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Word for the Dustbin

Eiko OjalaOver the weekend, I went to see Finding Vivian Maier, a new documentary about an unknown street photographer whose brilliant work was first discovered when the filmmaker bought her negatives at an auction. In trying to uncover Maier’s mysterious life, there’s an interview with a genealogist who looked into her family history, and he describes Maier as a spinster. It has been awhile since I’ve heard that word, and I find its use lazy, reductive and unsatisfying. It still rattles me.

Digital papercut illustration by Eiko Ojala


30 comments for “Word for the Dustbin”

  1. Jules says:

    I had exactly the same reaction when I saw the film. Ridiculous to reduce such a talented and fascinating women to a bygone stereotype as narrow minded in the past as it is now. But for those who haven’t seen the film it’s well worth your time. Don’t let this reference put you off. Vivian ‘s mysterious life and photographs are equally compelling. And I found the filmmaking very good.
    Thanks for this post, Wendy.

    • wendy says:

      Jules, did it bother you at all that the filmmaker will be getting rich off of Maier’s work?

      • Jules says:

        Not really Wendy. He didn’t seem exploitatively opportunistic. His purchase was opportune and he eventually made the most of it. I don’t see anyway to compensate Vivian. And on the other hand many have been exposed to her work who wouldn’t have if not for the film.
        My photography friends who knew her work before the film are pleased that her work now has a larger audience.
        What are your thoughts?

        • wendy says:

          I hope that he puts some of the fortune he’s going to make to good works, either directly to emerging photographers or to some charity.

  2. Navarre says:

    Spinster. So was Emily Dickinson. Good grief.

  3. Heather says:

    Ooooooh…I adore documentaries such as this. Can’t wait to see it. She seems fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Len says:

    Photography is a hobby of mine, so I’d like to see this, but the small-town area I live in doesn’t get such films–only the big blockbusters. And I agree about “spinster.” But some people refuse to live in the present day.

    On another note, I noticed a couple of typos slipped through. It should be “an unkown” in the first sentence, and “its use” in the last sentence. Sorry for being the annoying grammar cop. I spent years producing newspaper ads, so I was always fixing typos–either my own or someone else’s. Plus, it annoys me no end when I see apostrophes misused (totally by mistake in this case, I’m sure). Okay, grammar cop is shutting up now.

    • wendy says:

      Len, I deeply appreciate your alerting me to the typos (yikes!!) which have now been fixed. I’m sure the documentary will eventually make its (as opposed to it’s) way to television. Thanks again!

      • Len says:

        You’re welcome. And ironically, I just now noticed I made a big, fat typo myself…and in the first “correction,” yet! What the hell is “unkown,” anyway? ARGH!
        (That hollow sound you just heard was my head hitting my desk.)

  5. Petra says:

    I’m planning on seeing this over the weekend. I also read this in a piece in HuffPo within the past week–crazy!

    “As it turns out, the term “spinster” was used on marriage licenses in England for women of any age until 2005!

    Yes, up until 2005 women in England were branded by their sad singlehood, until the Registrar General in England and Wales finally abolished the use of the term and replaced it with “single.” As it happens, the move wasn’t for the sake of women, it was thanks to the inclusion of same-sex civil partnerships.”

    Above is copied from HuffPo.

  6. Latarsha says:

    Wendy, your post reminded me to check in on what was showing at the wonderful indie theater we have here in Baltimore and I was even going to see that movie (it’s been on my radar for awhile) but I made a detour and chose “The Lunchbox.” I highly recommend it and appreciated its underlying message that it’s never too late to make a fresh start.

    • wendy says:

      Tell me about The Lunchbox. I haven’t heard of it.

      • Latarsha says:

        “The Lunchbox” is an Indian movie based in Mumbai. The central characters are a lonely housewife and mother who feels neglected by her husband and a lonely, widowed man who works as an accountant/claims processor for a state agency. The housewife, Illa, sends her husband a lunch she carefully prepared specially for him via the country’s well-known “dabbawala” or lunchbox delivery system. It’s an actual system that Harvard Business School has even studied (and humorously brought up in the movie) for its complexity, quality control and amazing accuracy. Rarely are lunches delivered to the wrong person but in this case that’s exactly what happens. Illa’s lunch is not delivered to her husband but rather the lonely widower, Saajan, who is retiring from his state job at the end of the month and doesn’t have much to look forward to. No wife. No kids. No family. His loneliness is even starker in dirt and grim and density of the bustling city of Mumbai (not unlike a NYC really) and his aching loneliness shines through.

        Saajan sends a note back to Illa explaining he received the lunch intended for someone else and over time they continue a correspondence sharing their sadness and loneliness but also little glimmers of hope. A phrase that keeps coming up in the movie “Sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right station” and that’s something you see both characters explore for themselves and perhaps with each other.

        It really was a charming, extraordinary movie. Like I said earlier, I went to the movies originally to see Finding Vivian Maier and even though that movie had started just two minutes earlier, I got a ticket for The Lunchbox and I’m so glad I did. I keep thinking “It’s still not too late to take a chance.”

        • wendy says:

          The movie sounds lovely, and I like that You followed your instinct.

          • Latarsha says:

            So am I! I had heard of the dabbawala before and it really is amazing. All these lunches in every kind of container are picked up at private houses or restaurants by a bunch of different men on scooters or small cars where the lunches are left here, picked up there, taken by other men on other scooters, carried on buses and rickshaws and through all these changing of hands, the right lunch gets to the right person AND the right lunch pail or container gets back to the right owner every time. Unbelievable.

            I highly recommend the movie too. 🙂

  7. Petra says:

    I went to Indianapolis to see this with a friend of mine yesterday (and kept my ear open for the offending word). What an enigma she was! But back to “spinster”–I wonder if we should think about reclaiming (and redefining positively) that word, much like gays reclaimed “queer” a couple of decades ago.

    • wendy says:

      Vivian Maier was an amazing character and talent, and certainly an enigma. I used to think about reclaiming the word spinster. But I don’t like the sound of it. Too much negativity. Single is fine by me.

      • Latarsha says:

        Based on what I’ve read about her, she probably was autistic, just high-functioning on the spectrum. She sounds like such an interesting person.

        • wendy says:

          There’s an intimacy with Maier’s portraits, which required a degree of engagement on her part. I find that interesting to contemplate, given her mental state.

          • Latarsha says:

            I read an article in the Times about a month ago featuring a lunch conversation between David Byrne from Talking Heads and Cyndi Lauper and they were talking about art, music, the industry, the muse and so forth. David said he wonders if he might be borderline Asperger’s. Usually an inability to be around crowds or large groups of people is too taxing for people with Asperger’s or on the autism spectrum yet both Vivian and David, their work depended on them coming up with tools to do just that. It’s almost funny that the woman who didn’t get close to really anyone and no one knew anything about captured city life by being up close and in its face.

          • wendy says:

            Very interesting, Latarsha. It’s fascinating to contemplate the interplay between introversion and intimacy, mixed together with enormous artistic talent.

  8. Spinster speak up says:

    I too find that word offensive.

    Imagine all spinsters united or a blog called spinsters speak up!

    Power to the spurned spinster.

    perhaps the reason for disliking it, is the image it conjures, that of a dowdy looking recluse with no chance for a prince to take her away and make her life happily ever after.

    The thing is, if you have never been married and are fairly attractive prompts the general public to search for even more answers, assuming that attraction is the reason why you have never been desirable.

    This really throws people off. If you have character, are amiable and fun, and attractive oh my god, they are really stumped then!

    I have often thought it easier to,say I am divorced, so as to evade the same old questions.

    • wendy says:

      I hear you. But times are changing. When I think back to my mother’s generation and what it meant to be unmarried, or even when I first started this blog, I feel progress. The demographic shift of how many single households there are now in America will ultimately alter the culture.

  9. Mark says:

    I used to view complaints about words like “spinster” as just an example of people being too easily offended.

    Now, I too find that word to be obnoxious and gross. I’d like to see it done away with.

    While on the topic, is there a derogatory term used to describe men that are single, childless, and pushing 60? I suppose in the past people would have whispered “gay,” and maybe still do. But most people don’t view “gay” as an insult now, thankfully. So, anyone know of another word for a male that is the equivalent of “spinster”?

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