Gender, Sex and Gossip in Ambridge

Cover of Gender, Sex and Gossip in Ambridge

Women in the Archers

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Table of contents

(18 chapters)

Prelims

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Preface

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Section One – Inside Ambridge

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Abstract

The introduction of female writers to The Archers in 1975 brought a new perspective to the programme, revitalising its profile and cementing its place in the British psyche. This ‘feminisation’ of the programme was an important turning point for the women of Ambridge with increasing focus on issues important to them. This chapter argues that until this time storylines had tended to position women in the background of farming life, their identities shaped solely in terms of their relationships with the men of the village, as homemakers, carers and love-interests. The new band of female writers meant that the women of Ambridge were able to emerge as fully-rounded characters in their own right, as professionals, farmers, business women and matriarchs, at the forefront of village life. It goes on to discuss the character and function of Susan Carter, from the writer's perspective of both a research psychologist and the actor who plays Susan. It is argued that Susan utilises gossip not only as a tool with which to create interpersonal alliances and cement friendships but also to enhance her damaged self-worth and increase her status and power as a fount of all Ambridge knowledge.

Section Two – Women’s Talk: Informal Information Networks that Sustain the Village

Abstract

As the foremost gossip in Ambridge, Susan Carter can lay claim to being the most powerful character in The Archers. Ridiculed for her social aspirations, Susan is bolstered by her proximity to the world of privilege through her son’s marriage to Alice Aldridge and her husband’s status as chairman of the parish council. Within the village, Susan is both feared and ridiculed, giving her an ambivalent status in the narrative, yet she is pivotal in her role at the heart of the ‘information superhighway’ of gossip within the community. Her role is tantamount to that of a Greek chorus, commenting on and judging the actions of her acquaintances, her position aided by her job as manager of the village shop, at the heart of village dealings. This chapter situates Susan within the tradition of gossips in British popular culture, exploring discourses centring on middle-aged femininities and working-class cultures. I will examine how Susan’s character is informed by the comic tradition of the unruly working-class matriarch, who is both strong and powerful, yet whose excessive talk reinforces the social divide that she longs to overcome.

Abstract

Gossip is part of everyday life and can play an important role in society. It has been part of human communication since we started to talk and is common to communities around the world. Evidence of gossip adorned the walls of ancient tombs in Egypt, and advice against gossiping can be found in the words of King Solomon in the Old Testament, in the theses of Greek philosophers, and in proverbs from all cultures. Yet gossip continues to be all around us, and most of our conversation time involves some form of it. Despite this, those who initiate gossip are often derided for being gossip mongers, and not without good reason. At its worst, gossip can destroy reputations and businesses, be used as a form of bullying, and cause a great deal of distress. In this chapter, however, I focus on why and how gossip is used and the purpose it serves in village life. Ambridge resident Susan Carter is a renowned gossip with high, unsubtle output compared to other villagers. I look at Susan's gossiping at both a psychosocial level and in terms of benefits she may gain. I also discuss gossip at the village level from two perspectives. I explore the importance of gossip to village life based upon peer reviewed literature, and relate these findings to the comings and goings of the residents of Ambridge. I then also look at how gossip is needed to relay storylines to the listeners. Finally, social media has helped to bring together Archers fans who like nothing more than to spend hours gossiping about their favourite villagers and berating Susan for her tittle-tattle. Yet The Archers wouldn't exist without gossip, so maybe we should be grateful to Susan and carry on gossiping.

Abstract

In a village where the (audible) population is fairly evenly split between men and women, where most women of working age are employed or run their own business, where women are even (gasp!) in the cricket team, surely they have better things to talk about than the men in their lives? How often do the women of Ambridge talk about things that aren't the men of Ambridge? And when they do, how long does the conversation last? The Bechdel–Wallace Test was created by Alison Bechdel in her webcomic Dykes to Watch Out For (1985), in which a character says that she will only watch a film that has at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. It is sometimes used as a simplistic measure of the lack of representation (not only of women) in the media. This chapter reports on five months of eavesdropping in Ambridge, using the Bechdel–Wallace Test to investigate gender bias in the Borsetshire countryside. The data show that one-third of the episodes during this period passed the test, while another third did not contain any conversations between women at all. The results include how often individual women speak to other women, which pairs converse most frequently and the main topics of conversation during the analysis period.

Abstract

The Archers is a much-loved soap opera which relies entirely on audio outputs: on actors speaking and listeners listening. Despite this, many silent characters populate the drama. In fact, from Rosaline in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Godot in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and not forgetting Tracey the barmaid in Eastenders, silent characters have long played a crucial role in dramatic productions, an influence all the more acutely felt if they are unseen as well as unheard. Therefore, using key examples of silent characters, and with reference to Freda Fry in particular, I discuss the expanding role and influence of the silent characters in The Archers. In addition, by invoking philosophies of language and silence, I will suggest they have an influence and potency in the storylines that speaking actors should envy, and that Freda Fry reigns supreme over all others.

Section Three – Gendered Expectations: Within the Home

Abstract

This paper reflects on the divorce between The Archers Shula and Alistair Hebden Lloyd. It considers in particular Shula’s main reason for the separation (‘I just don’t love you anymore’) and her inability to explain any further (‘It’s just how I feel’). It does so by bringing Shula in conversation with the British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who was an avid listener to The Archers. Love is for Murdoch a moral virtue, though she is also aware of its trappings. I shall use the recent scholarly debate on the love in Murdoch’s work to help Shula reflect on her claim.

Abstract

This chapter asks, how do the decisions made by Ambridge women compare to the rest of the UK when faced with an unexpected positive pregnancy test, and will explore the decisions made by four Ambridge women when faced with the question of their own pregnancies. It will firstly present the UK context of pregnancy and family composition and go on to examine four case studies of unplanned pregnancy, the decision-making process encountered and its outcomes in BBC Radio 4’s The Archers.

Abstract

Interrogating the networks in Ambridge can lead to a focus on kinship and familial relationships or various other forms of power and authority. This chapter focusses on the ways that civil society networks are mobilised in the village, exploring how far they are orientated towards social stability and maintenance of the status quo or towards social change. These motivations have been subjected through the collection of vignettes into an innovative social forces analysis through which the internal and external motivations of women in volunteer and informal roles are categorised as being characterised by, variously, self-reliance solidaristic activism as characterised by Lady Bountiful/NIMBYism and lastly benign (p)maternalism. These motivations are all seen in the high levels of subtly gendered activity undertaken in the informal realm (beyond the structures of family or contractual relationships) whereby community power can truly be viewed as a form of ‘women’s work’.

Abstract

This chapter will argue that the representation of mental illness in The Archers is unrepresentative in a number of ways. Sufferers of long-term mental health problems are not portrayed in the programme and mental illness is often used as a narrative device, leading to a bias towards circumstantial, single-episode mental ill health storylines. This chapter will also cover the portrayal of Helen Archer’s mental health during and after suffering emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, arguing that it suffers from a number of shortcomings.

Section Four – Gendered Expectations: Beyond the Home

Abstract

This chapter discusses portrayals of attitudes towards and experiences of gender and sexuality diversity in The Archers and discusses the role of media in shaping social change. Using existing data on attitudes across the UK, a survey was developed for The Archers’ audience to measure listener perceptions of key character attitudes. The survey findings are compared against the UK data. Broadly, the audience perceived characters in The Archers as reflecting a similar attitudinal spread to the UK. However, irrespective of attitudes, within The Archers, there is a lack of representation of the experiences of gender diversity or alternative forms of sexuality. In conclusion, I argue The Archers could do more to drive social change by featuring a wider range of gender diversity and non-heteronormative queer experiences.

Abstract

In 1976, in a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, Prime Minister James Callaghan asked ‘Why is it that such a high proportion of girls abandon science before leaving school?’ (Gillard, 2018). Little has changed over the last 40 years; a recent report from the National Audit Office (2018, p. 28) stated that only 8% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) apprenticeships were taken up by women in 2016/2017 and that the shortage of STEM skills in the workforce is a key UK economic problem. However, just as the Aldridge marriage has been the source of considerable interest and the site of significant financial investment in terms of designer kitchens and expensive holidays, so has the issue of ‘girls in science’ been a consistently debated topic and taken up a large chunk of government and industry spending. Research (Archer et al., 2013) suggests that although children enjoy their science experiences in school, too few pupils aspire to a STEM career. It reveals that the pupils most likely to aspire to careers in science are those whose families have high ‘science capital’ which ‘refers to the science-related qualifications, understanding, knowledge (about science and “how it works”), interest and social contacts (e.g. “knowing someone who works in a science-related job”)’ (Archer et al., 2016, p. 3).

Episodes of The Archers are full of scientific talk, from herbal leys to plate meters. This chapter looks at how the science capital in Ambridge is shared. Why is Alice Carter an engineer and not Emma Grundy? Will Kiera Grundy choose physics A level? Who are the female STEM role models? How can the concept of science capital help us to understand the career paths of Ambridge residents? Will the young girls of Ambridge remedy the gender imbalance in STEM careers?

Abstract

Women roared into the Ambridge Cricket Team in March 2017. Their debut was initiated by a shortage of male players and a belief that the team was at risk, rather than an inherent desire to include women in the game. The approach of the women very much reflected the sentiments of the Helen Reddy ‘I am Woman’ song of the 1970s, ‘I am woman, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore’, which became an anthem for empowerment of women in that generation. This chapter describes the context of cricket and sport in England and a synopsis of the 2017 storyline surrounding the Ambridge Cricket Team. A comparison of the storyline with the wider context shows the experience in Ambridge is similar to other places in England and elsewhere.

Abstract

Upcycling was introduced in The Archers by Fallon Rogers, who created a business from selling furniture she had upcycled. The author cites other examples from Archers episodes: Bert Fry’s egg mobile was originally an old caravan. Eddie Grundy built Lynda Snell’s shepherd’s hut from farmyard scrap. Josh Archer expanded his online farm equipment sales to include old items refurbished and sold for profit. Definitions of upcycling imply that the original item has become worthless. The author, however, includes examples of nostalgic value placed on relics of a bygone age and suggests a dichotomy between the values of older versus younger Ambridge residents. Upcycling can also be viewed in a metaphorical sense: Lilian Bellamy, for example, regularly upcycled herself with cosmetic assistance. The most sinister example is that of Rob Titchener, who used coercive control to upcycle Helen (then) Titchener into the image he wanted. The author concludes that while motives may take several forms, it is Fallon Rogers who consistently uses both creativity and business sense in her upcycling endeavours.

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Index

Pages 197-201
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Cover of Gender, Sex and Gossip in Ambridge
DOI
10.1108/9781787699458
Publication date
2019-02-19
Editors
ISBN
978-1-78769-948-9
eISBN
978-1-78769-945-8