Monday, August 30, 2010

Don't call me ma'am!

Posted By on Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 12:46 PM

Actually, I don't mind being called "ma'am" too much because I realize, most of the time, people are trying to be nice. But, apparently, other women do mind being called ma'am, and they mind a lot. The New York Times explored the issue over the weekend in an article by Natalie Angier called "The Politics of Polite." In it, the women interviewed claim the term is demeaning and, worse, it makes them feel old.

Reading the article, I felt guilt pangs. I use the word "ma'am" on occasion, and usually out of respect or endearment and, probably most often, out of habit. Though, admittedly, I sometimes cringe when people call me ma'am then joke about being confused with my step-grandmother, a woman who would ignore you if you didn't call her ma'am. (Frankly, that was fine with me most of the time.)

She is a woman who likes to think she's a true Southern belle, even though she grew up as poor and uncultured as anyone else during the Great Depression. But, since then, one of her brothers and one of her sons worked their way into fortunes, so, in her mind, she's a debutante by association and social status is extremely important to her, which is why she demands respect for her "rank" (even though she rarely earns it).

She grew up in L.A. (Lower Alabama) and raised her family in Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement. When the bus boycott crippled the city, she was one of those white women who drove across town to pick up her black maid for work — not because she was being nice but because somebody had to take care of her house and kids and damned if she was going to do it. Although she can cook up some of the finest Southern food you can imagine, she's mean, manipulative, overly concerned about what other people think and, you can probably tell, not one of my favorite people in the world.

So, yeah, when I think about the word "ma'am" and my super-Southern-Belle-step-grandma at the same time, it doesn't seem like such a great word anymore. And, now that I've explained how I was antagonized with the word growing up, I suppose I should eradicate it from my vocabulary. I'd hate for anyone to think I was lumping them in the same category as the lady who used to force me to get poodle perms and take etiquette lessons. Pinkie out, dear.

The word ma'am, of course, is a contraction of madame, which sounds a wee tad more sophisticated. I guess that's why the women involved in the Times article said they wouldn't mind being referred to by the latter title. I don't think I'll be using that word, either, though.

What about you? Does the word ma'am offend you or anyone you know?

It feels like eons ago, but once upon a time I went to the 99-cent movies with my step-grandmother to see "The Long Walk Home," with Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. I was a kid, only 12 years old, and I wasn't associating what was on the screen with anything in real life. My mom's family had lived around and traveled the world, so they didn't spend a whole lot of time reminiscing about local history as much as they spent time wishing they were somewhere else. Anyway, by the end of the film, all of those primary school field trips to the the First White House of the Confederacy and the tales of the Civil Rights Movement sank in like never before.

Here's why: During the scene where Spacek and Goldberg recreate a moment from my step-grandmother's life — Spacek, a white housewife, picks up Goldberg, her black maid, and drives her to work (i.e. the white woman's house) during the bus boycott — my step-grandmother hollered out, "Well. I would neva letta n**** ride in the front seat with me." In that moment, I realized the Civil Rights Movement wasn't over. I also thought we were going to die, but the people in the movie theater simply looked at her and turned away. I can only assume they realized there was no sense trying to reason with her.

I can't think about my step-grand without thinking of that movie. Here's a clip, although my step-grandma shouldn't be confused with anyone as principled as Spacek's character.

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