Another exchange with my 22-year-old daughter Maria.
Maria Yagoda: Just about a year ago, a friend (female, needless to say) texted me suggesting we meet up for coffee. The text started, “Hey Lady!” And then almost immediately, it seemed that Lady had become the most popular way for young women to address other young women, predominantly by electronic means. Just a couple of recent examples from my newsfeed and text inbox:
“Lady! Let’s hang out!”
“Happy birthday pretty lady ”
Well before the singular lady took hold, the plural form was out there—that is, women addressing women, collectively, as “ladies.” Back in 2008, Beyonce recorded “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” There’s a funny scene in Girls where Shoshanna, a wide-eyed, early 20-something raised on romcoms and Sex and the City, reads from a (fictional) self-help book called Listen, Ladies: A Tough-Love Approach to the Tough Game of Love. Mystified, Lena Dunham’s Hannah asks, “Who are the ladies?” To which Shoshanna answers: “We’re the ladies.”
Another extremely popular current use of the word is as an adjective, mainly used by women but sometimes by men, in such phrases as lady parts (to signify women’s reproductive organs), lady issues, lady politics, and so on. (“All the Republican men who talked about lady parts during the campaign, they all lost”—Bill Maher.) “Ladies first” is the subtitle, or motto, of the hip Web site The Hairpin; the word has been used in 18 separate tags on the site, including “things for ladies, “ladies magazines,” “awesome ladies,” and “yogurt is for ladies.”
The whole phenomenon, it seems to me, stems from the fact that women are still minimized and marginalized in the broader culture. Their issues are seen as different, strange, somehow not very important. My friends, Shoshanna, and The Hairpin are reclaiming and reappropriating lady. That’s especially fitting in my and Girls’ home borough of Brooklyn, the nation’s capital of reclaiming and reappropriating.
Ben Yagoda: To me, this brings to mind the recent history of girl. Backing up around 40 years, that word was one of the first casualties of the women’s movement. Just as you say about lady, it minimized women, but without any irony: A male boss would refer to his 50-year-old secretary as “the girl,” to his wife’s friends as “the girls,” and so on. The feminist reaction was definitely justified, but sometimes went a little far, as in the classic Doonesbury comic strip where someone announced the birth of Joanie Caucus’s daughter by saying “It’s a woman! A baby woman!”
In the last couple of decades, girl has gotten its mojo back, sometimes in the self-conscious and ironic ways you’ve noticed in lady (there may be some of this in Girls itself, which is nothing if not knowing), but sometimes completely straight. Among my (college) students of both sexes, it seems normal and unmarked to refer to females as “girls.” Not long ago, when I heard a colleague mention “a woman in my class,” my immediate reaction was that he was talking about a continuing-ed student in her 70s. He wasn’t—it’s just that he’s a child of the 70s.
Maria, what’s your sense of the current status of girl and how it relates to lady?
M.Y.: I actually think that the Hey lady greeting grows out of Hey girl, which for me and my friends has for a long time been a light, vaguely jokey way to initiate contact.
The only time I think “girls” is demeaning is when a group is addressed as such—as in, “Listen, girls,” which always rings very high-school field hockey captain-y to me. I always think that “guys,” in that situation, is better, and less condescending, but perhaps that’s problematic in its own way.
When I refer to a female peer, I use girl, as in, “He’s going out with a skinny blonde girl.” If I were characterizing her, I would probably use a neutral noun, like, “She’s such a good person.” I guess it feels weird to unnecessarily bring gender into it (she’s a good human, not just a good female). I always thought it was strange in high school that teams were called “women’s soccer” and “women’s volleyball,” considering how young we were, but I guess “girls” would have probably been worse.
B.Y.: The athletic director at your school was probably a child of the 70s, too.
Getting back to lady, it’s definitely a word with history. One definition in the OED says, “Originally: a woman of superior rank or standing in society; … In later use more generally: a woman.” Even in the “later use”—basically, the 20th century—it still carried with it some sense of its exalted past, however faint: in songs like “Lady Be Good” or “Luck Be a Lady,” in Ladies Home Journal, in college team names like the Lady Wolfpack and the Lady Volunteers, in Lady and the Tramp, and even in Jerry Lewis’s “Be a nice lady!” Then there was that weird period when a hippie would introduce his girlfriend as “my lady.” The soundtrack to that time was Kenny Rogers’s song “Lady” (opening line: “Lady, I’m your knight in shining armor and I love you”) and Frank Sinatra’s album L.A. Is My Lady.
Then came feminism and Marilyn French’s 1977 novel The Women’s Room, the iconic cover of which is pictured above. The OED has a 1996 quote from The Guardian: “Only a few months ago I was reprimanded for addressing a female person as a lady. ‘I am not a lady, I am a woman,’ she replied. My mother would find this quite baffling and so do I.”
Now, even though lady and ladies have come back, they are inevitably surrounded by implied quotation marks, sometimes faint but sometimes really big.
M.Y: Right, you can see the cheesy factor associated with men’s use of ladies all over pop culture: notably “Gangnam Style”’s one line in English, “Ayyy, sexy ladies,” and the hip-hop group Travis Porter’s song “Ay Ladies.” The comedian Demetri Martin picked up on this early on: “An easy way to sound like a creep is to add the word ladies to the end of things you say.” When Jonah Hill’s recurring character on SNL, old-beyond-his-years 6-year-old Adam Grossman, approaches a table at Hibachi, he greets the women sitting there with, “Good evening, ladies! Is this seat free?”
Returning to the lady-on-lady Hey lady, I think it ultimately sprang from our need to come up with ways to address each other on all of the various platforms through which we constantly have to address each other: texting, Facebook, Twitter, and once in a while in person. That need won’t go away, and neither will our urge to fulfill it in new ways. Who knows, maybe next year the cute, funky way women get each other’s attention will be “Hey female!”