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Old Maid
Always being one.
Never being two.
Re-arrange the furniture,
There's nothing else to do.
Keep an empty house.
Watch your brothers wed.
Dream an empty dream at night
Upon an empty bed.
Old maid! Old maid!
Lizzie, 110 in the Shade, "Old Maid"

When a female character reaches a certain vaguely-defined age threshold, she will eventually be subjected to the most terrible of insults: "Old Maid". The underlying assumption is, of course, that a woman's value exists only in how successfully she serves and pleases her husband and family, so a woman who is unable to snag a husband is a pathetic worthless failure at life who deserves contempt and ridicule, particularly in older stories from times where traditional gender roles were more strongly enforced. A woman doesn't even have to be called an old maid outright to be threatened; even the hint that someday she might become an old maid — usually because she's not acting in a sufficiently conformist way — is enough to make her either conform or fall into despair.

The insult is still used today, but mostly as a generic inflammatory comment towards women that the speaker doesn't like. Reference will often be made to cats, homely appearance, unlikable demeanor, loneliness, and uselessness. Nosy parents who are wanting for grandkids or are worried about their child's happiness are a rife source of this, as well. Old Maid is a parent trope to the following subtropes:

  • Christmas Cake: "Old" Maids forced to deal with personal or familial angst pertaining to the mostly outdated Japanese cultural idea that a woman is past her expiration date once she turns 25.
  • Maiden Aunt: Old Maids who have remained unmarried and (theoretically) virginal into their twilight years, transferring their resources and familial affection to their siblings' children.

All other examples should be listed here. Male counterparts to this would be the result of Loners Are Freaks, You Need to Get Laid, and A Man Is Not a Virgin.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Fan Fiction 
  • Not as Planned is about a girl from our modern world who falls into The Lord of the Rings, but has no chance to marry famous characters like Legolas or Aragorn. When the girl is twenty, she is already an old maid. To escape this label, she enters a loveless marriage.

    Film 
  • a notable example in Its a Wonderfule Life: when the main character wishes he never existed, he discovers to his horror, that his wife is (gasp) an old maid
  • The title character in the 1930s film The Old Maid.
  • Katherine Hepburn fit this trope in at least three different leading roles: The African Queen, Summertime and The Rainmaker.
  • Toula of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is only 30, but her parents seem to think she needs to get married right away.
  • In Robin Hood (2010), it is mentioned that Lady Marion didn't marry until her early thirties, and was already established as an old maid by that time.
  • In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Marion is motivated to set the film's action in motion that is, steal $40,000, and run off with it in order to pay off her boyfriend's debts so he can marry her in part because she is over 35, and desperate to get married. The film was released in 1960, and audiences believed this character motivation. When Gus Van Sant remade the film shot-for-shot in 1998, with a younger Anne Heche as Marion, the motive vanishes. Aside from the age of the character, an audience in 1998 was not inclined to believe a woman would commit a felony to avoid being an old maid.
  • In Darby O'Gill And The Little People Katie gets warnings about becoming one of these if she doesn't settle down soon.

    Games 
  • In the card game, the point is to avoid being stuck with the Old Maid card, the only unmatched one in the deck.

    Literature 
  • Charlotte of Pride and Prejudice. This concern only really shows up when Elizabeth objects to Charlotte marrying Mr. Collins under the assumption she's doing it to help Elizabeth's family. Charlotte tells Elizabeth point blank that she [Charlotte] is a 27-year-old single woman with no prospects and no family—the fact that the marriage also helps solve a problem of the Bennetts is only an added incentive.
  • On her eighteenth birthday, Bella Swan has nightmares that she has turned into an ancient lady and her forever-young vampire boyfriend Edward won't love her anymorewill keep loving her and treating her just the same. (Visualize a world-class handsome young man tending to an extremely old woman in a wheelchair, and adolescent, utterly lovestruck expression on his face as he gently caters to her every need while whispering the cheesiest, kindest, sincerest terms of endearment...)
  • Avoiding becoming an Old Maid is the motivation of Irma Prunesquallor in Gormenghast. She marries an eighty-six year old man out of desperation, meeting him after holding a party with no women invited, wherein the only invitees were hopelessly pathetic professors of the castle's school.
  • Washington Square and its film version The Heiress play with this trope and end up being one of the few works to portray it positively; the main character never marries her Gold Digger love interest or anyone, and is shown to embrace spinsterhood and be confident in herself in a way she never was when she had to worry about the prospects of marriage.
  • Subverted believably in the Napoleonic era, by Captain Jane Roland in Temeraire, a single mother and dragon rider who refuses to marry a man whom she's about as fond of as she can be of anyone not her daughter or her dragon — partially because of the norms of the day, as she outranks him and she certainly couldn't take a vow to obey him, but also because she's not really interested, though she is flattered.
  • Bridget Jones considers herself to be one.
  • Alix Crown in Quills Window is an especially blatant example, as she is attractive and wealthy in addition to being single at twenty-five. Incidentally, she does have a good reason for this, as legally she would stand to lose many of her legal rights if she were to get married.
  • Elinor in Sense and Sensibility feels herself to be one, and based upon easy-going remarks from acquaintances (that aren't meant to be cruel but still hurt Elinor), a few people share this point of view with her. Ironic considering Elinor is only 19 years old.
    • Also, the trope is alluded to by Marianne, who notes that a woman of 27 would be lucky to marry the 35-year-old Colonel Brandon since she's past the age at which she could properly feel anything anyway.
  • In the Little House books starring Laura's daughter, Rose, the Wilders board an old maid teacher. Rose's town friend, Blanche Coday, sings a mean song about how she must be ugly if no one wants to marry her. Rose asks her why, thinking to herself that her blind Aunt Mary is an old maid. Blanche basically shrugs and says that what everyone says. After some mishaps, the teacher does end up married.
  • In Persuasion by Jane Austen, the female lead character, Anne Elliot is considered nearly unmarriagable due to her age — she's 27.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Arianne Martell is only 23, but is considered to be one of these. After all, she lives in a world where marriage at 14 is far from unheard of.
    • Turns out that there's a very good reason for this, her father had a plan to marry her to Viserys Targeryen when he returned to retake the throne. In order to avoid suspicion, he only presented Arianne with pathetic and unsuitable grooms that he knew his willful daughter would reject. The plan went nowhere due to Viserys' death, but now that Aegon Targaryen has invaded, she may marry him instead.
  • In The Thorn Birds, this idea is referenced several times. Meggie is nearly twenty-five and has never dated due to her continued love for Father Ralph. This leads her to quickly marry Luke O'Neill. Meggie's daughter, Justine is similar, at the end of the novel, she is nearly thirty, and is not close to marriage, but ends up finding love in her longtime friend, Rain.
  • Charlotte M. Yonge's The Clever Woman of the Family (1865) achieves two twists on this trope:
    • At the beginning of the book, Rachel is secretly happy to have reached age 25 without marrying, because her family no longer expects her to marry, and she would prefer to be an old maid. By the end of the book, though, Rachel has married, in spite of her age and disinclination.
  • In Lonely Werewolf Girl Thrix falls (reluctantly) into this category, not so much due to her being a werwolf with a borderline psychotic family, but more to her being a chronic workaholic.
  • In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett considers herself this at 19 years old, worrying that her chances for remarrying are slim due to her age, ("Men always prefer silly young things") and the fact that she is also a widow with a child. Later on, the book refers to another character who is considered a spinster at 25. Extreme examples, but also a Justified Trope considering that girls married very young in those days.
    • Although Scarlett eventually marries two other times, she wasn't so much worried about remarrying (with the exception of Ashley), she was more worried about being considered homely and unattractive.
      • Suellen seems very concerned about this, especially in the book.
  • The Gargoyle: Trope is referenced by name and explained in relation to Sayuri and her family; she disregards the 'rule' and goes off to America, where she eventually meets and marries a man named Gregor, although the wedding comes a bit late, and well after 25.
  • In The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer's sister Janie is indicated to be approaching this point. When her mother balks at giving away her wedding dress, wanting to save it for her daughter, she is reminded that Janie is "nearing the age where pearl grey poplin and no bridesmaids would be more appropriate", rather than the elaborate ceremonies meant for younger brides.
  • In Garden of Shadows by V. C. Andrews, Olivia mentions that at 24 years old she was already considered an "old maid." She rapidly deludes herself into thinking that she loves Malcolm Foxworth because she believes she will never have another chance at marriage.
    • Olivia Gordon of the Logan series also marries a man she doesn't love - partly to show that she can land a wealthy man like her sister, but also because she's close to this trope and all the girls who attended school with her are now married.
    • In the De Beers series, Willow's cousin Margaret worries about being too old for marriage and is envious of Willow marrying young.
    • An extreme example is mentioned in Heaven. The hill people marry very young (Heaven's own mother was 13 when she married). Heaven's grandmother advises her to wait until 15, considered a daringly late age, because she would then be old enough to make a sensible choice.
  • In L. M. Montgomery's "The Materialization of Duncan Mc Tavish", an old maid tells some girls that she had once had a romance and quarreled with him, to prevent their pity and contempt. It works at first — she becomes popular and interesting for the first time in decades. Then... well, the title tells you the rest of the plot. They do end up married.
    • Montgomery revisits the topic of the old maid and Maiden Aunt frequently in her books. Often the old maid character was either prevented from marriage by an overbearing father, or a quarrel, or an outstanding duty to a family member (something Montgomery herself was familiar with, as she delayed her own marriage many years in order to take care of her grandmother.)
  • In Emily of New Moon — book three — Emily's Quest, the Murray family eventually gives up on finding Emily a husband, concluding that, eccentric, artistic, and temperamental as she is, she'll never settle down to be a proper housewife.
  • A Rose for Emily tells the story of Emily Grierson, an old maid whose father dominated her and kept her from ever meeting men. She took up with a handsome fellow, but just as it seemed things were getting serious, he vanished. The townspeople therefore refer to her and treat her as an Old Maid, but are never really sure...
  • In Stephanie Burgis's A Most Improper Magick, Stepmama's friends commiserate with her, marrying a man Unable To Support A Wife in a suitable style — but Kat knows that she snatched him because she was already aging unwed.

    Live-Action TV 
  • On The Dick Van Dyke Show, all of Sally's man chasing was due to her fear of becoming an Old Maid. During the run of the show the actress (and by extension the character) turned 40, which even now is considered pretty old for a never-been-married woman who doesn't want to stay unmarried.
  • At least one character in Sex and the City obsessed over becoming an old maid when she hit her late 30s unmarried.
  • Considering Desperate Housewives stars characters that all seem to be constantly fluctuating between married and single in their mid 40's. This either averts the trope or plays it straight with everyone rapidly seeking relationships to avoid this.
  • The titular Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman calls herself this, depressed about her looming 35th birthday with no husband to speak of, a major taboo in those days.
  • Liz Lemon's constant worry in 30 Rock; her parents bother her about it, too. "It's Never Too Late For Now" has her temporarily embracing "spinsterhood", wearing baggy clothing and a Chip Clip in her hair and adopting a stray cat, which she names Emily Dickinson in the wake of the end of her relationship with Carol. This ends in Season 6, when she gets herself a good boyfriend; and is confirmed done in Season 7, when she gets married.
  • Some Doctor Who fans consider the vaguely Bridget Jones-esque Donna as an example of this trope.
    • She was going to get married right before The Doctor poofed into her life, however. Literally, it's her wedding day. On the other hand, the wedding was only being held to keep her around for a nefarious plot her fiance centered around her and the coffee she drank every morning (yes, really). Still, she did wind up happily married in Forest of the Dead. This ends rather abruptly, when it turns out that her children don't really exist and she and her husband were actually "saved" in the dream world of a child-computer and the two are "uploaded" along with everything else. She figures that her husband never existed and leaves just as he calls out to her before being teleported home. Poor Donna has terrible luck...
      • She finally gets married at the end of The End Of Time.
  • The unbelievably stunning Joan in Mad Men would nevertheless appear to be headed this way, judging by the reaction in an episode when an ex-boyfriend distributed a photocopy of her driver's license with the birthdate circled; she's 31, which is pretty far along for a single woman in 1962. Perhaps in panic, she found a nice doctor a year or so later and married him. No more waiting for her MUCH older lover to divorce his wife.
    • Except, as it turns out, he's a complete douchebag, who doesn't get the surgical position he desires and joins the army (just in time for The Vietnam War). And seeing as Roger's not too happy with his wife, they might end up getting together after all.
  • Fran Fine from The Nanny has more in common with the Christmas Cake/looming age limit variant of this trope, especially during the early seasons of the series. C.C. Babcock is a more subdued version.
  • Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation, at least as far as her mother is concerned. Notable in that Lwaxana never thought being married should restrict her activities except for who she slept with, and holds the same views with regards to her daughter; she just wishes her daughter would hurry up and get hitched.
    • Which she does, to a human Starfleet Officer (Riker); following in her mother's footsteps.
  • A male example of this trope crops up from time-to-time on NCIS. Tony DiNozzo is occasionally twitted as being "too old" for women in their twenties. He is usually rebuffed when he makes passes at them, too, on similar grounds, despite the fact that he's not really all that old.
    • The actor is 44 and even if the character is meant to be younger, he's at least 38-40, meaning women in their twenties could legit be his daughters, so it comes of as a bit in denial (though to be fair, Tony hits on women of varying ages).
  • Carnivāle's snake charmer Ruthie (who has a son and has no intention of getting married), bearded lady Lila (whose whatever-that-is relationship with Lodz isn't marriage), and Iris Crowe (whose relationship with her brother doesn't leave too much time for getting married).
  • The title character of Ally McBeal is severely insecure about her age, her inability to form a viable relationship with a man and her "biological clock". These insecurities of her is often the butt of other (similarly aged and unmarried) female characters' jokes, but it is implied that she is just being crazy over nothing, and her actually celebrating her 32nd birthday (instead of, you know, spending the day wanting to die) in the show's last season is treated as a sign of huge character growth.
  • Samantha Carter, who ended the series as an unmarried colonel ("Black Widow Carter" and all that jazz). Amanda Tappingnote  was by that time a mom in her early forties. Some fans liked her looks better in Seasons 7-10 than earlier.
  • In Downton Abbey, Mary borders on this when she's still unmarried in her mid-20s. - Violet is keen to see her get married "before the bloom is quite gone off the rose." After Matthew dies, this problem shows up with Mary again, although being a widow is more respectable than being a spinster.
    • At the start of the show, Anna is still unmarried in her late twenties or early thirties. Subverted when she marries Mr. Bates.
    • Mrs Hughes has never been married, but uses "Mrs" as a courtesy title because she is the housekeeper. (Truth in Television - as mentioned on the show, at that time "Nannies, cooks and housekeepers [were] always Mrs")
    • After Mary marries Matthew and Sibyl marries Branson, the parents start to wonder about Edith (who repeatedly worries that she is to become the "maiden aunt", and whom Cora commented was most likely to take care of her parents in old age).
  • Lampshaded by Eun Bi from Flower Boy Ramyun Shop in the first episode when she laments that nobody will want to date her since she's twenty-five.
  • Chilean night Soap Opera Soltera otra vez (Single again) has a Christmas Cake named Cristina as the main character, following her in her search for a new flame and her interactions with others. The radio ads for the series took the trope and ran away with it, too.
  • On My Name Is Earl, a friend of Earl's named Jasper purchases a Mail Order Bride from Russia over the Internet. Part of the reason he bought her in particular (in spite of the huge mole on her chin and a rather abrasive personality) is that the agency he bought her from offers free shipping if the women are over 30.
  • Friends: Monica's mother nags her to get married so she can avoid this. Bear in mind this is set in modern day and Monica is only twenty four at the beginning, and thirty when she does get married. Justified as Judy is Jerk Ass / Abusive Parents, and clearly ridiculous in thinking stunningly attractive and kind-hearted Monica won't get married.
    • Despite her abuse having zero logic, Judy does leave Monica with serious insecurities regarding this trope. Luckily though, Monica's best friends efforts to prove she won't die alone, note , directly lead to them falling in love and getting married, long before the rest of the characters.

    Music 
  • Rilo Kiley's song "XMas Cake" appears to be about this trope. The lyrics tell the story of a woman who is "twenty-five years old (with) a bachelor's degree" but has no job prospects and already looks "old and defeated" without her makeup on.
  • 22 in which Lily Allen laments for her 30-year-old protagonist:
    It's sad but it's true how society says her life is already over
    There's nothing to do and there's nothing to say
    Until the man of her dreams comes along picks her up and puts her over his shoulder
    It seems so unlikely in this day and age

    Professional Wrestling 
  • In America, we have former WWE General Manager Vickie Guerrero, a middle-aged but still reasonably attractive woman who is relentlessly mocked for being "fat" and "ugly." Edge, however, genuinely loved her and once almost married her, making him a cake eater.
    • However Vickie is now visibly more attractive than she used to be and this is referenced by her being called a cougar by everyone. It's only Jerry Lawler who still makes jokes about her weight.
  • In WWE the Divas are likely to be released once they hit their 30s. The exception is Ivory who was signed while she was in her 30s and kept with the company well into her 40s.

    Theatre 
  • Larita of Easy Virtue. She and John like to tease eachother about the age difference; he jokingly refers to her as "Grandma".
  • In Hello, Dolly!, Ermengarde is driven to tears when her uncle, Horace Vandegelder, won't let her marry her boyfriend. Her reason? "I'm seventeen and in another year, I'll be an old maid!" Mr. Vandegelder replies that if she turns out to be an old maid, he cut her off without a cent.
  • Parodied in the Lil Abner musical, which gives Daisy Mae the song "I'm Past My Prime," lamenting that she's an old maid at 17. Apparently in the Deep South girls are supposed to be married at an even younger age.
  • In The Pirates of Penzance, Frederic's nanny Ruth (canonically 47 according to the script, but various productions may take considerably liberty upward with this) is one.
    Pirates: Ruth is very well, very well indeed! There are the remains of a fine woman about Ruth!
    and later, when Frederic asks Ruth herself:
    Frederic: Compared with other women, are you beautiful?
    Ruth: I have been told so, dear master.
    Frederic: Ah, but lately?
    Ruth: Oh, no; years and years ago.
    • Worth noting that the pirates are trying to encourage Frederic to take Ruth with him but, being gentlemen, are unwilling to actually lie.
  • Lizzie in The Rainmaker and its musical adaptation 110 in the Shade is 27 years old, and has had no luck in finding suitors. When Noah tells Lizzie she's going to be an old maid, the words drive her numb with fear before the thought of her brothers marrying one day and her being a Maiden Aunt to their children sends her flying into a hysterical despair.
  • Marian the librarian in The Music Man with the first motive being her mother saying "this might be your last chance", although she presumably gets married at the end.
  • Charmian from Antony And Cleopatra laments her lack of a husband and children to the point of becoming deadpan about others' love situations.

    Video Games 
  • Introduced by the fandom of Touhou for joke material. While most character ages are ambiguous even in the World Building Bonus Material, and most bosses in the games are canonically Really 700 Years Old anyway, there are certain characters that have categorized into an "old maid alliance." This generally gives them an excuse to be depicted dressing up in silly clothing in an attempt to be seen as younger and getting angry when addressed as "obaachan," even when it would only be proper.
  • Bonnie MacFarlane from Red Dead Redemption is one of these. Shes only 29, but given the time period (1911) she's considered an old spinster. The charming and mysterious (and Happily Married) John Marston swooping in out of nowhere and Bonnie instantly showing signs of infatuation is the stuff shippers dream of.
    • She does get married by the time of the epilogue.
  • In Brutal Legend, the demonic Battle Nuns are a parody of this trope. They are self-conscious and all too eager to have Emperor Doviculus' demonic babies, right there, in the middle of the battlefield.
    • "I should be breeding now! I'm not getting any younger!"
  • Rare male example: Ezio Auditore in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
    • Really? He seems to have no trouble getting the ladies. He starts the game setting up a hook-up and beds Caterina Sforza. Also, he sires the next of Desmond's ancestors sometime after AC: BH, at which point, he's in his late forties.
      • On the other hand, with the newly revealed Assassin's Creed: Revelations, we now know he doesn't have said child before at least being fifty. And though he does get ladies and is implied to get more than we see (thinking about a woman in a secondary quest in AC 2), he probably doesn't have much time either with his job.
      • Don't forget, too, that he was essentially forced to become a roving love-'em-and-leave-'em playboy. He intended to marry Cristina Vespucci; once that was crushed and he became an Assassin, all he had left were one night stands and politically expedient flings.

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 

    Other 
  • In China, women who are unmarried past the age of 30 are called leftover women even in state-run media.


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