My Fair Lady
In contemporary society, what constitutes a ‘lady’ or a ‘gentleman’? Do such things still exist in a culture of binge drinkers and bad manners, or are they remnants of a bygone-age which have disappeared along with crinolines and afternoon tea?
Becky Pugh considers if any of us could make the transition from ladette to lady, whilst Emily Purser wonders what our grandparents would have to say of our ‘youthful’ ways
When I was told that I could write about anything for this article, I felt an illicit thrill at the prospect of intellectual freedom, natural to someone who has jumped through the British education system’s hoops. ‘Anything?’
The world is my oyster. I have been given a forum to investigate the matters preying on the minds of our peers. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of this opportunity, I appealed to my housemates to narrow my field of vision. ‘Drawing a total blank, guys. Topical contributions welcomed.’ They obliged.
From my three female housemates: ‘anthropology is not a bullshit degree’ (vaguely thought provoking but clearly erroneous), ‘mooning’ (as she revealed her arse) and ‘write my essay for me’. From the two gentlemen: ‘sex, then people will actually read it’ and (if only I were making this up), ‘I’ll contribute my knob’. Bizarrely, I decided to go in another direction.
Pondering why we choose our 2nd year houses so very early as Freshers, I took refuge in a long, hot bath. I spotted the book which resides in our girls’ bathroom, entitled ‘The Ladies’ Loos: From Plumbing to Plucking, a Practical Guide for Girls’. Who could resist?
However, with chapter headings ranging from ‘Buying and Using Bondage Tape’ to ‘Teach Me to Breathe’ I was left a little confused at what was considered practical knowledge for a ‘lady’, and wondering exactly how she is defined. Aside from her position in the context of the British nobility as the counterpart of a Lord, a lady is ‘a well-mannered and considerate woman with high standards of proper behaviour’. Thank you Wikipedia, for all you do.
Now, without wanting to speak too disparagingly of my sex, I struggle to think of many, if indeed any, amongst my female acquaintances whose behaviour I would term consistently ‘proper’. Having attended single-sex boarding school for 11 years, and being the middle of three daughters, my exposure to female behaviour has been extensive. Whenever I encountered an outsider on the rare occasions I was released from school, I was greeted with the usual preconceptions about all-girls schools. I’ve been asked some special questions in my time: ‘is it true you had to use square test tubes?/you weren’t allowed electric toothbrushes/you had pillow fights in your underwear?’ There seems to exist an idea that graduates of girls’ boarding schools, or at least the one I went to, become either nuns or lesbians, frigid virgins or shameless sluts, overly-intelligent social retards or vacuous Sloanes.
Being none of these things, and with the majority of my friends falling outside of these categories (with a few exceptions), I would like to notify the misinformed that this is not the case. The network of friends I made for myself during my school years consists (mainly) of well-adjusted and well-mannered females. But are they ladies?
Finding it difficult to determine exactly what characterises a lady, I focused on what doesn’t. As a Brit who grew up in the States, I was soon informed of my shortcomings as a ‘lady’ when I arrived at school in England. Cue memories of my housemistress making my ‘uncouth’ yankified 7-year-old self stand behind my chair in the dining hall for humming at the table/talking with my mouth full/offending her with my lack of Received Pronunciation. Other pearls of ladylike wisdom included keeping my elbows off the table and not blowing my nose in company (a lady ‘dabs’ at her nose in public but is permitted to blow it in private. Apparently.)
Is it purely etiquette which defines a woman/man as a lady/gentleman? An exceedingly posh school friend’s mother used to refer to her as ‘slutty’ when she left her room untidy. It appears that the word originally had a different meaning, that of an untidy/slovenly woman. The state of her room, presumably as a reflection of the manner in which she would keep her household, had a bearing on her status as a lady.
Is it a question of birth, then? Contentious issue, although I find it hard to see why – the only logical answer is of course not. Babies are pretty thick when they’re born; if you swapped the Hon. Tarquin Montgomery with Dwayne Jones at the hospital, do you really think he would wonder why he wasn’t being fed his pureed carrots with a silver spoon?
It is the subtext of the terms ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ which impede the realization of a modern day ‘lady’, because we got rid of all that classist stuff, didn’t we? Bollocks. Whilst we may live in a far more meritocratic society than the one which our grandparents experienced, classism sits nestled snugly between racism and sexism on the list of issues our generation has inherited and which will more than likely be gifted to our children. But if chivalry has become a dirty word, has behaving like a lady become correspondingly antiquated? I (perhaps optimistically) consider chivalry to be dying rather than dead, and the devolution of being a lady to be a natural correlation.
Ever since the demands of the Second World War, the concept of gender roles has become increasingly obsolete. Feminism sought to empower women, yet, like the gallantry it made passé, it too has become something slightly awkward, evoking images of hairy legs and saggy breasts. A lady would never be perceived thus. Can the two coexist in modern society?
When a female friend recently asked me if I was a feminist, I felt vaguely embarrassed and found myself stuttering. ‘No… well, yes… I mean, technically isn’t everyone who believes in equality? Um… not sure.’ Things I am sure of: 1. I enjoy beer, rugby and Top Gear, 2. I think that women can do most things as well as men can, and some better, 3. I do not have a penis and I’m ok with that. Other things I am sure of: 1. I enjoy wine, shopping and Ugly Betty, 2. I think that men can do most things as well as women can, and some better, 3. I have breasts and I’m ok with that. Still not sure if I’m a feminist. Am I a lady? I got some very discourteous responses to that one. An old school ‘lady’ would certainly not have used the crass words in this article, so perhaps that’s my answer.
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter anyway. I’m empowered; I can live with simply being a woman. Maybe even a feminist. A non-hairy one.