In her glorious versatility — or vagueness, depending on the way you look at it — the lady is alive and well in the cultural zeitgeist. From mainstream to feminist media, from rap lyrics to self-help books to women artists, the term lady has found a way to transcend generational meanings, and is constantly provoking new ones depending on context. And in tandem with post-postmodern feminist theory, every use of lady does depend on context.
“[T]he word ‘lady’ has become core vocabulary of feminism in the age of irony,” argues Ann Friedman in her recent piece for the New Republic. With a nod to the Beastie Boys’ 1989 hit “Hey Ladies,” Friedman reminds us that within hip-hop lyrics, ‘ladies’ were rarely the sexually powerful, and more often the sexually preyed upon.
Late ‘80s-early ‘90s hip hop feminism was born out of a direct conversation with “lady.” It democratized the use of the term for Black women, and also queered the meaning of “lady” through lyrics and dance that ‘confronted’ and ‘defied’ rather than ‘charmed’ and ‘seduced,’ as music journalist Julianne Escobedo Shepherd recently wrote. In her piece for online teen magazine ROOKIE, Shepherd prods girls to believe in the feminism of shaking one’s booty, with a selection of her favorite scenes from music videos and film. Honing in on Aaliyah’s If Your Girl Only Knew (1996), Shepherd reveals that the pop star is directly challenging lady. Aaliyah’s powerful video begs: “let us never sit in a chair all ‘ladylike’ again.”
Queen Latifah’s reclamation of the word lady in her iconic feminist manifesto Ladies First (1989) exploded historical, racial and class-based connotations. While “lady” denoted fancy, rich white women from the Middle Ages onwards, Queen Latifah referred to herself and her peers as the ‘ladies who ‘will kick it, the rhyme that is wicked.’ The video itself begins with flashes of portraits of influential Black women, from Harriet Tubman to Angela Davis. Latifah takes what was once the language of white, upper-class propriety, and turns it on its head.
Not only did Ladies First operate as a harbinger of hip-hop feminism, it continues to influence Black feminism today. In 2011, New York-based Black feminist artists Alexandria Lust and Lehna Huie curated Ladies First: Beyond 28 Days, An Exhibition Celebrating Black Female Expression at the Brecht Forum in tandem with Black History Month. Ladies First was a multimedia show of visual art and multiple performance events, with work ranging from photographs of genderqueer twentysomethings to religious oil paintings, allowing for an exploration of identities through generations and subcultures. Heeding Latifah’s call for Black ‘ladies’ at the forefront, the curators centered their own narrative on the diverse experiences of Black women.
A mere glance at women artists in any genre reveals a historical impulse to reclaim the word lady from the voices of the men that have traditionally held the power to name us — or not name us — as such. As with any gendered term, it is loaded with meaning. Lady has been used to denote more ‘demeaning’ and less financially lucrative occupations (i.e. cleaning lady, lunch lady, garbage lady, etc.) as Friedman points out. When it comes to using lady in tandem with occupational titles, we get kind of a double whammy: the aforementioned class-riddled condescension, and of course the fact that simply adding lady to any title immediately undercuts a woman’s superiority, or even her ability. Quoting feminist linguist Robin Lakoff, Friedman uses the example of Lady Doctor, and the same could be said for Lady Painter.
To be a Lady: Forty-Five Women in the Arts is a show curated by Jason Andrew (Bushwick curator and director of the Estate of Jack Tworkov) that decidedly employs lady for its deliciously ambiguous meaning. Featuring forty-five artists ‘who happen to be women… [that] have problematized and played with gender identifications and characterizations, from lady to women to other in some form, consciously or unconsciously,’ the show’s gendered mission has generated quite a bit of discussion. Andrew specifically sees an intention and a sort of intrinsic quality — a spirit? — that connects all of these artists. This nebulous commonality lies in what Andrew names “a special fortitude and commitment” that results from centuries of “grueling struggle” against the sexist structures of success that exist in the art world and beyond.
The colloquial nature of lady is essential to Andrew’s show as it is to so many women who seek to elude the seemingly rigid category ofwoman and to define themselves as they see fit. Most of my references for this article are affectionately (and cheekily) saved under a bookmarks folder for all of my gender-related internet findings, entitled lady stuff. We’ve taken lady back to mean something special — to address the trusted, revered, and admirable feminist groups we consider ourselves a part of.
Perhaps the most apt point about the state of lady, as it relates to the term and to women artists everywhere, was made at the panel discussion organized in tandem with Andrew’s show. “We live in a world where [transgender performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and feminist artist Nancy Grossman] can sit across the wall from each other and they can have a conversation. And the conversation is good.”
It certainly is. And it’s far from over.