By Bérengère Sim Remember that moment in the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign when Yes pulled ahead of No in an opinion poll? 51% and 49% respectively? You know, when international media finally woke up and turned its undivided (and rather biased) attention to that small country in the north of the United Kingdom. That moment, right then, was David Cameron’s panic room moment. Chaos ensued at Westminster, the race to get to Scotland was set in motion – it was all hands on board – this revolt must end.
In the campaign for Scottish independence, I also had a similar moment. Not the same as Cameron of course, but it was a moment of panic nonetheless. I have avidly followed the debates leading up to the 18th of September 2014, being half Scottish and having spent four years studying at University in Scotland. This, naturally, meant a lot to me. I ate, spoke, and breathed it. Back to my panic moment - mine was not political so to speak – it did not change my opinion but it shocked and infuriated me: the root of the problem? The video published by the Better Together campaign. It does not matter whether I am a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ person because this transcends politics; it is about gender.
I must start at the start – with a bit of context. On Wednesday August 27th 2014, the Better Together campaign – team pro UK– published a video titled “The woman who made up her mind”. This video was aimed at allegedly undecided female voters and focuses on supposedly key issues concerning them in the lead up to the referendum. If you have not seen it yet, I strongly encourage you to watch it. Not because it is a masterpiece worthy of an Oscar – quite the contrary – but mainly so that you can understand my confusion and incomprehension.
Before I delve into my analysis of the video itself, I must explain why I wanted to do this. Humans like dichotomies: we like splitting things in two; it is neat and tidy and efficient. There is black and there is white; there is good and there is evil; there is masculine and there is feminine; there is public and there is private. The words, or discourse, we use in different contexts have connotations: David Cameron choosing to say “calm down dear” to a female MP during an exchange at the House of Commons in April 2011 is a perfect example. The use of the term “dear”, a pet name used in a private and often familial setting, is extremely patronising and makes her argument seem frivolous. Let’s face it: would he have said the same words had it been a male MP who was objecting to his point?
This process of picking apart the words used, how they are transmitted to the public and the effects they then have on society as a whole is called Critical Discourse Analysis. By using this as a tool to examine a newspaper article, a song or, in this case, a video, the construction of social and political realities becomes apparent through the structure of discourse.
I could probably write an entire dissertation on this so I will stick to a few main issues: the first being that our protagonist is sitting in the kitchen. Seeing as she is in the kitchen, I can safely assume she is in her home, which is a private sphere. In politics – and here I go back to dichotomies – it is important to understand that traditionally the public sphere is a masculine domain while the private sphere is a feminine one. Indeed, the fact that she is in the kitchen, surrounded by her children’s drawings, a lone toy car and her husband, Paul’s, leftover cereal emphasises this. The choice of location is vital in the portrayal of a character.
This brings me neatly to my second point: her monologue. The references embedded in the script are also crucial in the construction of a particular social reality. She launches into her speech over a cuppa explaining that Paul is “worse than the telly” and annoyed her again about the referendum. The direct link to politics is thus her husband (do not forget – politics is a masculine domain). She refers to Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, as “that guy off the telly” implying she does not really pay attention. The colloquial and almost aloof way in which she brings this up makes it appear like a frivolous matter denying her of her ability to participate actively and as an individual in this debate. It is serious that this campaign portrays their main character as a woman unaware of the name of the political figure leading the referendum.
It is clear there is a focus on family throughout the video. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it appears to be her sole argument: could oil insure “Mum and Dad’s pension”? What about the kid’s school and the local hospital? Indeed, she does not mention how her job could be affected, which is an important aspect in the independence debate. This is complemented by the zoom in on her wedding ring (0:54 and 2:19) and the focus on photos of the family (1:44). By focusing on a woman’s role as a mother, it distracts from the political reasoning behind her actions. Her decision resolves around the family cell and not as an individual.
The implications of all of the different layers of discourse mentioned above send across a strong gendered message. I believe any woman, Scottish or not, should be worried that a political campaign would publish a video adding to a misleading social construction that a woman, any woman, in her role as a mother, is simply too busy to vote, too confused by it all and should therefore make a hasty decision about a key political decision in her country to ensure that her husband stops badgering her about it. It may seem like a small thing, but we need to change the discourse in our everyday lives as part of the larger societal changes we hope to instigate. This stereotypical kind of discourse reiterates and strengthens social and political constructions that go against what we set out to defeat. Think about it: would you put a man at a kitchen table, have him rattle on about how his wife keeps bothering him about the referendum – “Paul, have you decided yet?” –, have him refer to the First Minister of the country as “that man off the telly” and then come to a rapid (about two minutes long to be precise) and visibly uncalculated conclusion that, actually, he might as well vote no because it seems like the best decision to make when he is busy and has other things to worry about.