The demise of the lady

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Apr 30, 2007 12:00 AM
The demise of the lady

Perhaps there was one piece of good news that emerged from reports about Rosie O’Donnell’s crass and vulgar presentation at last Monday’s Matrix Awards luncheon: That many of the attendees – some of them O’Donnell partisans – confessed to having been uncomfortable listening to her expletive-laced tirade. Although many of those critical of O’Donnell’s performance declined to criticize her on the record, their discomfort indicated that not even Manhattan sophisticates have become completely desensitized to traditional notions of taste and good manners.

The luncheon is a yearly event for around 2,000 of the most accomplished women in media, and included 17 high school girls being awarded scholarships. Before this group, O’Donnell repeatedly used the “f word,” talked about giving Donald Trump a “boner,” and concluded a rant about the billionaire by grabbing her own crotch and shrieking, “Eat me!”

Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the British actress who created the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, once remarked that she didn’t much care what people did in private, so long as “they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.” Likewise, it’s a matter of profound indifference to most Americans how Rosie O’Donnell conducts herself when she’s surrounded by her circle of personal friends. But her public behavior is another story.

Rosie O’Donnell is no stranger to controversy; as much of the country knows, she has used her platform on “The View” for everything from indulging weird 9/11 conspiracy theories to Catholic-baiting to mocking Chinese accents. But this isn’t about her bizarre personal or political beliefs. It isn’t even about what kind of language is seemly in the presence of the young scholarship recipients. Rather, it’s about the public standards of decorum that all of us are willing to tolerate.

Not too long ago, it would have been completely unnecessary to spell out why the content of O’Donnell’s tirade was so completely inappropriate for a luncheon which, although sponsored by a private group, constitutes a public event. It would have been obvious that cursing, crotch-grabbing, and the gratuitous employment of sexual references were behaviors that were scarcely acceptable anywhere; if they were going to be indulged in at all, they were certainly reserved for private conversations with a few close friends.

That social consensus has long since eroded. The leadership of New York Women in Communications, the group sponsoring the luncheon, professed to be delighted with O’Donnell’s performance. The managing director of the group actually sent an email to O’Donnell’s handlers, calling her “fabulous.” The editor-in-chief of Jane magazine told the New York Post’s Page Six that it was “fun to watch other people be offended.”

How times have changed. Traditionally, people who stooped to crass behavior were understood to be implicitly conceding the limits of their own intellect, refinement and self-restraint. Even insults – at least those leveled in public – were expected to contain at least a modicum of gentility. Compare O’Donnell’s “Eat me!” with Winston Churchill’s assessment of Clement Attlee as “a modest man, with much to be modest about” and the contrast is clear.

What’s more, resorting to public vulgarity at once marked the one doing so as not a lady or a gentleman. No doubt the terms “lady” and “gentlemen” have been devalued over time, now evoking images of simpering socialites pretentiously crooking their pinkie fingers as they sip tea. But the essence of being a well-bred, civilized person – male or female – was to behave in a way that never caused needless discomfort to other people. Good manners were understood to be primarily an expression of kindness and concern for others’ feelings. This was particularly true for women, who were generally seen as civilization’s gatekeepers.

Certainly, it’s never easy to live up to high standards – and in recent decades, too many of the cultural elites have abandoned any pretense of trying to do so. A cultural emphasis on “free-spiritedness” and self-expression over self-discipline and self-restraint has gradually resulted in the inauguration of a “free to be you and me” ethic that means Rosie O’Donnell is deemed to have no obligation to watch her tongue, even if her behavior embarrasses everyone else in the room. It means that disgust with one person’s self-indulgence and selfishness in ruining an otherwise enjoyable event for a roomful of people is considered nothing more than prudery. And it means that standards of public behavior are slowly devolving into a simple, subjective matter of personal preference.

Many of the public moralists and talking heads have been telling all of us that we need to find gentler, more civilized ways of communicating with one another when it comes to politics. Well, perhaps setting some standards when it comes to public discourse generally would be a worthy first step. Rather than turning away with a red face and a cringe, what if influential Americans – like the women at the media awards luncheon – actually cared enough to take a stand? If each of the attendees who were embarrassed by O’Donnell’s tirade took a real, concrete step to elevate the tone and content of America’s cultural discourse, eventually Rosie’s brand of heedless vulgarity might become as unfashionable as openly championing “ladylike” behavior is today.