8.2.4 Heterogeneity Of The On-Stage Audience

Here we will focus on the political differences that are evident in the talk, specifically those concerning feminism and party alignment. A small further comment on nationality will be added. But first, the potted biographies of the discussants are presented in alphabetical order.

Richard Belzer. Middle-aged American comedian, actor and author. Little-known in the UK but well-known in the US on television as detective John Munch, and for comedy specials, as well as many appearances on chat shows. One of his books is ‘How To Be a Stand-Up Comedian’ (usanetwork.com, 2002).

Julie Kirkbride. Born in 1960 in Halifax, England. Studied Economics and History at Cambridge University. Has worked as a news and current affairs producer for BBC and ITN, and as a journalist for ‘The Daily Telegraph’. Has been a Conservative since she was fourteen and was elected as MP for Bromsgrove in 1997. Her husband is also a Conservative MP (conservatives.com, 2002). She has refused to sign a pledge drawn up by the Commission for Racial Equality outlining principles of conduct to ensure that all political campaigns are free from racial hatred and prejudice, a pledge endorsed by all party leaders (worcs.com, 2002).

Lynda La Plante. Born in Liverpool, England in 1946. In the 1970s and early 1980s she was an actress, appearing in minor roles in television dramas. Usually typecast as a prostitute or gangster’s moll, she started to submit scripts which created roles for women which were more independent and less subordinate. Since then she has had many television successes and is also a best-selling novelist. Though women are central in her writing she has, according to Jennings, ‘eschewed any identification with feminism or feminist agendas’. She has had her own production company since 1995 (Jennings 2002).

Bill Maher. Middle-aged American comedian, television presenter, and author. He describes himself as ‘a libertarian’. A political review of him (Halem 2001) places him ‘left of centre’. Maher variously supports some form of gun control, public (i.e. state) schooling, an active foreign policy, the death penalty, and is pro-abortion rights (Halem 2001). He is described elsewhere as ‘still politically incorrect’ (Shister 2002), particularly for criticising two male television reporters for crying on camera after the September 11th attacks in the US. He is reported as saying, ‘It’s womanish. Men shouldn’t cry, certainly not publicly, in a time of war’ (in Shister 2002).

Elle Macpherson. Born in 1964 in Sydney, Australia. Internationally known as one of the first ‘supermodels’, in which role she acquired the nickname ‘The Body’. She is also an actress, appearing mainly in minor roles in films, and a businesswoman – she has her own lingerie company and a restaurant (netglimse.com, 2002). In the discussion of stereotypes in 7.1 she was referred to by Watson (2002) as a ‘Trophy Blonde’. In the same article Watson further describes her as a ‘healthy yacht girl’.

We saw in 7.1 that men are not some simple monolithic bloc, but among them there are a whole variety of different masculinities. Some of these differences can be seen in the two males discussants, BM and RB. It is clear from his 59 (‘that to me is a sexist comment’) that BM has certain feminist views on gender roles in society, even though he earlier (12, 14) claims not to be enlightened on such issues (which corresponds to his views expressed in his potted biography above). His 59 and 62>64 indicate his support for women having a strong role in political life. The support he receives from JK (61, 69) and EM (68) suggests they have similar views. As for RB, we see BM ‘duet’ with him in order to construct for RB an image of him as a feminist (10-17). Yet his 53 and attempted explanation in 67, as well as his comment on Madeleine Albright in 90, all are wide open to the interpretation that for him women as women are not valid political leaders, a view which contradicts his earlier constructed feminism. And it is this heterogeneity of the panel, further complicated by what might be called the heterogeneity within one of its members (RB), that provides the conflict we see from 53 onwards.

RB’s utterance in 53 concerning Thatcher being a man causes a rift that continues to the end of the extract. Up to that point (53) the conversation can be seen as highly collaborative, a feature that is often highlighted as being more closely associated with women’s speech than men’s (for example, Edelsky 1981, Coates 1997a, 1997b). But no-one would argue that it is gender-exclusive and here we see that both men are closely involved too. (The nature of the floor is an important element of this conversation and will be dealt with in detail below.)

Once the utterance has been made it is notable that it is the men whose linguistic behaviour becomes competitive. Indeed, 53 itself can be seen as the first move of confrontation which breaks the camaraderie. RB’s utterance in 53 can, in one interpretation, be seen as a strong example of aggressive male humour discussed in 7.3, a type of humour which, as we saw in Section 1, comes within the provenance of superiority theories. However, it can be noted that it is also incongruous – a woman is not a man – and, as we will see below in 8.5, can also be read as a kind of release.

Though it is a woman’s gender that is questioned in the utterance (‘Humor in conversation can be used by men to silence women, negate their personhood…’ to repeat Crawford’s words from 7.3 (1995:145, emphasis added)), it is nevertheless BM, a male, who challenges RB with the bald statement that 53 was a sexist comment, whereas all the women panellists’ initial reaction is to laugh. This can perhaps be variously explained by BM’s position as host, and also through politeness, which can be related to the support work women do in cross-sex conversations. As host, BM has the responsibility (and the power) to intervene to keep order and here he feels that one guest is insulting women and intervenes to resolve matters. As for politeness, further details of which are to come in 8.7, it is a feature of the difference approach to gender and language that women are more polite than men, though this is contested (Holmes 2001, amongst others). It may well be that the women laugh as this is the polite response to a supposed humorous remark. (We saw in 7.1 how Fishman (1978) referred to such behaviour as the ‘shitwork’ that women do in conversation with men.) However, these comments may be too simplistic. If we can at least partially explain BM’s intervention with reference not to his sex but to his job, then we could also do the same for JK and EM. The former is a politician and is thus practised at being diplomatic, smiling, and laughing appropriately. EM is a fashion model, a major part of whose job is to appear happy on cue. These are factors which also need to be taken into consideration when considering their responses. As Crawford says,

One of the most persistent methodological problems is the difficulty of separating sex from all the other factors it is related to in our society. The number of variables that interact with sex has been called the most pervasive problem in sex and gender research.
(1995:6)

Both JK and EM, after an initial amused response, follow BM’s challenge with criticisms of their own (68/9), a seemingly contradictory change of attitude which was earlier discussed in the examination of permission (5.2) in relation to Hay’s fourth implicature concerning ‘agreement’. Their criticisms lead to a further change in the conversation. At this point, when JK cries ‘Shame!’ (69), RB singles her out for attention (she is, recall, like Thatcher, a female Conservative), and what follows can be seen as a distinct piece of dominant behaviour. Focusing entirely on her (in 80 he excludes BM from the discussion), and using a mixture of raised voice (throughout), the imperative (74), interruptions (77 – it can now be seen as a single floor between RB and JK), negative questions (70, 72), repetition (73 and 77, and 81), and aggressive gestures (71, 73, 80, 81), he extracts the answer he requires from JK – Thatcher was called ‘Milk-Snatcher’, a stereotype that was later superceded by ‘The Iron Lady’, amongst others – which justifies his description of her as ‘mean’ and, thus, for him only it would seem, justifies his comment in 53. (His approach here is not unlike Paxman’s strategy of discombobulation used against another politician and discussed in 6.3.1.) We should note that spatial arrangements also play their part here. The contiguity of RB and BM, which earlier had assisted them in their duet in which they constructed RB as a feminist, now aids RB’s almost physical exclusion of BM from RB’s argument with JK. Similarly, some of the physical aspects of RB’s communication with JK – the direct eye contact, the pointing with outstretched arm, the table banging – are given greater dramatic impact by these discussants’ positions opposite one another. A further element in the aggressiveness is that RB’s 53 was an indirect utterance but here in his confrontation with JK he allows her no indirection, compelling her to give a direct answer. She does her best to be indirect, referring to the American constitutional right to silence (76), but RB does not let up in his pursuit of the answer he wants. It is noteworthy that JK’s response to this domineering behaviour is to eventually answer the bullying questioning with a smile (83), which may be seen as yet more ‘shitwork’. It is also noteworthy that RB does not have this aggressive confrontation with the person who challenged him – BM, a male – but with JK, a woman. Again there are other factors at work here which we should not forget: BM is the more powerful host, with whom a confrontation may be best avoided; JK, as a female Conservative, has become the focus of everyone’s attention on the question of Thatcher and not just RB’s. Even so, it cannot be denied that by aggressively shifting the focus in this way RB also changes the topic – from his alleged sexism (and this so soon after the construction of him as a feminist) to Thatcher’s mean-ness. Such a unilateral seizing of control of the floor is a clear example of domination. His remaining comments in 87 (sarcastic agreement) and 90-1 (a further slur on a woman politician as a woman) are further acts of hostility. The piece ends with one of the women, EM (92), using the topic of his new slur, Madeleine Albright, as a starting point to open the discussion out and away from the specific area of conflict, a move that attempts to restore some harmony to the proceedings.

Turning to party politics, there are clearly also differences of opinion. JK is a strong Thatcherite calling her ‘a great political leader’ (50, 86) who ‘transformed the country’ (89). BM would seem to be similarly-aligned, supporting JK’s views with his ‘Yeah she was’ (88) and on two occasions (78, 85) attempting to defend Thatcher against RB’s criticisms. RB himself is evidently a strong opponent of Thatcher, seeking to demonstrate her ‘mean-ness’ by establishing that she abolished free school milk Further, whereas BM supported JK’s assertions of Thatcher’s greatness, RB snipes at JK with his sarcastic repetition of ‘great’ in 87. EM does not make herself clear on party lines. She is one of the three who ask for an explanation of the objectification of women and the election of a woman prime minister from JK in 48, but this does not entail that she is of a different political view to JK. As made clear above, as a female British Conservative MP, JK is adjudged by EM (and two other non-British) to be best placed to explain the seeming contradiction of having naked women in newspapers and also electing a woman as leader. EM shows some support (52) for the explanation, but again this does not help us determine her political stance. As for LL, there are insufficient contributions from her to give any clear idea of her views on these matters. We see her laughing, seemingly to herself, in response to RB’s 53, but as this was the most common reaction at that moment, including from JK, this does not help us further.

Remember the macrotopic is ‘sex in this country’. The fact that the PI audience and panels were of a predominantly Anglo-American composition has already been noted. This led to, for example, BM seeking clarification that everyone understood the ‘page three’ reference. The different nationalities would seem to have no noticeable effect on the dispute in question but of note is the use of pronouns by the only panellist who is neither British nor American, EM. She is, in fact, Australian, but has spent much time both in the UK and the US. The discussion tales place in a studio in London and in response to the opening line in which BM says he wishes to discuss sex in this country (the UK) EM says (2) ‘We like that’. This could be seen as an identification of herself with the British. It may also be interpreted more generally as ‘We human beings all like that’, but its immediate sequential placement after ‘this country’ seems to favour the former interpretation. Then in the section where JK is asked, as a British person, to explain the seeming contradiction of a country electing a woman as leader but also publishing pictures of naked women in daily newspapers (46-8), EM is one of the non-British askers of the question (48) along with the two Americans BM (47) and RB (46). That is, at that point she appears to take the stance of someone who is not British. Then in the final utterance of the extract (92-5) she appears to take on an American identity with her ‘we have a lot more instances of women being I think powerful within politics in America’ (92-3). It can be argued that once again she could be using ‘we’ in a general, impersonal sense and not in order to claim any particular identity, but she immediately follows this up with the second person ‘than you do in England’, which contrasts with the first person ‘we’ used immediately before. Either this is very lax use of pronouns or she, an Australian in London in mixed English speaking company, is (at least unconsciously) not sure herself where her immediate identifications lie. This is of significance as one of the features of the show is the juxtaposition, always pointed up by the host in order to generate talk, of ‘Things British’ vs. ‘Things American’, with the implication that panellists and studio audience will affiliate accordingly in disputes. However, as the topic here is one of international interest, such alignments may play no immediate part in the dispute, but prior alignments in the show’s talk may have some slight influence on her affiliations. The point here is that, taking such points into consideration, even EM herself displays uncertainty.

8 Humour in Context: The Thatcher Joke>

8.2 The Discussants>

8.2.1 Different Competence In A Domain Of Discourse>

8.2.2 Assessing Competence In The Details Of Talk>

8.2.3 Non-engrossed Recipients>

8.2.4 Heterogeneity Of The On-Stage Audience

8.2.5 Audience Interpretation Of The Story>

8.2.6 Reconstituting The On-Stage Audience>

Contents>