2 min

The lost inside joke

When did the word

Something has been bothering me lately and it’s that L-word. No, not the skinny women on TV but the word “ladies.” All the irony seems to have gone out of it.

When the feminist dykes I hung out with started calling each other “ladies” in the early ’90s, there was a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to it. There we were, with our undercuts or shaved heads, wearing mack jackets, shorts over leggings and rain gear, reclaiming a word that had connotations of perfect hair and nails and matching clothes. It was a little inside joke.

When we forgot and called our butch friends “ladies,” there was immediate protest, which made sense. For them, the word had nothing to do with subversion–it was just the same old thing they experienced everywhere: people trying to force them into femininity.

For some reason, over the last few years, the use of “ladies” has mushroomed out of control, and now it’s ladies this and ladies that, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any subtext anymore.

For starters, tons of straight people–salespeople, waiters, ticket takers–manage to use the word multiple times even in very brief interactions. When I’m with non-feminine women I get all defensive when this happens. Can’t they see the short hair? The men’s clothing?

A butch friend thinks sometimes it’s meant kindly, as in, “Don’t worry, we know you’re really a woman in spite of your unfortunate style choices.” Other masculine women say that the word is thrown at them in a hostile way, an assault against their queerness.

A lot of queers use the word too. What does it mean when a gay man calls a butch woman (or any dyke whom he doesn’t know) a “lady?” Is it an insult? A misunderstanding?

A while ago I was at a big event with a really mixed audience–femmes, butches, androgynous dykes, FTMs. But the MC, a dyke, just kept calling us all ladies, with no commentary at all. Not that I wanted a treatise on reclamation and subversion, but I did want some sort of indication that she was being ironic. Like little quotation marks drawn in the air, even though I generally hate those. Or a tone of voice that said, “You know what I mean.”

Maybe the ubiquitous un-ironic use of lady arises from the belief that we live in a post-modern, post-feminist world, where men and women are equal and words can mean whatever we want them to mean. But I just don’t think we’re there yet. When we use the L-word, we should still raise one eyebrow or wink or something. Because we’re just kidding, right?