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Beating a Dead Horse: Or, More on Elena Kagan’s Gay/Single/Unmarried/Lonely Status May 21, 2010

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, Heteronormativity, Singled Out.
Tags: , , , ,

Thanks to Copious Reader Rachel A. for calling our attention to this op-ed in The New York Times by one of my favorite columnists, Maureen Dowd. In it, Dowd astutely questions the (gendered) implications of calling a woman (in this case, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan) “single” versus “unmarried.” She writes:

Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.

Men, generally more favored by nature as they age, can be single at all ages. But often, for women, once you’re 40 or 50, or simply beyond childbearing age, you’re no longer single. You’re unmarried — meaning it isn’t your choice to be alone.

Intriguing as this analysis is, Dowd’s primary argument — that calling Kagan “unmarried” instead of “single” carries stereotypically sexist negative connotations — is grounded on the decidedly singlist premise that in order for Kagan to be seen as “young” and “fun,” she must also be seen as “datable” and, more importantly, looking for a romantic relationship. Here’s how Dowd puts it:

Why is there this underlying assumption that Kagan has missed the boat? Why couldn’t she be eager to come to Washington to check out the Obama-era geek-chic bachelors, maybe get set up on a date by Michelle Obama, maybe host some single ladies fiestas with Sonia Sotomayor, maybe even sign up for JDate with a new and improved job status?

(For a more expansive review of similar problems on the media’s “debate” about Elena Kagan’s gay/single/lonely status, you should also check out Bella DePaulo’s posts here and here).

Copious Readers, I’m eager to hear your thoughts!

— Lisa


1. Lauri - May 21, 2010

I made this comment on Bella Depaulo’s PT blog, but I really didn’t get the singlism in Dowd’s article. Now I am not a regular reader of her’s, so I don’t know if she has a history of singlist comments in her column. I don’t think she is saying that Kagan needs to be “datable” to be seen as young and fun, nor do I think she is assuming that Kagan is looking for a relationship or even wants to date. I really just think she is pointing out how absurd it is for everyone to assume that because Kagan is over a certain age, she can’t date if she wants to. I think her examples are actually UNsinglist in two ways, one because she is pointing out that just because someone is single, it doesn’t mean there is anything “wrong” with them, even age and two, she’s pointing out that her single life in DC isn’t exactly a lonely hopeless one. She gave the example of have ladies’ nights with colleagues, befriending Michelle Obama, socializing online, etc. I don’t think she was assuming that these are things Kagan is dying to do, but pointing out that we shouldn’t assume that she’s NOT going to do because she is single, female, and over a certain age. I usually spot singlism a mile away, but I don’t think this it. I think this article was actually quite positive. Again, I don’t know if Dowd’s history would suggest her intent was otherwise, but this article alone, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

Onely - May 21, 2010

Lauri, I agree with you to a certain extent — the article’s not *terrible* — and like I said above, I was really interested by Dowd’s distinction between the terms “single” and “unmarried” and the gendered connotations of the terms. I think this would be worth thinking/writing about further…

But, the problem I have with Dowd’s conclusion (and much of what leads up to the conclusion) is that nearly all of the examples involve getting Kagan coupled — she’s coming to DC to check out bachelors (not to explore the museums), to “get set up on a date by Michelle Obama” (not to befriend her), and to hook up with the online DATING community (not just any community, it’s JDATE)… The only example that’s not couple-oriented is hosting a “single ladies fiesta with Sonia Sotomayor” — but even that involves her only socializing with other single women, which suggests (to me) that Dowd is implying that Kagan would “naturally” gravitate toward a friendship with Sotomayor b/c they’re both single, rather than b/c they share common interests/concerns as human beings.

If the examples weren’t so couple-oriented, I would have been totally behind Dowd on this one.

— Lisa

2. anony-mouse - May 29, 2010

it’s a bit like the perceived differences between describing yourself as “childless” and “childfree” …….


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