Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen

I always cringe when someone calls me a Lady. That's Lady with a capital 'L', not just a synonym for 'female'. I know they mean it as a compliment. I know 'Lady-like' behavior is widely considered to be a good thing, especially in the South. It's something many women strive towards, and many men admire. But what, exactly, is a Lady?

In my mind, a Lady is calm, reserved, flawlessly polite, soft-spoken and demure. Nothing upsets her. She always wears a skirt and knows how to sit properly in one. She does not sully her hands with manual labor, but graciously allows others to manage such unpleasantness. She does not curse or spit or raise her voice or drink beer. She definitely doesn't think or talk about sex. She has strict notions of propriety which she enforces, though she would never raise a hand to anyone.

Basically, it's a concept I don't have much use for. Don't get me wrong, there are some things I like about it....I value courtesy pretty highly, and do my best to stay unruffled in the face of adversity. But I like speaking my mind and getting my hands dirty. I prefer doing things for myself, and I like helping people that need it. I hate stupid rules and I have no idea how you're supposed to sit in a skirt. Rather than having doors held open for me, I hold them open for other people. You know what that sounds like to me? A Gentleman.

'Lady' and 'Gentleman' are not simply feminine and masculine words for the same concept. A Gentleman fights for honor or for a cause. He is strong, intelligent, aggressive and adventurous. He always maintains control of a situation, and knows how to ride a horse and shoot a gun. He can spit and curse all he wants as long as it isn't in front of a Lady. The dichotomy in my own head is honestly pretty sexist...or it would be if I were applying these expectations to women and men, respectively. Really though, I don't see any reason why a little boy can't want to be a princess and a grown woman can't call herself a Southern Gentleman. The concepts these terms represent may be traditionally associated with one sex, what?

But these are just gender roles. Stereotypes, reinforced by tradition. By preferring to call myself a Gentleman rather than a Lady, am I just trading one set of archaic, pre-conceived notions for another? Is it more reasonable to adapt the concept of a Gentleman such that it is not limited to describing men, or to redefine the concept of a Lady such that it applies to a modern woman such as myself? Is there really any point in doing either, since these are just labels anyway?

These are deeper waters than I expected to tread when I decided to figure out why it bothered me to be called a Lady. Gender roles are interesting to explore, and important to question...especially if we are to achieve real equality. They are also deeply personal. I'm certain that my 'definitions' of what makes a Lady and a Gentleman are not universal. These concepts are established over time and are influenced by the way men and women are treated and portrayed, both in the media and amongst our families and friends. I imagine being raised in the South and reading a bunch of medieval fantasy had a lot to do with how I came to define these particular ideals.

Ok, so gender roles exist and they're perceived differently by different people. So any redefining that takes place would really be for my own benefit. While I certainly would like to inspire others to question and explore their own established gender roles, it's unreasonable to expect that changing the way I think will have any effect on how others think. The people attempting to compliment me by calling me a Lady will not know what it means to me...unless they read my blog, anyway. From that perspective, it seems more logical to change what 'Lady' means to me, since people are likely to keep calling me that. Plus it would save me having to explain all of this to someone when they hear me call myself a Gentleman.

Neither option feels entirely satisfactory, so I think I'll keep working on both. The concept of what it means to be a 'Lady' in modern society has to change with the rest of the world. Simply by being a strong, rational, intelligent, polite woman who holds open doors for people and refuses to keep her mouth shut I am changing that image. A little bit, anyway. Pre-existing ideals, such as the elegant princess and the chivalrous knight, should not be relegated to one gender by definition. That one is tougher to fight, because it involves getting people to realize that they are associating those ideals with a particular gender and question the logic of doing that. So I'll keep calling myself a Gentleman, even if it generates some odd looks and complicated explanations. Maybe it will get people thinking.

Chivalry is not dead by the way, it just stopped being sexist.


  1. And what about "Ma'am?" When I first started waiting tables (when I was a whopping 19) I was offended that people would call me Ma'am. That was tantamount to being called /gasp/ old! But the title of "Ma'am" seemingly goes hand in hand with the label of a "Lady."


    Also, what prompted this blog?

  2. I would argue that 'Sir' and 'Ma'am' are respectful titles that mean the same thing. At least, I don't have different associations for them beyond calling men 'sir' and women 'ma'am'. I personally call everyone either Sir or Ma'am because I am a gentleman. These are titles and a sign of respect, not ideals or archetypes.

    Though it may be more relevant than I think, especially in the case of transgendered individuals or female military officers. Interesting

    Nothing in particular prompted the blog, I just noticed that I was responding to an intended compliment in not an entirely rational way. I prefer being rational, so I decided to write about it and figure out what was going on in my head.

  3. Adam says: I always thought you were being a bit silly. I didn't realize it was something you really put thought into. Vivi sometimes says boys can be princesses and that girls can be princes. She changes her mind about it from time to time though.