The term “ladyist” comes from stand-up comedian Maria Bamford’s 2001 Comedy Central special. I’d link to it here, but the only place I could find it online is geo-blocked, so trust me when I say that it’s a great set. If you aren’t familiar with Maria’s comedy, she’s a brilliant and inventive comic, whose unpredictable voices and manic grin soften you up for incisive observations about the social attitudes to women, mental illness and depression (and it’s way more fun than I’ve made it sound here). Go check out her latest album, “Ask Me About My New God!“, which showcases some of her funniest and most vulnerable material to date.
I obsessed over that special in the early ’00s, when I was hooked on stand-up. Even then, I recognised something totally different in Maria — not simply because she’s a woman, but because of that complex relationship between her sweet-natured delivery and its more incisive message. The phrase, “I support the ladies; I’m a ladyist” has stuck with me, and seemed a perfect fit for this experiment. The biggest appeal is the silliness of the word itself: it’s meaning is clear, but the construction is so foreign that it undercuts any self-seriousness. Even so, it struck a nice balance between identifying the female focus of this project without infantilising women (‘girl’; ‘girly’) or reducing me to stiff, biological terms. One working title for this experiment was ‘The Double XX Axis’, complete with a cutesy plan for a graph-based rating system, but I couldn’t get past the fact that it’s a pretty boring title. That, and it focuses too much on gender as genetically determined, which I was also anxious to avoid. On top of all that, I was, and still am, very cautious about using the term ‘feminist’ or ‘feminism’ in the context of this project, even though the principle is, I feel, feminist in nature. I never want to be seen to be preaching about the ways in which feminism must be enacted or defined; at its heart, this whole affair is about a boy being more thoughtful about the pop-culture he consumes, nothing more.
After all that, I panicked a little when I started listening to Stuff Mom Never Told You, an excellent podcast that’s mainly concerned with women, and in particular the complex expectations placed upon women. Again, I’m making it sound like a terribly dry affair, but it’s anything but: hosts Cristen and Caroline are naturally charming, and their curiosity and wit make this podcast fascinating and fun. In the last few weeks, it’s rapidly become one of my favourites: like Radiolab, the conversations are so wide-ranging and well-informed that you leave each episode feeling smarter.
The first episode I listened to happened to be very relevant to this Experiment: “Hey Ladies!” saw Cristen and Caroline dig into the etymological roots of the word ‘lady’, and its very complicated history. This is where I panicked. Mere days before, I’d committed to the Ladyist Experiment as a name, but in all my over-thinking, I never considered the loaded meanings of ‘lady’. Was I wrong in my choice of name? (Maybe). Do people find the word unpleasant? (Sure). Cristen and Caroline’s discussion let me off the hook for the most part, thankfully, but it was a reminder to me that I’m on foreign soil here. In a way, this is one of the goals of this Experiment: to root out the lazy thinking, the unchallenged assumptions in the way I think about women, and replace them with more respectful, considerate and nuanced modes of thought.
Thanks for the wake-up call, SMNTY. I hope it won’t be the last.