international women's day

The Rise and Fall of the Ladette

How women taking their clothes off and getting shitfaced were celebrated and shunned in the space of just a few years.

by Louise Donovan
08 March 2017, 8:58am

(Top collage by Marta Parszeniew)

In 1998, Big Breakfast presenter Denise van Outen stole an ashtray from Buckingham Palace. She was there for a royal reception, but her co-presenter Johnny Vaughan thought she was making the whole thing up. So Outen nicked a souvenir to prove it. The Queen's lawyers swiftly got in touch, letting her know the goods needed returning immediately, and she couriered them back live on air. Van Outen then sent Her Majesty a stuffed camel with a note saying: "Sorry, Ma'am. I didn't mean to give you the hump."

Can you imagine anyone getting away with that on live TV now? Thousands of people are so offended by Netflix's new Dear White People trailer that they've cancelled their subscriptions to the streaming service. A trailer, people; the show hasn't even aired yet. But that's 2017. Tell the world you lost your virginity in a field of sheep aged 15, or that the Queen Mother "smells of wee" on live radio, a la Sara Cox circa 2000? Turns out only a dozen or so people cared enough to ring the BBC and complain.  

Mind you, this was during the sweet, unfiltered world of "ladettism". A late-1990s and early-2000s phenomenon, it was an era in which women ruled supreme. A boisterous, bolshy, boozy free-for-all where you could get away with saying or doing pretty much anything. During the 70s and 80s, much was achieved in the way of breaking down gender stereotypes, and the ladette was a product of women's increased equality. Yet this was a whole new way of "being female": the ladette was mouthy, up for a laugh, took her clothes off and could out-do any male companion in the drinking stakes. 

The term itself is often thought to have been coined by FHM in 1994, and was used to describe the female equivalent of the guy who shouts "nice tits!" at every single woman he sees. "The 'ladette' liberated young women from the confines of a very conservative form of femininity because they could behave just like men," explains Professor Angela Smith of Sunderland University, who's written about the topic in her book Naked Exhibitionism: gender and public performance. That was the beauty of ladette culture: it took the old, stuffy gender model – where the man went out boozing and the woman patiently waited up – and flipped it. 

Simply put, these girls gave zero fucks. And, at first, it was amazing. Cox was the face of this "new" femininity, with van Outen and DJ Zoe Ball closely in tow. Together they downed absinthe cocktails and stumbled out of hedonistic hotbeds like Mayfair's Met Bar; knickers, boobs and bum on show. They were taboo-breakers in a world that expected women to stay at home and raise kids.

The peak, according to Smith, was during the mid-90s. The Spice Girls were spreading girl power ("like feminism, but you don't have to burn your bra") while programmes like Channel 4's late-night The Girlie Show, co-hosted by Cox and Sarah Cawood, hosted the likes of Jamiroquai's Jay Kay, interviewed in just his pants and a hat. "When we had the Spice Girls on, for one of their first interviews, I remember thinking: 'Wow, this a zeitgeist moment,'" says Cawood. "The show was based on ladette culture, but it featured women going out and getting what they wanted. Young girls could all of a sudden say: 'Yes, I want to be a rocket scientist.' You don't have to be a nurse, a waitress or a model – you can be anything you want to be."

Denise Van Outen jokes around while signing a pair of jeans at Top Shop in Oxford Circus, London, in 1998. (Photo: John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images)

But if the women themselves were having fun, the picture painted of the ladette was almost invariably critical. "I see the label 'ladette' as one constructed by the media to demonise particular groups of women who challenge certain gender stereotypes. Not all media coverage was negative, but the vast majority of it was," explains Carolyn Jackson, a professor in Educational Research at Lancaster University. Young British women had more money than their parents and weren't starting families until well into their twenties, so they partied. The problem? These piss-ups encroached on male-dominated pubs and bars. As Smith writes: "….the [sic] ladette is presented as occupying space outside the traditional feminine domestic sphere, and crucially, as taking space once regarded the principal or sole preserve of men". 

A moral panic zipped through the establishment. The message was clear: you're allowed to behave like a lad as long as it doesn't stray too far from the conservative ideal of what women should be. Be blokey, by all means, but not too blokey. 

Many critics felt this was the ugly underbelly of equality: it was feminism gone too far. During the 1990s, drunken larger-louts started to dominate newspaper headlines. "The Daily Mail always hated the ladettes," says Cawood, "and that's where it started to go wrong. It was the endless front covers of girls in the gutter. I think we got a bad rep. The whole cultural phenomenon got a bad rep. But if you take 100 girls on a night out, drinking pints, the law of averages says that two of them are going to end up with their knickers round their ankles, throwing up at three in the morning, right? Doesn't mean we're all at it. I never did. I used to reapply my lipgloss and brush my hair before I left the club to face the paps."

The double standard is strikingly obvious in the press' negative portrayal of ladettes. As Smith points out: "We live in a society where it's OK for men to binge drink and be sexually promiscuous, but not for women."

And then the health reports came rolling in. Ladettes were blamed for rising levels of everything up to and including: cancer, alcoholism, heart disease, child neglect, crime and road accidents. All exaggerated to titillate the public with the "girls gone wild" trope, of course, but it did come from a place of insecurity, says Cawood. "I think men felt threatened by women taking them on and suddenly being more equal," she explains. "No man wants to be drunk under the table by a wee slip of a girly wearing a leopard print mini dress and pink boots."

Nearly two decades later, ladettism eventually burnt itself out. The Spice Girls split up, The Girlie Show became a parody of itself and the media moved on to the next group of folk-devils. So what, if anything, does the term mean today? Post-2000, gender roles are much less likely to be set in stone. We perhaps therefore don't feel the need to define those who "act like men" as ladettes because, as Smith points out, "it's arguable there is a greater acceptance of different gender roles. It's much more acceptable to behave in a diverse way."

Ask if there's a 2017 equivalent to the ladette and both Cawood and Smith agree: Emma Watson. They wouldn't go as far as saying feminism is the new ladette culture, but it's been replaced with something much more politically active. The 20-somethings who would have been puking their guts up two decades ago are now out marching across the world, protesting their right not to be groped or abused in public. Yet, they're all talking about the same thing: female empowerment. It's simply the means by which they do it that has changed. 

Besides, there's a slightly more pressing reason Cawood reckons the UK is over ladette culture. "I don't think we could ever go back to pint-drinking ladettes because we're so fucking obsessed with Prosecco. Could there be a more girly drink? For fuck's sake."

@louisedonovan_

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