Elizabeth Day: Don’t call me a ‘lucky girl’

Recently, I posted on Instagram celebrating that I’d come to the end of a six-week run of presenting a live television programme about books. As someone who has published six books of her own, and is constantly reading, the job had been a professional highlight. I got to talk about something I loved, with others who felt equally impassioned.

Dan Kennedy

I had never done live TV before, and during the first week I was incredibly nervous. I’d never read off an Autocue either, so I practised using Autocue videos on YouTube (yes, there is such a thing). I read the books we would be discussing and researched the authors we’d be interviewing. In short, I put in the hours.

When I posted on Instagram, a woman I have never met before commented that I was ‘a lucky girl’. This phrase is one of my absolute pet hates. I am sure that the comment was well-intentioned and there is no doubt that, yes, I am lucky to make a living like this rather than cleaning sewage pipes or catching urban rats. I am privileged, too, by my background and my whiteness. But to attribute everything to luck was to deny the years of hard work that had gone into getting me here.

There was a hint of condescension. Not just in the diminishing ‘girl’ which, given I’m 42, is stretching credulity somewhat, but in the sense that I should be prostrating myself with gratitude at every opportunity. The implication was that I didn’t know how good I had it.

Calling a woman a ‘lucky girl’ does several things. It patronises her. It erases her years of work and professional achievement. It denies her agency because it says that success has happened to her through a quirk of capricious fate, rather than being generated by her.

It’s difficult to conceive of something similar being said about a man. No one would have said ‘lucky boy’ to Joaquin Phoenix as he received his Academy Award for Best Actor. No one would have said ‘lucky boy’ to Andrew Bailey when he was named Governor of the Bank of England. And no one would have said it to cricketer Ben Stokes when he hit 135 in the one-wicket third Ashes test victory against Australia at Headingley.

The closest I can get is when men are called ‘lucky git’ or ‘lucky b***ard’ but it’s not really the same. These phrases carry with them a joshing bonhomie and a hint of admiration. ‘Lucky girl’ is infantilising. ‘Lucky git’ is funny. On the rare occasion that ‘lucky boy’ is deployed, it’s a sexual innuendo. Or so I thought.

When I took to Twitter to test my theory, it struck a chord with a lot of women. Many of them commented drily that the more you grafted, the luckier you seemed to become. One respondent wrote: ‘I once got a new job I had worked hard to get. A woman said “lucky you”. I almost decked her.’ Of course, the inference becomes more teeth-grittingly enraging if you are Black, Asian or minority ethnic, if you’re working class or if you live with disability and you’ve had to work even harder to be where you are.

But I also heard from a handful of men who insisted they had been called ‘a lucky boy’ in a professional context. One told me he’d done it in a Zoom meeting that morning, as ‘banter’. The same man continued by saying that ‘lucky boy [is] one of the common ways men show respect and admiration in a professional context. Rather than a direct compliment (which can be seen as sucking-up) you express light-hearted envy as a form of tacit appreciation.’

I thought that was interesting. But the truth is, if you are a person who has been discriminated against for reasons of gender or race or class, you’re less likely to be able to brush things off as ‘banter’. Language carries weight. If you don’t have to think about that on a daily basis, then you really are one of the lucky ones.

This week I’m…

Watching

Industry on BBC iPlayer: a group of graduates compete for jobs at a bank.

Slipping into

Silk pyjamas by La Perla. Sleep just got a whole lot more fabulous.

Joining

Celebrities for an online carol concert in aid of Macmillan on 11 December.