Alice O’Rorke reflects on the pressure to be a 21st Century ‘lady’, and how she rejects the idea. For Issue #19 ‘Secrets’.
Yesterday evening I snuggled under a blanket on the sofa with a face mask, some chocolate and a glass of wine. Perusing through Netflix, I fixed my attention on the film ‘She’s The Man’. From this film (which ultimately does embody women empowerment) there was one line which stood out to me, as I sat on my sofa looking less than ordinary and stuffing chocolate into my mouth.
‘Eat like you have a secret.’
Immediately, I paused the shovelling of food, and had a think. Like you have a secret? Why a secret? What is the obsession, despite all the developments we have seen up to this date, for decorum amongst women? Why is it that women are still, to some extent, expected to be ‘seen’ and not ‘heard’? To be ‘ladylike’ is still an attractive quality, and somehow (ignoring the chocolate stuffing) I was subconsciously, with my face mask and glass of wine, conforming to this.
As quite an open person, I struggle with this idea of secrets. Why is it that people feel the need to contain vital information about themselves, and about who they are from others? The word ‘secret’ itself suggests a feeling of isolation. In the sharing of a secret, one party is always left out of the loop. The word itself connotes seclusion, alienation and ultimately some form of unhappiness. I guess this goes hand and hand with the definition of a lady (according to Dictionary.com), which is ‘a woman who is refined, polite and well-spoken.’ This ‘refinement’ suggests a sort of mystery. To be a lady, one has to have social airs and graces; they can’t burp, they can’t fart; they must shave their legs and they can’t offend. So, in other words, this is an impossible feat. I personally am an embarrassment to myself on a regular basis, I burp when I drink cider, I fart like anyone else, and I haven’t shaved my legs for 5 months (it’s winter, and I need that extra insulation!). As far as being well-spoken goes, I swear quite a bit, so I guess that crosses that one off the list as well. It seems that I don’t fall into either category of ‘refined’ or ‘polite’. But you know what, if that is what it takes to be a ‘lady’ then sod it, I’ll give up the lady status happily.
The inspirational video (although perhaps in this day and age the message it presents should be a norm anyway), ‘Be a Lady They Said’, featuring Cynthia Nixon, portrays a message that I can happily get behind. The hypocrisy of the video is striking. The expectations forced upon women are ridiculous. The video is a mortifying 162 seconds of crushing statements and expectations of women, and who they should be, how they should act, what they should say, how they should dress, how they should look, how they should manage their personal hygiene, how they should make others feel etc. etc etc.
Our society today is truly superficial. The whole idea of ‘eat like you have a secret’ is no longer just a line in a comedy film, but truly a crushing reality, a crushing expectation of our existence. Coming to university was a real eye-opening experience for me, as I’m sure it was for most others. But I went to an all-girls school, which understandably instilled very strong feminist ideals in me. Contrastingly, I was thrown into a university flat with a couple of boys who, let’s say, do not possess those same ideals; those who do not understand the concept of life drawing without sexualising the body being drawn; those who expect the women to do the everyday cleaning of the kitchen; those who don’t ask if you want to join in with the ball game; those who dominate the communal area and just don’t care. And this frustrated me to no end. But as a result, we women have projected our valid opinions, and somewhat tamed these misogynistic beasts in our flat with a sort of cool calmness. And there is something so satisfying about that; about knowing that we are right, and that it is only a matter of time before everyone else realises that.
And thus, to the ‘Be a Lady They Said’ line, ‘Don’t talk too loud. Don’t talk too much’: I say screw you 21st century society, with your crushing expectations. I’m going to shout, and scream, and babble incessantly, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. I may enjoy my facemasks, and I may indulge in a glass of wine, but that doesn’t mean I am robbing myself of my freedom of speech, nor undermining the movement I support. I will continue stuffing chocolate into my mouth, no secrets involved, and there is nothing you patriarchs can do about it.
Illustrated by Laura Stewart-Liberty