Monday 26 November 2018


     A  long time ago I gave a paper at a conference on Popular Culture on the way the word  "lady" is used nowadays.It used to be used to describe a woman of the upper class  who was well behaved  and had good manners.  She was entitled to respect and had to be treated with the same good manners she showed to others.  She was unquestionably superior to the working class and expected deference from her social inferiors.  No special talent or skill was expected from her to justify this deference -- simply the accident of birth  and a certain inculcated code of behaviour.  Talent and skill, if she had them, were supposed to be limited to drawing room entertainment such as playing the piano. For instance, Jane  Austen was known both  in life and in death as a lady rather than as  an author.
     A lady's social role  was largely decorative.  In so far as she was useful, it was in the social arts and in household management.  She was expected to be attractive without being explicitly sexual in looks, dress and manner.  A lady was a person with  whom a gentleman  could find respite and solace when he relaxed from the onerous demands of his necessary duties.  What was considered serious work was incumbent on him, not on her.  All this  set her apart like a luxury article and made her superior without necessarily bestowing on her any further wealth or prestige.
     This view of the role of a particular kind of woman was expressed very eloquently in a Pears soap advertisement of the Edwardian era.  It showed a little girl washing herself to the accompaniment of the slogan "Preparing To Be A Beautiful  Lady."  Physical Beauty was part of the lady's role and had to be worked towards like all her other assets. At this point, I  should add, gentle birth was becoming less of a requisite  for a woman to be called a lady. Talent and skill were beginning to be recognised and becoming a lady was something one could acquire by merit.
     Pears soap advertisements were attractive and even inspiring  and my sisters and I were happy to have them decorating our bedroom.  But there were many other advertisements surrounding us, most of which were equally attractive and ingenious.  For instance our Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup tin bore,  as I think it  still does, the Biblical motto "Out of the strong came forth sweetness." This allusion to one of the feats of the Biblical hero Samson carried  a very loaded message. By devouring Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup, it suggested, we would not only  be acquiring strength of a legendary nature by enjoying its sweetness; we would be performing an outstandingly morally worthy act.  I was born in 1933  and I enjoyed all the advertisements with which I was surrounded as I grew up. The art of the advertiser was sufficiently  recognised in the skill it took that Dorothy Sayers used an advertising company as background for her detective story,  "Murder Must Advertise."
     As Melanie MacDonald has shown in her artistic reinterpretation of the advertising of the twentieth century, advertising took considerable artistic skill. Respected and successful  artists were often  commissioned as was Georgia O'Keeffe by Dole to paint a pineapple. The company paid for her to travel to Hawaii to do it.  She had respect as a working woman rather than for  birth and breeding, but respect was still involved --respect for the artist and respect for the general public. One series of advertisements I appreciated for  its wit and humour appeared on billboards for Guiness. It showed a zoo with a prominently displayed zookeeper. In each poster in the series a different animal was snatching his drink away from him as he exclaimed "My Goodness!  My Guiness!"  I looked forward to those posters although I was much too young to drink.
     Respect for the general public seems to be disappearing and when some attempt at respect is made it is pretty superficial, as when one says "cleaning lady", which is quite meaningless, rather than cleaning woman, and refers to all the women one knows as ladies and all  the men as gentlemen. The African Americans are not the only ones to feel that more respect is needed in our society generally.

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