Ladette to Lady?

Newnham Principal Dame Patricia Hodgson slammed the ‘ladette culture’ last week; KATIE MAIR slams her misconception of today’s young women.

drink intellect Lad ladette lady lashed Newnham principal

Dame Patricia is confused. As the Principal of an all-ladies college, you’d have hoped she would have a little more faith in her women. It is disappointing to read that she is defining (with however much regret) her entire student body as either wanting to be like boys, or wanting to look nice for them.

Ladette‘, in common parlance, is used by people who think that girls with a knowledge of the offside rule and a taste for anything apart from dry white wine should be rewarded with a special epithet. Obviously, females could never conform entriely to the inherently male ‘lad‘ type, or possess any of the roguish charm that the noun is supposed to connote. This is why people have added the pleasingly flimsy suffix: to make sure we don’t get too big for our (probably pink) boots. Sounding more like an item of sanitary wear or a baby animal, the ‘ladette’ is never in danger of threatening the men that she is apparently so desperate to emulate.

When Dame Patricia says that we should blame girls for being judged on their “looks alone” in the “ladette culture”, she is confusing the decidedly feminine pursuit of making oneself appear pretty with an improvised label which attempts to match girls with male characteristics. The two are not compatible. The ‘ladette’ would not care about coordinating her lipgloss and her stockings, just as the apparently ubiquitous air-heads who populate the women’s colleges wouldn’t give even half a shit about the Towns vs. Gowns match (unless, of course, she was shagging one of the team due to some deep-set insecurity and “fear of failure”. Because that is obviously the only reason why a girl would have sex.)

The Principal wants us all to remember that looking fit shouldn’t come at the expense of being smart, and that social behaviour does not have to be defined by rugby teams. Well yeah, of course not, but we do know this. She uses students at her college as an example; students of Cambridge University nonetheless, described by one bastion of the media sphere as ‘one of the world’s most prestigious seats of learning’ (bloody love the Mail). If she thinks all the girls she let into her college last year were more interested in their hair than their studies, then she probably needs to re-jig the admissions process. Incidentally, Murray Edwards has one of the few college libraries that is open 24 hours a day.

It’s slammings like the Principal’s that reinforce all the hilarious convent jokes, justify all the swap-fines for not being smart enough to get into a real college, and provide the horrid wank-fodder rumours for frustrated fresher natscis.

No. We at all-girls colleges do not have naked pillow fights and practise snogging on each other. We go to lectures and sleep and go out, just like everyone else. Sometimes we are drunk, but that does not make us ‘ladettes’, mini-lads or not-quite-ladies. Sometimes we wear skirts, but that does not mean we’re in danger of forgetting how to work. Sometimes we have bad supervisions and feel a bit thick; it’s not because we’re women, though. It’s probably because the people teaching us are absurdly intelligent, and we’re undergraduates.

The Cambridge culture can be very good at making girls feel bad, but this doesn’t mean all girls are so crippled by feelings of inadequacy that we decide to take all our clothes off and put all our make up on as soon as a boy says their essay is better. Cambridge is good at making everyone feel bad; however smart, however good-looking, and whatever your gender.

‘Ladette’ and ‘lady’ labels do nothing but confirm the ideas of inadequacy that the Principal is so eager to dissipate. We will either be the ‘light’ version of the male, or the ‘light’ version of the woman – the girly girl who lives her life in the male mirror. If we’re going to achieve the kind of intellectual self-belief that Dame Patricia wants us to, then we’ll have to bin the labels and stop making excuses that make us sound meeker than we are. There are plenty of women here who are smart enough to see that very few of us actually fit into these brackets. Dame Patricia underrates her undergraduates if she believes that we can’t balance three sides of female student living: being smart, looking presentable, and having a drink.