Thursday, 30 May 2019

Like, it's just like a joke, no?


If you’ve spent even a day casually browsing the Internet, you’re probably aware of the stereotypes of a 'typical white girl'. She goes to Starbucks, she wears Uggs, she dyes her hair blonde and straightens it... it’s a similar concept across Anglophone spheres.

Not pictured: the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

There are, of course, language features associated with the stereotypical white girl too. And in this paper, Tyanna Slobe, a linguistic anthropologist, wanted to investigate how three different online performances utilised these resources to create their mock white girl characters. This relies on a concept known as indexicality – when certain groups use a particular feature more often, it can become associated with that group. For example, the use of the word like is often indexed with young people, as they have led the trend for it being used as a discourse marker.

Slobe also situated her work in the context of two different ideological perspectives. One is that of how mocking certain linguistic resources can perpetuate stigma against them: the language associated with white girls is often used to dismiss them as vacuous or unintelligent, and exploiting those resources can perpetuate that stereotype. On the other hand, they can be knowingly exploited in order to critique hegemonic identities in society. In the case of the stereotypical white girl, the identity can be satirised in order to point out the glaring omission of women of colour in cultural notions of femininity, and the problematic opinions that white women often hold.

Slobe looked at three different performances. One is a genre she describes as Saviour, a form of performance to encourage superficial notions of gender equality. One comes from the popular Sh*t white girls say Youtube series, looking specifically at two videos that discuss what white girls say to black and Latina girls. The third is from the social media platform Vine’s series  Teenage girl problems, where the white girl character is performed in a way that mocks her stereotypical concerns.
Two of these performances contribute to further stigmatisation of the character. One example that Slobe gives of the Saviour genre is an interview with Lake Bell, who adopts creaky voice – where the vocal cords are compressed so that less air passes through them and they vibrate less frequently – to discuss what she calls a “sexy baby virus”. Through performing this voice and indexing it in such a way, she means to imply that young white girls performing these stereotypically feminine vocal traits are responsible for the sexism they encounter in the work place, and the attitudes towards such language. Similarly, in the Teenage girl problems Vine, his performance of the white girl uses exaggerated gestures, eye rolling, and creaky voice to contrast the slow and carefully articulated male character, whilst performing trivial and irrational concerns. By indexing the communicative cues with the concerns, the Vine star portrays an ideological stance that ultimately stigmatises girlhood.

On the other hand, the Sh*t white girls say videos use the persona in a critical way. Franchesca Ramsay, the creator of Sh*t white girls say to black girls, also uses creaky voice to highlight parts of the white girl’s dialogue, but particularly to draw attention to the character’s racism, such as when she describes hair texture that feels like a “Brillo pad”. Similarly, she uses the right? tag question associated with white girl speech to highlight the affirmation the character wants for a racist statement. By specifically parodying the racist elements of the character, these resources satirise the white girl’s behaviour as an embodiment of na├»ve racism.

Ultimately, there are a number of ideological stances that the white girl character can be used for. So next time you see a meme featuring the character, you could think to yourself about what stance is being adopted, and what ideologies are being perpetuated or criticised as a result.

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Slobe, Tanyanna (2018). Style, stance, and social meaning in mock white girl. Language in Society 47(4): 541-567.

doi:10.1017/S004740451800060X

This summary was written by Marina Merryweather