Friday, 20 June 2014

The Lady Vanishes

There is a lovely 1930s Hitchcock film called “The Lady Vanishes”. Sadly the lady has indeed vanished in our culture, since that romantic era.

Since the days of the medieval troubadours and Castiglione, the 'lady' was the ideal image of womanhood in Western culture. She was a woman of value and noble character. ‘The lady’ was the gold standard. To say someone was ‘not a lady’ was an insult. Many women rebelled but on the whole, this was the consensus for women.

One size fitted all for centuries : girls had to try to be a lady. So at the start of the twentieth century, the lady was thriving. Yet, by the start of the twenty first century, the lady had vanished. Female emancipation from physical restrictions such as laced corsets, in France in 1910 and in England after the First World War, soon led to the overthrown of rules of behaviour, speech, manners, hair and clothes which had been part of being a lady. Finally, women were free to be ‘themselves’, to be lazy if they wished, in speech, dress and hair, to choose to do at all times, and to act as freely as any man. Today there are some who believe that this is a huge improvement for all women: they want it no other way.  It may suit many men that women are expected to do so much.

There are other women who find this image of womanhood completely at conflict with who they are. Modern life is forcing them dangerously against their make-up. They feel their true ‘self’ which is feminine is crushed: this forceful modern agenda devalues who they are. They see shame in their femininity and in expressing it.

But there is the very rich ‘diversity’ in womanhood. Women are all differently made. No one size fits all women, or men, for that matter. My sense is that this modern straight jacket is breaking the health, mental health and life of many women. Young girls and women are becoming anorexic at the prospect of relentless multi-tasking, all their life. Anorexia is a disease in which childhood is prolonged, putting off ‘the impossible task’ of adulthood for longer.

Older women privately express a sense of having been physically and mentally ‘ruined’ by a lifetime of unbearable anxiety and stress - doing two jobs, buying their own house, finding their own pension, paying their own mortgage, bringing up children alone, in what is still “a man’s world” where men dominate and control, in terms of income and influence, most areas of life

In addition, most people, not just feminine women, sense that something indefinable and precious has vanished from society, from art and from life. It is ‘the feminine’ which is marginalised and despised. It is now ‘unfashionable’ to have taste, to be elegant, feminine, courteous, well-mannered, well-coiffured, hospitable, reliable and ‘charming’. The feminine face does not fit any more. Masculinity, or being 'unisex' is all.

Feminine women want the choice to to be themselves and make their own life goals, not to be despised for their femininity, or put under pressure to behave like men. They want their space in society, not be forced to become something they are not.

Since the 1960s, this feminine voice has been ruthlessly crushed by a public debate dominated by Germaine Greer, and to some extent, though not openly, by Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. It was impossible to say in public “I am not like this: I cannot operate like this”. One would have been shouted down for being weak or retrograde, a threat to progress in ‘female rights’.

As part of this agenda, the success of very strong, often strident and able women has been idealised. Germaine Greer exemplified academic learning and free thinking. No one would call her ladylike and she would furious if someone did. She wants to be seen as strong and female - that is her being. Margaret Thatcher epitomised strength and elegance and she wanted to be seen as a lady, which was her own spirit. She could have worn pinstriped suits, if she wanted, and acted the same.

What mattered was their public persona. Margaret Thatcher was a complex conundrum in displaying the perfect feminine package alongside with masculine traits in public. She saved any gentleness for private. She sailed on exceptional abilities and a specialist upbringing, in politics.

The new ideal woman was now highly able who might look like a lady or not, as she preferred, but could and would act, like a man in public. This was the nail in the coffin for femininity which now seemed weak and conformist. Girls must be equal in every way: they must be successful in a man’s world, as well as women. They must not be treated with extra care - as the more sensitive sex. They must become the sole breadwinner, expert, wife, even national leader, like Margaret Thatcher.

Oddly, often it was their fathers who drove this powerful expectation - some driving their daughters with more ambition, even than their sons. Daughters must earn like a successful son, otherwise they were a failure as a woman and person. Finally, a man without a son would have a son (in his daughter). Those with a ‘son’ could also have a successful daughter.

The result has been, in my view, a complete disaster for some women, some of whom feel under impossible pressure. Where does all this leave feminine women? Some feminists may call me a traitor and ‘retrograde’, in mentioning this. My view is that they are failing to take into account the obvious physical evidence. Most women have around twenty times less testosterone than men and their brains are wired up and work differently.

The modern feminine woman knows she has to get skills and work. She does not want to be a financial burden. She also knows that the pressure to be a successful ‘son’, mother and high-earning woman are going to break her nature and body. She wants to make a successful life without being forced into a straight-jacket, by expectations being unnaturally forced on her. She wants to be valued equally as the person she is.

It is my aspiration that the lady reappears.

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