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Be A Lady They Said: but what does that even mean?

ByEllie-Jo Johnstone

Mar 13, 2020

After first reading “Be A Lady They Said” by Camille Rainville, I very quickly realised that each passing stanza simply reiterated a comment, phrase or statement that was all too familiar. The poem has now shot to ‘viral social media fame’ as its frank and exclamative prose are read aloud by Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon in the “Be A Lady They Said” video. Directed by female power-house Claire Rothstein, publisher for the Girls, Girls, Girls magazine, the video has had a whopping 20 million views internationally.

“Be A Lady They Said” pitilessly confronts its viewers with a litany of contradictory comments, all thematically documenting the unrealistic expectations placed on woman kind in contemporary society whilst viciously reinforcing the critical and derogatory ‘male gaze’. These statements are accompanied by uber-glamorous shots of female models and clips from Hollywood block busters, juxtaposed with contemporary news footage and the odd shot of Trump and Weinstein.

Experiencing such a kaleidoscope of images and phrases should leave us feeling breathless after having brutally faced reality. We should feel disturbed, overwhelmed and confronted, as for once, the overt message behind the video is not lost behind the glamour and filters of modern society. The poem is intentionally bold in its uneasiness.

The matter-of-fact tone is refreshing and highly inclusive, there is no pause for pity or reflection – the issues are expressed in a way that parallels the manner in which these passing comments are made: bluntly and without consideration. Being told to “eatup” or “slim down” in such rapid succession emphasises the hypocritical and ever-changing standards that a ‘lady’ is expected to live up to. It harshly exposes the classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t theory that just shouldn’t make the cut anymore.

With lines such as “men like women with some meat on their bones” quickly spoken in sequence with “be a size zero” and “don’t get raped”, we realise that these comments simply pass in and out of our daily lives without a second thought. Everything from the way that women speak, dress, behave and exist is picked apart line by line -emphasising just how intensely women’s bodies are scrutinised by exterior forces.

As a female viewer I was left in a frenzy of confusion about whether to “look natural” or “line your lids, fill in your brows”, and if neither one nor the other perfectly constitutes ‘being a lady’, then how do we win? I then quickly realised that the answer is: we don’t.

These statements are not a means to define our worth. The overriding pressure to formulate your life around the idea of living, breathing and looking ‘like a lady’ should not dictate the lives of females in the generations to come. Breaking down these ‘type-cast’ gender structures is exactly what this video is encouraging us to do.

One strong focus throughout the video is that “men can’t control themselves” as “men have needs” –but if these needs mean that we must be told “don’t talk too much” or “stay modest”, then it doesn’t look like they’re going to be fulfilled anytime soon. The message is heavily one of female empowerment, without being too overtly political, and Rothstein has explained that she “takes those classic stereotypes that are considered negative when seen through the male gaze and flipped them on their head”. This means that shots of women in black corsets with red lipstick are no longer about satisfying men, but about empowering women. As the title “Be A Lady They Said” stresses the all-important influence of “they”, we are forced to question who ‘they’ really are and why should ‘they’ have a say in what ‘being a lady’ truly means. The cold and confrontational voice of Nixon acts as the perfect motivational voice in our head, urging us to ignore these contradictory expectations. After all, what does ‘be a lady’ even mean?

Illustration: Ananya Ambekar