According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of a landlady is: a woman who is a landlord. The Free Dictionary provides more detail with: 1. a woman who owns and rents land, buildings, or dwelling units; or 2. a woman who runs a rooming house or an inn; an innkeeper.
I own and manage numerous dwelling units. I am a landlady.
But have I ever referred to myself as a landlady? No, never. Why would that be, when the definition is so clearly fitting?
Tales of the Wicked Landlady
In 1959, Roald Dahl published a short horror story simply called: The Landlady. In the story, a young man named Billy Weaver travels from London to Bath when he stops for the night at a quaint bed-and-breakfast. The landlady who welcomes Billy seems to be a bit quirky, but kind. She offers Billy biscuits and a cup of tea that tastes slightly of bitter almonds. Through a series of ominous clues, readers realize that the landlady has actually poisoned Billy’s tea, so that she can murder him, stuff his body and keep him forever more (as she did with her previous two young male guests, as well as her cat and dog).
The Landlady gained wide popularity, winning an award for Best Short Story Mystery at the 1960 Edgar Awards. Years later, in 1979, the story was adapted as an episode for a television series called Tales of the Unexpected, and the account of the murderous landlady was perpetuated for a younger generation of TV viewers.
In giving us this murderous landlady, with her penchant for young men and taxidermy, Roald Dahl introduced the evil landlady stereotype into modern popular culture.
Murder and Mayhem Abound
In the past several decades, movie-going audiences have encountered several more diabolical landladies.
For example, Talia Shire portrayed a murderous landlady fixated on her handsome male tenant in the 1998 film The Landlady. Though not particularly well-regarded (earning a 12% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), this odd horror flick was responsible for one of the best landlady taglines in history:
Evil doesn’t knock…It has the key!
Yikes! And if Talia Shire wasn’t scary enough, how about this creepy landlady?
In the 2007 film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Helena Bonham Carter played Mrs. Lovett, the landlady of Mr. Todd, the bloodthirsty barber. Mrs. Lovett went above and beyond just providing room and board to Mr. Todd; she became his assistant, disposing of the bodies of his victims by baking their flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting customers. Ultimately, Mrs Lovett became a murderer as well when she threw Mr. Todd’s beloved and long-lost mum into the furnace.
In 2012, Ms. Bonham Carter reprised her landlady role when she played the cunning Madame Thenardier in the film adaption of Les Miserables. For once, this landlady didn’t murder anyone (at least not directly), but Madame Thenardier did abuse children, rob guests of the inn, drive a woman to an early grave, and greedily attempt to bribe several different characters to gain their riches.
Helena Bonham Carter was amazing in the roles…almost too good. Her landladies were ghastly and repugnant. Crazy and treacherous. They were riveting characters, yet another strike against the standing of poor landladies everywhere.
To counteract these ghastly portrayals of landladies, are there any positive messages circulating in popular culture or the media that can rehabilitate the reputation of landladies? I’ve looked far and wide for a little love for landladies and found none.
Instead, I have found humorous, yet disturbing, comments regarding landladies, both in media and on-line forums. These comments indicate that people have largely adopted landlady stereotypes. An excellent example is this post on a Nigerian forum called ASK NJIA:
Are Landladies So Wicked? I don’t know if its a general trend, but the three houses we have stayed in so far were run by the landlady (who prolly ate up their husbands). And boy, Were they mean!
Some of the responses to this (apparently rhetorical) question were:
- “landladies prefer to have handsome and single male occupants and gradually becomes wicked if no one shows interest in her, lol”
- “90% of landladies are wicked. 10% are understanding”
- “landladies are one of the most wicked creatures and they some times give birth to useless ones sorry to the good ones”
- “some people are born wicked, it is a fact”
Admittedly, a few responses did defend landladies, with my favorite rejoinder being: “i think they are just being protective and to make sure you cant bully them…what did they do to make you start slagging them off on internet?”
Interestingly, Nigerians also have a series of films that can be found on YouTube called Mamma Gee The Wicked Landlady. I tried to watch one Mamma Gee film, but I was impeded by the language barrier. However, from viewing the opening scene of the gruff Mamma Gee yelling for several minutes at a young lady with a baby on her hip (presumably her hapless tenants), I quickly decided that Mamma Gee is one mean landlady!
Your Landlady Did What??
Not only have landladies been tarred as wicked, they have also been impugned as a rather lascivious lot, preying on their male tenants and guests. This landlady stereotype may have inspired on-line confessions such as these:
- On Reddit: “So I had sex with my landlady…I was over to discuss something about payment and she sort of just pounced on me. Did not mind being pounced on at all. She’s one of those women that look 23 when they’re really in their forties. One minute we’re talking lease extension and the next we’re going at it all over the place.”
- In a Sun UK article, “I’m getting bed and bawd from my landlady…but I’m ready to settle down,” a young man complains that he got the surprise of his life when he woke up one night in his rooming house and saw his landlady sitting on the sofa watching a sexy video. According to the tenant, the landlady: “jokingly asked if I was having problems sleeping and asked if I was busy. I went and sat down beside her and before I knew what was happening we were having sex.”
Whether these racy encounters actually took place is anyone’s guess. Even if these little scenarios sprang only from the writers’ fantasies, they were likely inspired by the recurring theme of the randy landlady preying on young men.
Hey, Can you Help a Poor Landlady Out?
I was no Women’s Studies major in college, but I may have stumbled onto the makings of an excellent feminist thesis here. Check it out:
Landladies – powerful women who own property and control the lodgings of men – have been systematically derided by popular culture as insane, murderous and sexually deviant to diminish their stature and denigrate their rightful standing in society.
Oooooo, I think I’m onto something…or, wait, am I completely off base?
Are modern landladies simply rejecting the feminine version of the word, opting instead to be called “landlords,” just like their male counterparts? Forty percent of all rental property owners are in fact women; and yet, the word “landlady” has fallen to the bottom 30% of popularity of all English words according to Merriam-Webster. I suppose women opting to be “landlords” instead of “landladies” is similar to actresses favoring “actors” and stewardesses preferring “flight attendants.” The feminized versions of words may all simply be dying-out in our society that strives for gender and sexual equality.
But landLORD? Come on. Not very gender nuetral, is it?
This is where I need your input. I want to hear from you, my handful of devoted readers – and anyone else who stumbles on my blog. Should I strive to revive the status and usage of “landlady?” I could write posts that don’t just talk about real estate investors or landlords, but also include the term landlady. I could even harness the power of social media, starting a landlady Facebook page or Pinterest board, or trying to get the #landlady some love on Twitter.
Or, should I just let “landlady” go, to be buried forever more, in the woods near the shallow graves of the rotting corpses of my male tenants?