I’ve always had a problem with the word ‘lady.’ Since I was at school, I always thought the term implied I should behave or look a certain way – one I most certainly did not conform to.
The connotations of the word just don’t sit comfortably with me. ‘Ladies’ are polite and subservient; ‘ladies’ are well-groomed and agreeable; ‘ladies’ friggin’ curtsey and wear gloves that go up to their elbows and sip tea out of fine china.
But most problematically, ‘ladies’ are meant to act in a passive or docile way. They’re not meant to get too passionate or have opinions or challenge anyone.
Whenever I’ve been addressed as a “lady” (or at school, as a “young lady”) I’ve viscerally rejected it. If being a ‘lady’ is about being a socially acceptable woman, I don’t want to be one. Because we have some really screwed up ideas of what’s appropriate female behaviour and what’s not. We’re meant to be sexy but not ‘slutty,’ beautiful but not vain, smart but not argumentative, hardworking but not at the expense of having a family, confident but not arrogant, and sincere but not too serious.
Frankly, it’s exhausting, and a long time ago I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t make a very good ‘lady,’ so I’d work harder at being a good human.
Yet of all things, it’s a recent H&M ad that’s made me rethink all that. Bizarre, I know.
— Sherylynn Sealy (@Sherylynn_Sealy) September 19, 2016
It’s set to the song She’s a Lady, originally by Tom Jones, which is fundamentally archaic in its idea of what it means to be a woman. There are references to a woman “knowing her place,” and being “the kind they’d like to flaunt and take to dinner.” But the version played in the ad is a cover by Lion Babe that seems to send up the whole idea that there’s only one type of ‘lady’ to be. Having a female voice singing “well, she’s never in the way,” and “talkin’ about that little lady, and the lady is mine” is powerfully subversive. Especially when it’s set to a diverse group of women, doing actual things rather than just posing in clothing, completely devoid of context.
The ad features women of different ages, sizes, shapes and ethnicities, including 72-year-old Lauren Hutton and trans actress Hari Nef. They’re shown going out to dinner (and actually eating), singing, dancing, walking into boardrooms, talking to each other, catching trains – MY GOD who knew women were capable of such things?!
Compare that to your typical way of modelling women’s clothing. What is Kendall Jenner actually doing?
While some have come out to criticise the ad for being ‘tokenistic’, and others have noticed two women kissing at the end, which makes the otherwise non-sexual ad unnecessarily “sexualised”, I can’t help but love it. Is it perfect? No. Does it have to be? Definitely not.
Compared to the other advertising we have around women’s clothing, this is powerful. And most importantly, for the first time in my life, I think being a ‘lady’ isn’t such a bad thing. If a ‘lady’ is a woman living authentically, regardless of her biology, her sexual orientation, her appearance, or her non-traditional behaviour, I want to be one.