Death of the Lady

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A subspecies of the human race is fast becoming extinct. A lament to all that was graceful and dignified about women

The first time I suspected there are no ladies left in the world was one evening some years ago, when a stridently drunk and badly dressed girl declared (after having thrown herself at every man at the party, repeatedly recounting an anecdote involving her undergarments and neighbours, and noisily vomiting on the hosts’ shaggy carpet): “Come on, no one wants to give a ride home to a lady?”

I have since made the acquaintance of many genuine ladies, but the majority of women out there are not ladies, in spite of their dogged and sometimes hysterical insistence. And there seem to be fewer and fewer as time goes by.

“A man and woman were fighting over a minor car collision,” recounts Akanksha Khare, a housewife in a posh Mumbai neighbourhood, “And the woman grabbed the man, practically climbing all over him to fight, pressing her body to his. She kept punching him, and he kept dodging, for a good five minutes. Finally, he got tired of having his collar yanked, so he pretended to raise his hand. He never intended to hit, but she jumped back, and then began to curse him for raising his hand on a woman.” Similar incidents of women swearing, threatening and actually assaulting people are more common than one realises. Ms Khare dismisses the event as a near-daily occurrence. “What I want to know is what that woman hoped to achieve by hitting him. What really stood out was that she was clearly educated, upper-middle, maybe upper class. He was middle class, but he never once hurt her, he only defended himself. She knew he would never strike, and that’s why she fought with him.” This double standard exploits a chivalrous concept which maintains that a man must never raise his hand on a woman. But this presupposes that the woman is a lady, who by that token would herself never attack any other person. Was the woman who attacked him a lady?

“A lady,” explains Joyce Pinto, retired principal of an all girls’ school near Mumbai, “understands that there is never a justification for indecorous behaviour. Any and every situation can be resolved with poise, dignity and humanity.” Presented with this example, Ms Pinto was horrified, saying, “I suppose that woman believes that behaving like a goon must be of some advantage.”

This notion of gaining an advantage is crucial to understanding the phenomenon. The theory is that today’s urban Indian woman, under the influence of women’s rights, consumerism and Western cultural forces, ventures into the ‘real/male’ world much more than the traditional woman did. The real/male world is violent and aggressive, driven by money, power, machismo and the dynamics of dominant-subordinate relationships. And, to survive or compete with others, today’s woman has taken on many aspects of male behaviour.

Not everyone agrees with this, however. Urmila Roy, a media consultant, maintains that there is no reason why a modern woman cannot also be a lady: “A lady can drink, can smoke, can be promiscuous, can be and do anything. The nuance is in how she does it. There’s a difference between being aggressive and being assertive, between being polite and being meek, between being discreet and being prudish.” And what is the difference between the life of a lady and the life of a non-lady? The respect a lady is shown.

Feminists disagree. Yamini Soni, a sociologist, says, “The term ‘lady’ is another masculinist shackle. All women are supposed to aspire to be ladies, to behave according to prescribed rules. Whose rules are those? Men’s rules. What rules? Be meek, be virginal, speak quietly. That is the subtext of being a ‘lady’. If you obey these rules, then men will be nice to you. They won’t necessarily respect  you.”

It seems to me that what defines a lady is not how she lives her private life, but how she conducts her public life. It is really irrelevant how many men a woman sleeps with, what tastes and habits are peculiar to her, where she goes and what she does. What defines her as a lady is the fact that she doesn’t talk about the men she’s been with in a disrespectful way; that her tastes and habits are not imposed on or displayed to people either for attention or out of casual indifference; that where she goes and what she does are done with grace and respect. The rules for ladies are the same for gentlemen—what is respectful of them is equally applicable to the rest of the world. The respect shown by a lady to people is therefore a reflection of how much she values herself as a person and as a woman.

Media and entertainment thrives at the opposite extreme of this, especially reality television. The main reaction that reality show contestants evoke is, “Why would they put themselves through this?” Perhaps for Rs 1 crore, perhaps for fame, yes. But the price is always their dignity and self-respect. These are not people who value themselves very much. A particularly popular Indian TV channel aimed at the youth airs a reality show which requires abusive and violent behaviour from its contestants to succeed. There is a popular American show where a supposedly eligible bachelor or bachelorette must choose a spouse from a pool of 25 allegedly worthy candidates. The women on the show are constantly referred to as ‘ladies’, yet an essential step in the process requires blatantly sexual judgements to be made. Not to mention the episode where a dozen female contestants went skinny dipping in the pool while the camera crews filmed them. From a respectfully close distance. And then tastefully censored parts of the ladies’ bodies for the sake of the audience.

It’s interesting to ask whether the concept of a lady is a reality or useful myth. When the term jumped from its root (identifying female members of aristocracy) to its modern placement (identifying women who behave according to a set of principles), it may have become a psychologically pacifying concept. In the mid-20th century, a controversial research paper in the UK highlighted the fact that the upper and working classes used different words to identify the same common object or concept. Working off an extensive vocabulary list, the paper demonstrated that women from more privileged social backgrounds were content to be referred to as ‘women’, whereas women from a less privileged class insisted on being referred to as ‘ladies’. There is a tendency to use the word ‘lady’ as a tool of ironic political correctness: prostitutes are called ladies of the night, a woman hired to clean a house is called a cleaning lady, a female tramp is called a bag lady. Why is it that the corresponding titles for males have not been similarly subsumed? Why aren’t garbage men referred to as trash lords, or men who bring you food as delivery gentlemen? The terms have not been diluted, and still hold their original worth. Unlike ‘lady’.

The evidence all points to a sad fact: the death of a lady. More than that, a lady has been murdered. Was it the housewife who feels she has to negotiate a rough and ruthless world? Was it the feminist, with her burning desire to rid the world of all male definitions, impressions and structures? Was it, perhaps, reality show producers with their TRP agendas? Or maybe the work of linguists, those cunning ninjas of the word, who cause empires to rise and fall on a syllable?

Whoever it is, the crime is still being committed every single day. The ladykillers, meanwhile, will clamour for men to be gentlemen—because all women deserve to be treated like ladies.

(Names have been changed since the writer is a gentleman. Olivier Lafont writes and acts in Mumbai)