Katy Guest: Ladettes, feminists and a dame... Why women have moved on

Eileen Atkins may be a distinguished actress and one of the original bra-burners – and we have a lot to thank her generation for – but she has missed the point about feminism today

Share
Related Topics

When a venerable actress gave an interview to an enduring magazine last week, it looked as though she was trying to cause a stink. In the well-rehearsed words of angry old farts through the ages, Dame Eileen Atkins began by with an eloquent soliloquy on political correctness. "[It] makes you want to behave badly – which I do," she said – adding crucially, "but I wonder if it's just me being another angry old fart." Her theme at the time was smoking, which is being cruelly thwarted by the feeble-minded health police. But as she relaxed into her role, she started to do something really shocking: she tried to reclaim feminism.

In the Radio Times interview, her comments seemed to arrive apropos of nothing. "In my late teens and twenties, I was in love all the time," she said, reasonably. "Now girls are expected to have sex before they're 12, which is terrible. It really upsets me when silly girls get as drunk and aggressive as boys. My skin crawls when I see laddish women presenting television shows who almost slap their thighs as if they're in panto. I think, 'Stop. This isn't what we meant by feminism.' It's gone completely wrong. Women think they can have a fantastic career and four children, and knock themselves out trying to do it all."

Phew. Did Dame Eileen take a deep breath after insulting most women in Britain in these six, short sentences? Did she look back over her speech and wish she had softened it? If she did, it is not reported. The headlines, of course, wrote themselves. "Laddish women are eroding feminism, warns Dame Eileen," was just one.

It is tempting (for the modern woman) to dismiss Dame Eileen as an old bra-burner who has lost the plot. She was, after all, the one who used the words "angry old fart". And since her iconoclasm in the interview knew no bounds, perhaps she was trying to make people angry. There came a point, as she discussed her role in the new play The Female of the Species, when she even belittled Germaine Greer, for goodness' sake. She clearly didn't give the interview to try and win fans among the sisterhood.

But this was a curious choice of words. "Women think they can have ... it all," she said, sounding more like a Daily Mail leader-writer than someone in the tradition of the Suffragettes. "This isn't what we meant by feminism," she informed us. But what did we mean by feminism? Who are "we"? And who owns feminism, anyway?

Dame Eileen's rhetoric hits precisely the point where the half of the population that will cheer "Well said!" sheers off from the half that will boil inside at her words. It is not the idea that girls are expected to have sex before they are 12, which most people will think is a point too far – nobody expects girls to have sex before they are 12, and a lot of effort goes into making sure they don't. The problem is in the injustice of her comparisons. Does it upset her when boys get drunk and aggressive? How many children can a woman have and still expect to enjoy a career? How many for a fantastic career? And how many children can men have?

Dame Eileen says that feminism has gone wrong. Too right it has, if the word itself is now used as a way of embracing these tired old double standards. What is upsetting is not that laddish women present television shows; it is the insidious creep of these values into everyday discourse, to the point that a "feminist" will claim them as her own.

When the Dame Eileen headlines faded from front pages last week, they were replaced by news about new crime statistics released by the Ministry of Justice. "Menace of the violent girls", said one article. It didn't reveal that four times as many men were arrested for violent crimes last year. Does Dame Eileen find that upsetting? It wasn't feminism that dictated that women have to be smarter, work harder and stay soberer than men in order to be treated the same way. In May, Alan Gordon, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation, complained that women can no longer be relied upon to provide a "calming influence" on men when they are drunk. And why should they? Surely they credit men with enough intelligence to know their own limits.

Or perhaps feminism means shouting, "Leave him, Tarquin. He ain't worth it", before bundling your fella into a cab. In fact, men commit 87 per cent of violent incidents. Faced with a large group of drunken lads or ladettes, which one would you cross the road to avoid?

In reality, it has been a long time since anyone has been faced with any genuine ladettes at all. Dame Eileen's skin crawls, she says, when she sees laddish women presenting television programmes. Has she been sneaking home from the Vaudeville Theatre for a cheeky Vimto and a night in with Charlotte Church's new programme, by any chance? The show contains a sketch called "Lady to Ladette", in which Church teaches posh young women the fine arts of drinking, dancing and ordering kebabs in a Cardiff accent, and it is by far the funniest part of the programme. "I don't like to advocate binge-drinking, but it happens," she says. "Girls in Cardiff can drink. Me, mainly. A night out should consist of a lot of alcohol, an outfit which looks good at the start of the night and is in tatters at the end. Lots of dancing, so you get so sweaty your hair looks like you've been in the rain. Followed by a big-ass meal like a doner kebab."

It is funny because Charlotte Church is a funny, lovable young woman, even if she does – no! – drink pints. She is also five months pregnant with her second child, and hasn't been seen in Cardiff's Kebab Alley for some years. The show on which the skit is based, ITV's Ladette to Lady, was cancelled earlier this year because of low ratings. The ladette, Dame Eileen please note, is dead – long live the real woman.

The word "ladettes" entered the Concise Oxford Dictionary in 2001, defined as: "... young women who behave in a boisterously assertive or crude manner and engage in heavy drinking sessions". Typically, as soon as a dictionary can define a cultural moment, it is gone. Three women summed up the ladette generation of the mid-1990s: Sara Cox, Zoë Ball and Denise Van Outen. In a phenomenon that would have come as no surprise to the bloke in the East End boozer or the working men's club in the North, they were regularly seen to drink lager, swear and chat up members of the opposite sex – to do as men did, in other words. A word had to be invented for these shocking individuals, and thanks to their "male" behaviour, the word was "ladette".

And where are they now, these pioneers of whole pints, assertiveness and no-strings good times? Cox gave birth to her second child in March. Ball now spends her Saturday mornings having "a family cuddle" in bed with her husband and six-year-old son. Van Outen works out and grows organic vegetables in her garden in Hampstead. Of the Spice Girls, all but one is a mother – and yes, they still (mostly) have fantastic careers. Dame Eileen doubtless finds that appalling. Where did feminism go wrong?

To criticise Dame Eileen's remarks is not to imply a lack of gratitude to the generation who did so much to change women's lives. But feminism means something different to women now. Of course it does. The theory of equal work for equal pay means more than equal stress for today's women and less than equal leisure time in which to wind down. Who can blame them for daring to ask for an equal amount of fun?

The problem she addresses is nothing new: women drink. Not as much as men, but they do. Samuel Pepys wrote about women who "would scold for drink and be drunk as devils". Even Kebab Alley has nothing on Hogarth's Gin Lane. The difference between those women and today's young ladettes is that women now have choices. That's partly thanks to women such as Dame Eileen and the sacrifices they made. She may not approve of the way that women use their (still) growing freedom; but we use it or lose it. And as long as women do believe they can have a fantastic career, a wild night out and children too, feminism isn't dead yet.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
at 28, Austria's Sebastian Kurz is the youngest foreign minister in the EU  

World leaders in their 30s? Change is in the air and we’d better get used to it

Mary Dejevsky
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there