A certain notorious photograph has been making the rounds in the British press. The photo shows a clearly intoxicated group of (doubtlessly) well-to-do young women, one of whom is frolicking down the streets of Cardiff with her knickers round her ankles, much to the delight of her girlfriends. The reaction of the British public to that image, and countless others like it that have been appearing in the press, has been mixed. Conservative older Britons see the images as representative of their precipitously declining civilization. To them, today's Britain is as unrecognizable as a foreign country, one where all social order has broken down. Younger, liberal Britons, meanwhile, shrug and say, "So what?"
The phenomenon of what is in Britain called "ladette culture" and here in the U.S. "raunch culture," is more striking perhaps in the traditionally reserved Britain. If quiet desperation used to be the English way, it is no longer. The former reserved British character is today: "loud, drunken and risqué."
There are many reasons young, expensively educated (rather than well-educated), middle-class women would want to exhibit such behavior. First and foremost, today's gal wants to be "one of the guys," the twenty-something equivalent of the tomboy. If you can be one of the guys as well as one of the gals, that's twice as good, isn't it?
Today that means going to strip clubs and climbing up on the dance tables and playing the role of stripper for your friends and co-workers. As one ladette put it in Marie Claire, it's called "keeping up with your male peers." Or what another called: "Women having genuine freedom."
It is mind-boggling how quickly centuries old traditions, mores, and manners fade away. Within one decade all of the old taboos that regulated and instructed the behavior of young, middle-class women have been swept away. In the late 1970s, when my older sister was in school, the female students policed the behavior of their fellow classmates, lest one bad girl give the entire school a "bad reputation." "Ten years ago, it was unacceptable for women to go out and get absolutely hammered," one ladette recently told a Canadian magazine. No more. If the moral policing of my sister's generation was extreme, we have today swung to the opposite extreme. Following a naked lap dance by a male stripper, another ladette waxed philosophically: "This is about equality. Men go out and have a good time. Why can't it be the same for women?"
I doubt if running drunkenly amok through the streets with one's panties round one's ankles is the sort of equality Susan B. Anthony had in mind when she began publishing The Revolution, but let it go. Likewise one British poll found that 78 percent of young women preferred their bachelorette or hen parties to be "loud, drunken and risqué." It is not enough to act the fool. Everyone -- whether he wants to or not -- must be witness to it.
There is a very simple-minded logic going on here. Young men do idiotic things, therefore in order to prove that I am no less idiotic than they are I must do the same. Only they do not consider their behavior idiotic. Certainly, the young lady parading through the city streets with her panties round her ankles and throwing up in the back alleys finds nothing wrong with her behavior. She is just having a good time. Like the guys.
IF TODAY'S YOUNG people behave with any restraint and decency it is less because they are afraid of damaging their social reputation -- for damaging one's reputation can be a way to be noticed and to increase one's popularity -- and more out of fear of damaging one's job prospects. (Imagine the career prospects of the young British lad photographed urinating last month on a WWI war memorial.) Damaged job prospects are a genuine cause for concern. I don't know how many times I've heard human resources types tell young people that they should watch their behavior since cell phone photos may very well end up on one's Facebook page, and potential employers will look at your Facebook page. Budding attorneys are constantly warned to safeguard their reputation, not because a good reputation is in itself a good thing to have, but because a bad reputation may harm your law career.
Society, as usual, can be counted on to send mixed messages. Rather than condoning raunchy behavior, some women intellectuals and educators praise it: "There are aspects of ladette behaviors that should be celebrated," says educational researcher Carolyn Jackson, author of Lads and Ladettes in School, "like women and girls' increased assertiveness and confidence. They aren't afraid to challenge gender stereotypes." Every time I begin to think conservatives are wrong to launch blanket attacks on intellectuals, I read a statement like Ms. Jackson's and want to say: pass the blankets.
Anytime you try to make over society in its entirety there is bound to be a reaction. And while reactions are seldom beautiful things, they are wholly predictable. Our drink-besotted daughters parading half naked through the streets are, in a strange way, a reaction to emasculating feminism and political correctness. Fortunately, reactionary periods fade. And when it does let us hope that young women will stop emulating young men, or if they must, they emulate young men with some class.
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