Academic journal article Hecate

The Uses of Gossip: Women's Writing, Soaps and Everyday Exchange

Academic journal article Hecate

The Uses of Gossip: Women's Writing, Soaps and Everyday Exchange

Article excerpt

Where does a paper on gossip come from? The topic of gossip has emerged from our various work teaching women's writing and teaching about melodrama and soap operas, in both of which gossip features routinely as theme, as narrative device, as character, and also as an object of inquiry in critical writing on these two textual domains. Our shared pedagogic focus on everyday cultural practices and how they help organise social relations, particularly the gendered social relations in which people live, is another source of our intellectual and political interest in gossip. In fact, it is probably most useful to situate the examples of literary writing by women and soap operas as two broad generic sites of this everyday cultural practice, marked out by the particular institutions and practices of `literature' and `television,' but not bounded off in any ontological sense from non-textual occasions of gossip; rather, gossip in novels and soaps, as well as gossip in its other media forms (newspaper columns, TV chat shows, magazines and fanzines and so on) can be thought of as adjacent to the gossip we encounter in the pub, in the kitchen, in the workplace, spoken, perhaps written as graffiti, perhaps as memos. In other words, our interest in gossip in women's writing and in soaps is not as a picturing of what happens in the real world, but as a particular, integral part of that real world.

Another source is an empirical accumulation of materials theorising and/or commenting on gossip. We have inherited this topic from a diversity of other writers and theorists of the media; a feminist literary theorist; a right-wing libertarian literary critic; a university psychologist; a social anthropologist; a cultural studies writer analysing anthropological discourse; a professor of communication and media studies theorising oral culture, academics and writers reviewing parts of this body of work in newspapers, and so on. We consider that this body of material is worthy of investigation for the lines of argument it proposes and that, from there, something else may be said. So this paper takes the form of, first, a tabling of some of the things that have been written about gossip, beginning with some literary examples, and then a suggestion of somewhat different ways of analysing what dictionaries such as the Macquarie and the more commonsensical Reader's Digest define, respectively, as "idle talk, especially about the affairs of others" and "easy unconstrained talk or writing, especially about persons or social incidents." These definitions establish the twentieth-century sense of the word that meant, much earlier, "godparent."

Like dominant social classifications of masculinity and femininity and of sanity and madness, a major and understudied theme of a range of literary writing by women has been the uses and effects of gossip. Gossip is usually and pejoratively ascribed to `feminine' culture, but much women's literary writing indicates that gossip is a powerful use of discourse deployed by males to perpetuate the subordination of women. This is not to say that much women's literary writing does not also suggest that gossip can be used, particularly between women characters, as a form of resistance to patriarchal social relations. We do not have to go far to find examples of both kinds.

Thea Astley's A Descant for Gossips (1960) presents, amongst other things, a fictive demonstration of the individuating and destructive effects of speculative gossip on particular relations within a country town. In Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) Deniel Cosway's gossipy letter to Rochester is structurally central to the novel and activates the senses of class, gender, social and cultural difference that Rochester uses to oppress, `subjectivate' and eventually destroy Antoinette. Similarly, in Radclyffe Hall's novel The well of Loneliness (1928), Stephen Gordon's `sexual inversion' is revealed to her mother in a gossipy letter from a socially prestigious acquaintance with devastating effects for Steven's access to the country estate she loves. …

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