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Don't patronise ladies who raunch

By Nina Funnell - posted Thursday, 26 February 2009

Once again Ladette to Lady has delivered us an odious set of ridiculous, offensive, loud and disrespectful individuals who are clearly products of their own upbringing and class. And I’m not talking about the “ladettes”. I’m talking about the matrons responsible for turning our boorish Aussie ladettes into refined young ladies.

Between screaming at their wards and calling them “common”, “whorish” and “scum” the matrons have dropped clangers such as “find a rich husband to indulge you because otherwise, how will you ever do anything?”, and “when a woman meets a man she is thinking ‘is he a life partner’? When a man meets a woman he is thinking ‘is she good breeding stock’?”

Patronising and judgmental, the matrons obviously missed the memo on distasteful snobbery (not to mention the one on the sexual liberation movement).


In recent years much column space has been reserved for discussing young women and their increasingly drunken, bawdy and sometimes violent behaviour. But according to academic Catharine Lumby, underpinning the concern that young women are out of control is a series of problematic beliefs and assumptions regarding class, gender and power.

The first is that young women are not supposed to act like young men. Still considered the “fairer” sex, women continue to bare the responsibility for upholding moral standards on behalf of the community. So while binge drinking, public urination and belching are considered unflattering (but routine) among young men, young women who engage in such “male” behaviours are not only unattractive, they are also considered dangerous threats to the moral order.

The anxiety over ladette behaviour also appears to stem from a toffee-nosed classism that is bound up in a wider intergenerational struggle for authority; older, middle-class women believe they know what’s best for young women, especially if those young women are working-class or in any way perceived as being deficient.

But it is not simply middle-class, conservative school marms who tut-tut and attempt to regulate young women. Ironically, many feminists are also guilty of talking down to young women, often in the name of protecting them.

In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, feminist author Ariel Levy scolds young women who embrace smutty outfits, attitudes and behaviours labelling their actions as a form of “faux empowerment”. Levy’s concern is that by engaging in excessively “skanky” behaviour, young women are misusing and abusing the freedoms granted to them by past generations of feminists.

Of course the risk of granting freedom is that if it is to be genuine, then once it is granted, the giver must surrender the right to dictate how that freedom is used. This is the predicament that some senior feminists now find themselves in; by declaring all women liberated, they have unwittingly lost the right to prescribe and regulate how young women behave. The subsequent anxiety has resulted in a flurry of exasperated manifestoes directed at young women, and a growing intergenerational distrust.


On one side of the generational divide many senior feminists question the political sincerity of young women who appropriate the feminist tenets of “choice” and “empowerment” to lend justification to their “smutty” lifestyles.

On the other side of the divide, many young women view criticisms and concerns about their behaviour as covert attempts by others to regulate and control them. As Lumby states, “from where the next generation sits, the old guard has begun to look suspiciously like the patriarchal order it once opposed”.

As a 25-year-old woman (and a feminist) I feel particularly compelled to comment on this matter. A number of my friends take pole dancing classes. Another two have had boob jobs. And many of my friends enjoy big nights out on the booze. They also swear, smoke and have sex. Without question these women exhibit ladette qualities.

Yet these women are highly successful, motivated, intelligent individuals. They would take great offence at the suggestion that they have been unthinkingly duped or coerced into their current lifestyles. Such a suggestion not only strips women of the agency that they exhibit in their lifestyle choices, but it also fails to consider the complex array of factors which feed into such choices.

Perhaps my friends are atypical ladettes. But even if they are, feminists still ought to acknowledge and engage with such counter-narratives rather than simply dismissing them in favour of the view that all ladettes are vulnerable, unenlightened, cultural dupes, who perform purely for the benefit of men.

So rather than scoffing and despairing over young women, and scolding them when they behave like young men, perhaps it would be more fruitful to try to understand and account for the cultural significance and reasons behind the raunch trend.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on February 24, 2009.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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