On the character who embodies and yet also complicates a sexist stereotype.
When I was planning this week’s series, and thinking about what common characters and phrases came to mind for both “Uncle” and “Aunt,” one of the first that I thought of was “maiden aunt.” As that definition suggests, the phrase typically means more than simply an unmarried female relative—it has generally connoted a naïve lack of experience, a life that has been sheltered and cut off from the world’s realities. That connotation comes with a long history, one that in an AmericanStudies vein I would connect for example to the 19th century concept of the “New England spinster.” It’s also overtly sexist on multiple levels, not only in relying on and amplifying such carticatured images of older women, but in the concurrent implication that it is only through marriage that such women could gain knowledge and life experience, and that an unmarried life entails the absence of such elements and growth.
Walker Percy’s National Book Award-winning debut novel The Moviegoer (1961) is set in neither the 19th century nor New England—its titular protagonist, John “Binx” Bolling, is a Korean War veteran living in his native New Orleans, working as a stockbroker but spending most of his time watching movies, having affairs with secretaries, and contemplating the meaning of his unsatisfactory life. But one of the novel’s handful of significant characters seems like an embodiment of this maiden aunt stereotype—Binx’s Aunt Emily (actually his great aunt, but he calls her “Aunt Emily”), known to most characters in the novel as Miss Emily, is an elderly, unmarried woman who lives alone in a large New Orleans mansion, and who has throughout Binx’s life “seemed to have all the time in the world and [has been] willing to talk about anything I wanted to talk about” (something Binx thought about her at the age of 8 and that apparently has remained true ever since). Moreover, she seems poised to pass the mantle of this role onto Binx’s cousin Kate, an isolated, depressed, and even suicidal young woman who has become Emily’s protégé.
Percy’s novel has been accused of sexism, and there’s no question that both Emily and Kate are stereotypical female characters in various ways, and Binx’s secretary conquests even more so. Yet on the other hand, Binx himself is deeply and fundamentally flawed, a character whose seemingly happy and successful façade masks deep-seated insecurities and absences—and it is Emily herself who sees through Binx’s surface and to those flaws most clearly and potently (a vision she likewise passes on to Kate). Which is to say, if there is one thing Aunt Emily is not is it naïve or inexperienced, lacking knowledge of the world—she is instead by far the novel’s most wise character (one based in part, it seems, on Percy’s late father), and one who brings that wisdom to bear in practical and blunt terms with her great-nephew. It’s far from coincidental that Binx ends the novel engaged to marry Kate (they’re distant enough cousins)—while not a perfectly happy ending nor a guarantee of a bright future for either Binx or Kate, the marriage is at the very least the clearest way he can carry forward the legacy of his Aunt Emily.
Last uncle/aunt tomorrow,
BenPS. Thoughts on this aunt? Other uncle/aunt connections you’d highlight?