I'm not a lady. The fact causes me no distress. I'm too vulgar and assertive to ever be classified as such. My hemlines too short, clothes too tight, and language too crass. And my demeanor is not at all demure. Still somehow I manage to live a joyful, fulfilling life without the distinction. I do, however, aspire to be kind, genuine, loving and thoughtful. Ladies embody those things, I suppose, but they also bear the burden of societal expectation that keeps them caged. I'm looking to get free or die trying, so I choose not to wear the mask.
This enrages men and women who believe that I, and my unladylike counterparts, caused the decline of African American culture. They blame wayward girls for the ubiquitous misogyny in Black communities. "Why should men respect women, when women don't behave in a way that demands respect," they ask. The logic is a smokescreen upheld to distract from the real cause of deteriorating gender relations in Black America: patriarchy. All women, be they "ladies" or not, deserve to be treated with dignity, but that's a hard case to make to people drunk off misogyny.
Ladies are required to conform to outmoded behavioral norms created to make men comfortable, but playing that game won't save you. Telling girls not to wear revealing clothes or use profane language will not stop the men who harass and degrade women for sport. I get just as many leers in jeans as I do in mini-dresses. You cannot dress or behave your way out of oppression.
Still those who consider themselves keepers of the community expend far too much energy trying to convince women to simply act right. When a well-meaning auntie compelled me to fix my clothes or watch my manners, she did so out of love. When men attempt to regulate the behavior of women, they may do so out of genuine concern. Benevolent sexism, however, is still sexism. It suffocates and ultimately kills the spirit.
That's precisely the problem with "Bitch Bad" by Lupe Fiasco. The rapper set out to raise women up, but he reifies the same tropes that keep us chained. He repeats "bitch bad/woman good/lady better," and I'm suspicious. Being a woman is hard enough. Why is it better to be a lady? And who decides who's who? Even if all women were to attempt to step into the role of a Lady, we still may not meet the arbitrary expectations or Lupe or anyone else. Men get to raise and lower the goal of acceptable behavior to suit their whims. To some I may be a lady, but I am always a woman. That should be enough.
I'm an ardent feminist in part because many of the character traits I possess naturally are often ascribed to men. I am ambitious and direct. I take no issue with setting clear boundaries. These are not the things "ladies" do. "Ladies" are ever gracious and compliant. I can be, what some would call, a bitch. That's a pejorative I take little issue with. Like Tina Fey said, bitches get stuff done. I imagine my sheroes were all called bitches at one time or another. Perhaps that's why they're bad -- because women embracing a term meant to shame us upsets the natural order.
My embrace of my inner bitch doesn't mean I don't respect myself. It means I don't respect the path anyone else would have me walk. My choices may make me less valuable in someone else's mind, but I know my worth. That's what we need to be teaching girls -- that they're inherently whole and precious. That they need not seek out validation by playing dress up or acting a part. Women of all ages are discouraged from living in our fullness. The saying goes "boys will be boys," but the desire that lie within women must be subdued. Thankfully the antiquated pedestal upon which we put "ladies" is slowly crumbling. Soon it will be a relic. In the meantime, live boldly and unapolegetically and tell every woman you know to do the same.
Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or Tweet her.