I often label myself as a feminist. I have a strong distaste for the patriarchy, and the gender roles today’s society has in place, and I hate all the myriad ways that those gender roles hurt men and women. I’d like to think I’m pretty savvy when it comes to gender issues, and that my approach to achieving egalitarianism is the most rational and achievable course of action — that being, recognizing privilege, owning up to it, and working to break it down and replace it with a better and more equal system.
So with my self-perceptions being what they are, am I wrong in thinking the use of the word “lady” at the end of a suggestion or angry comment has less to do with the gender of the recipient, and more to do with the lack of familiarity between them?
The specific example I’m talking about is where Greg Laden titled a blog post “Get a clue, lady” in reference to the sign debacle I covered Monday. In point of fact, Greg used the word “lady” in a potentially sexist manner twice — once in the title, once in the name of his sign picture, being “fuckedupwhitelady.jpg”. We won’t go over the specifics of what got him upset, as I think I’ve said my piece on Monday and would rather see the sign specifics discussed there. I lament that every bloody conversation about the sign has devolved in a hurry to a conversation about Greg’s word choice, so this is an attempt to separate the two.
Now, a number of people have taken him to task about how sexist both of those instances were. Ibis in particular has defended her having interpreted it like this:
“Don’t be so emotional, lady”
“Learn to drive, lady”
“Suck it up, lady”
“Get me a sandwich, woman”
“What’s wrong with you, woman?”
“Give me twenty push-ups, ladies” (said to boys to denigrate them)
“Quiet, ladies” (said to a group of men to make silence for an authority figure to speak)
Sounds to me just like
“Get a clue, lady”
Not remotely sexist. Yeah, right.
I happen to see this as a compelling argument. But it’s not an argument about the word lady devoid of the context, not even when misapplied to the wrong gender, to shame men for being like women as though there was something wrong with that. The word lady itself does not appear to me to directly shame ladies for being ladies unless the thing they’re being shamed for in the other part of the sentence is somehow a slur against women — like that they can’t drive, or that they’re emotional, or that their place is in the kitchen. Women are not particularly known for being less clueful than men, no matter what certain slimepit denizens might try to say.
So the “get a clue, lady” when applied to a total stranger whose name you don’t know is equivalent to me to “get a clue, dude” applied to a total stranger you don’t know. Sure, “dude” has aspects of camaraderie when used one dude to another, but in the context of strangers, it’s the equivalent of calling them “hey Jack” or “hey buddy” or “hey asshole” (minus the derogatory context).
That said, it’s been explained to me that just by being on the male side of the privilege imbalance, any reference to the gender of the unprivileged is pretty much sexist by default — e.g. telling a woman that it looks like rain, per Becca’s comment, is mansplaining where a woman telling a man it looks like rain is perfectly acceptable. So referring to her gender while telling her that she’s sans clue, suggests that she’s sans clue because of her gender (though, again, I don’t know that that rises to the level of slur in context).
And I see lots of uses of the word lady in a neutral context. And a number in laudatory contexts — my nickname around the blogosphere for Stephanie Zvan has been “Our Lady of Perpetual Win” for about as long as I’ve known her. Ladies whom I love dearly, I actually call “dear lady” completely unironically. (Though my own speech patterns are peculiar — I also picked up “thank you kindly” despite it being terrible grammar.) If someone visits work and I have to get someone’s attention, I say that “there’s a lady waiting at reception”. Hell, the President’s wife is called the First Lady — bringing to mind the question, what would the President’s husband be called, since the only appropriate term I can think is “gentleman”?
So, knowing how much nuance I can “get” despite my own privileges, why have I got this one thing so desperately wrong? Why am I reading Greg as using the word “lady” as a pronoun for “unnamed protester” (though we know now that her name is Sarah Pond), and why should his stated intention to not slur women in general be completely ignored in this in order to keep vilifying him for his word choice in a moment of anger and frustration? And considering his given example of now-well-known dogwhistles of both racist and sexist varieties, why does “get a clue lady” rise to the level of slur against all ladies, rather than a criticism of this one lady?