I am a woman in my fifties. I suspect that most people who look at me think, “She looks like she’s in her fifties.” So when the man who is waving me onto the ferry said to me, “Good job, young lady,” I took offense. A woman in her fifties is not a young lady. This is not the first time I’ve been “young ladied,” and it’s not the first time I’ve taken offense. Frankly, I would prefer they say, “Good job, middle-aged woman,” because when I hear “Good job, young lady” directed at me, what I am really hearing is “Perhaps it’s time to consider Botox.” Nicole, should I have told the ferry loader off?
Dear Middle-Aged Woman:
How old was the man who called you a young lady? If he was 75, then you are, objectively, young to him (just as 35-year-olds are young to you, but not to themselves). If you’re much younger than he is, and he addressed you in a manner that most pre-baby-boomers consider respectful (however outmoded “lady” sounds to you), then what would “telling him off” consist of? “Hey, old man, stop acting like you came of age before second-wave feminism led to Ms. Magazine”?
However: Perhaps he isn’t 75. Perhaps he is close enough to you in age for “young lady” to indeed be a condescending term. Before I give you the green light for telling him off, here’s another question: Why do you feel that when a man calls you young, their subtext is actually, “Consider Botox”? How often do you think Yankee males think about Botox? With that in mind, here are three approaches to your query:
- Perhaps he was being ironic when he said “young.” Perhaps by “young lady,” he actually did mean, “Boy, are you not young, and since I’m evaluating you chiefly by your appearance, I want to make sure you notice that I notice that you’re not young.” That makes him a jerk, regardless of age and gender. Don’t waste your breath on jerks. Your off-telling will fall on deaf ears, it won’t help you to feel better (you’ll need to recount the encounter to your friends later, to feel better), and you’ll just be giving him fodder for dissing middle-aged women with his bros later on.
- Regardless of your age, he genuinely thinks you will find it flattering to be called a young lady, since he (as a “typical male”) considers young ladies the most attractive kind of female, and so he assumes you’d want to be associated with that title. Yes, that is flat-out condescension, but it’s unconscious. Men have the privilege of being a little dense about how patriarchal such societal norms are (even though men are the ones who reinforce those norms). That doesn’t make men Bad, it just makes them Behave in an Unenlightened Way. But as a general rule, scolding somebody isn’t going to get positive results. So don’t tell him off. Tell him that next time you’re on his ferry, you want to be addressed as “middle-aged woman.” That will startle him enough that he just might remember it.
- Perhaps it’s your own inner critic who is telling you to consider Botox, and you want to chastise a stranger for triggering your inner critic. Please realize that you could chastise innumerable “young lady”-ers, and your inner critic will still be fresh as a daisy, looking for opportunities to tell you you need Botox. A chat with your inner critic will be far more productive in the big picture than snapping at the ferryman. I bet the ferryman doesn’t think you need Botox. I bet the ferryman doesn’t think about Botox at all.
Also: I don’t know you, but I’m also a Middle-Aged Woman, and I don’t think either of us need Botox. So there.
That’s my take,
Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse, and is the author of “I, Iago.” Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.