirn said...

Huh, I suppose you were kind of a cougar in college. Maybe it has some kind of genetic correlation with the eyes and the toes. I have green eyes and shorter middle toes (I had to take off my shoes and check), and what limited predatory instinct I have has never been aimed at younger men.

amanda go said...

I am right along with this! there has to be a better word to compliment the female bachelor than bachelorette though... hmmm

Karin Spirn said...

Somehow the ending "-ette" never seems too dignified.

Krystal said...

I just came across this somewhere else, and now I'm kinda depressed:

Karin Spirn said...

I've read excerpts of that article before. That lady can't see the forest for the trees when she says that Will and Grace depicts her ideal couple. Right! Your friends are better life partners than someone who you are supposed to be in love with. Sorry, lady, but you said it yourself.

Think about the men you've been with...imagine your life with them--PERMANENTLY--and then think about how comforting and romantic that would be.