Thursday, September 17, 2009

Just one word: "skank"

by Chloe Angyal

If you’ve never seen an episode of the TV show Neighbours, I’m not at all surprised. As its spelling suggests, Neighbours is an Australian show that, as far as I know, is only popular, in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. That’s the extent of its market. An extra vowel can kill you that way.

Neighbours is Australia’s longest-running nightly soap-opera. Every night at 6:30pm, it chronicles, in 22-minute installments, the tumultuous lives of the residents of Ramsay Street in Melbourne. A list of former Ramsay Street residents would include Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce, Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia and House’s Jesse Spencer (on whom I had an enormous crush circa 1996).

I haven’t watched the show in several years, partly because I left Australia in 2005 and partly because I prefer to watch shows that are intentionally comedic rather than inadvertently hilarious. My sister, on the other hand, lives in London, where Neighbours is hugely popular and where each episode airs two or three times in one night. This week, finding ourselves at home in Sydney, we sat down together to watch an episode of Australia’s national televisual treasure.

I was prepared for the bad acting, the overzealous extras and the Facebook-centered high school drama plotlines. I wasn’t prepared to hear the word “skank” twice in the first ten minutes of dialogue. This was not the Neighbours I remembered.

In both instances, the character uttering the word was a female high school student. And in both cases, unsurprisingly, she was using it to describe another female high school student. In neither case was the word used to describe the young woman’s sexual life or level of sexual activity, as the words “skank” and its slightly more objectionable sister “slut” often are. Rather, it was used as a catch-all or short hand to describe the young woman’s general dislikeability. It was used to cast aspersions on her character more generally, rather as one might use “mean” or, if one weren’t in a prime time slot, “bitch” (I’ll return to this in a moment).

Is this how the script writers at Neighbours imagine young people talk? Is this, like their use of Facebook in plotlines, their attempt to keep the show relevant to their high school audience members? Or has the word “skank” simply become so mainstream and inoffensive that they see nothing objectionable about putting it in the mouths of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old characters during a 6:30pm time slot?

Either way, I would argue that the situation is cause for concern. After all, the word’s history is less than pleasant; until just a few years ago, when it began cropping up everywhere, including in prime time, “skank” essentially carried the same meaning as “slut.” And to many people’s understanding, it still does. Today, even more so than slut, “skank” carries with it the slight sense that the skanky person is dirty and tainted, either as a result of sexual activity, or for some other reason. It’s for this reason that “skank,” despite its more sexual past, has become shorthand for “unlikeable” or “bitch.”

If, as I suggested earlier, the word “skank” is being used to denote general dislikeability, this is similarly problematic. Given that the word is usually used to describe a woman’s sexual life, to use the term as shorthand for the rest of her life seems less than ideal. In fact, it seems like an example of the phenomenon described by Jessica Valenti in The Purity Myth, whereby a woman’s sexual life – her skankiness, or lack thereof, one might say – comes to represent her value as a person. This not only represents a traditional gendered double standard (men’s sexual lives rarely affect our judgments of their likeability), it’s also a rather unproductive way of assessing a woman’s value as a human being. Is she smart? Is she hardworking? Is she attractive? Who cares: the girl’s a skank.

Regardless of the word’s precise current meaning, do we really want to be mainstreaming and modeling the practice of young women calling each other skanks? To paraphrase Tina Fey’s character in Mean Girls, calling each other sluts and whores (or skanks) just makes it acceptable for guys to call us sluts, whores and skanks. If women accept and adopt this model of talking about women, what message are we sending to men?

Of course, one episode and two “skanks” do not a trend make. But my sister, who is a regular viewer of the show, was unsurprised by the use of the word, which suggests that what I observed yesterday is not an uncommon phenomenon. Similarly, to take Neighbours as representative of the state of Australian youth culture is to overstate the importance of the show and to level an unnecessary insult at the young people of my homeland.

That said, the repeated appearance of “skank” in this episode raises interesting questions, ones that can only be answered by closer observation of the show – all in the name of research, of course. It looks like I’ve found my newest guilty pleasure.

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