Tag: pragmatics

“Building a thick skin for each other” The use of ‘reading’ as an interactional practice of mock impoliteness in drag queen backstage talk

Years ago at a New Year’s drag show, the queen hosting the event said of me and a couple friends,  “Look at these trashy whores from Virginia!” as we took some seats near the stage. I was mortified, but my bold friend tried to avenge our honor, “We live in DC!” The drag queen clapped back by mocking her outfit. This was my first experience being on the receiving end of a drag queen’s withering remarks, and as three straight women in a gay bar angling for good seats to the show, we had it coming.

‘Reading’ & Mock Impoliteness

If you have been to (or performed in) a drag show, you have likely witnessed or experienced the hilarious and creative insults skillfully employed by drag queens. Sean McKinnon of Indiana University takes us on a linguistic journey of this practice in his paper “Building a thick skin for each other” The use of ‘reading’ as an interactional practice of mock impoliteness in drag queen backstage talk (2017).  

If you are not steeped in drag queen culture, you may not be familiar with the practice of ‘reading.’ Who better to tell us what it means than a crowdsourced dictionary by fans of drag queen royalty, RuPaul?  

read

  1. v. To wittily and incisively expose a person’s flaws (i.e. “reading them like a book”), often exaggerating or elaborating on them; an advanced format of the insult. The term is a reference to the film Paris is Burning.
  2. n. Criticism made to a drag queen.

McKinnon’s work situates ‘reading’ in sociopragmatic theories of politeness and impoliteness. Reading, which definitionally includes an element of truth, straddles mock impoliteness and genuine impoliteness depending on relationship and context. McKinnon focuses on in-group reading and identifies it as an interactional practice for the purpose of building a tolerance to cruelty through mock impoliteness while noting that the same insults from an out-group member would qualify as genuine impoliteness.

Like that time in Mean Girls when Janice said Damian was too gay to function and it was funny, but when Cady repeated it to the Plastics and they sneered and wrote it in the Burn Book, and Cady was like ‘Oh shit maybe it’s only okay if Janice says it,’ and then the Burn Book was distributed to the whole school, and Damian saw it, and Janice was all indignant and was like ‘That’s only okay if I say it!’

It’s like that, guys. In-group, out-group. Know your place.

In-Group

Out-Group

The Research

The majority of existing research into how drag queens use language has analyzed language used during performance, in interviews, or from media. This paper is unique because McKinnon was able to record and transcribe almost 3 hours of backstage talk between 4 drag queens before and during a local drag holiday show.

His research also included an interview with Eva, the show director and hostess of show, who was one of the drag queens backstage. When McKinnon asked her about a particular interaction backstage, she brought up reading unprompted saying, “Reading is about finding something that you know the other person is kind of self-conscious about, and picking on that. In a playful way.” She later elaborated, “and it’s supposed to be funny, reading is supposed to be funny and creative. And that’s the thing, it’s not like “oh girl well you’re a bitch and you’re ugly,” that’s not reading, that’s just being rude.”

McKinnon straight up inquired if Eva thought the purpose of reading was to build in-group solidarity, a theory posited in other mock impoliteness research. She responded that she believed it was to “build a thick skin” (Hence the title of the paper. Thanks, girl!) because of the ostracism and slurs they receive from the out-group for being “over feminized” or a drag queen at all. In this case, the out-group in question is the broader gay community. Through Eva’s interview and the literature review on mock impoliteness, McKinnon conceptualizes the backstage as a safe space for drag queens to dish out and take insults in preparation for unsafe spaces.

McKinnon goes through numerous examples from the backstage talk transcripts and categorized each insult as personalized negative assertion, personalized negative vocative, personalized negative reference, pointed criticism, condescension, or unpalatable supposition (Culpeper, 2011).

(This is a personalized negative vocative, btw.)

He provides analysis and context from other parts of the transcript to demonstrate how the criticism was frequently something the drag queen was already self-conscious about.

He also identifies how the insults are perceived by the target as “allowable offenses” by identifying laughter, vocalization patterns, and cooperative turn-taking in the recordings thus demonstrating how they are mock impoliteness and not genuine impoliteness. Many of the topics (appearance, performance, etc.) the drag queens used to insult each other are also topics that they might receive criticism on from the out-group. McKinnon points this out as evidence for Eva’s assertion that reading serves to build a thick skin.

Conclusion

By taking a deep dive into the talk used in this intimate setting of a drag queen community this paper is able to offer up a nuance to the academic definition of reading. A read should target something the receiving drag queen is aware of and self-conscious about, so that it can accomplish the goal of building a thicker skin and arming her against the world. This paper applies mock impoliteness frameworks to show that developing in-group solidarity is not the whole story in why drag queens talk trash to each other.

Check the paper out for yourself if you’re a bish interested in queer linguistics or a pragmatics bish. (The transcripts alone are worth it.)


Culpeper, Jonathan. 2011. Impoliteness: Using Language to Cause Offence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511975752

McKinnon, S. (2017). “Building a thick skin for each other” The use of ‘reading’ as an interactional practice of mock impoliteness in drag queen backstage talk. Journal of Language and Sexuality, 6(1),90–127. doi 10.1075/jls.6.1.04mck

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Police interviews with vulnerable people alleging sexual assault: Probing inconsistency and questioning conduct

This paper examines actual police interviews with people with intellectual disabilities reporting sexual assault. Focusing on probing inconsistencies in the victim’s account with pragmatically difficult questions, Antaki, C., Richardson, E., Stokoe, E., & Willott, S. attempt to determine how well officers follow recommended interview guidelines.

It is known that cops have taken insensitive lines of questioning with victims of sexual assault and rape. Stories of victims being asked what they were wearing or if they’d be drinking or other irrelevant questions about the context of their attack are as common as they are infuriating.

Implying fault and questioning the victim’s conduct is not only demoralizing to a person who is already feeling guilt, shame, and fear. Worse, it discredits the victim’s statement for judicial processing. And that’s just for intellectually typical victims who may have the language processing skills to be able to clarify details and defend themselves.

People with intellectual disabilities have even more obstacles to overcome. They are more likely to be victims of abuse and violence, less likely to succeed in prosecuting their assaulters, and suffer greater emotional and psychological distress after the event to boot. This paper doesn’t specify what is meant by “intellectual disability,” except to say that those with intellectual disabilities, learning, or psychiatric problems, can struggle to communicate, function socially, and to read pragmatic linguistic clues (head to the ever current and informative Conscious Style Guide for a brush-up on terms).

Antaki et. al. generously point out that police are in a tough place because they need to be able to present a statement for the victim’s defense in court. This means they need to obtain a clear account of events from a recently traumatized person who may have a hard time discussing their assault or remembering it clearly. If that person also struggles with communication and social functioning, it can be even more difficult to compile a coherent series of events. Toss in a little difficulty reading pragmatic linguistic clues like non-literal expressions and hypothetical and indirect questions (you know, things that exist in typical conversations and interviews) and then think about how well those interviews go.

You might be thinking that given the frequency and severity of sexual assault, cops are probably trained to interview victims. Well, ya… kinda. The police in this study are advised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to have training for interviewing those with intellectual disabilities and they provide a general guide to help with that. The guide points out that inconsistencies and omissions are usually caused by the interviewer jumping to conclusions. They indicate that cops should never voice suspicion, call the witness a liar, or challenge them directly. The guide is not specific to those with intellectual disabilities, however, and there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism for tracking how well the guide is followed let alone how well it works for those with intellectual disabilities.

The focus of this study is to determine how well actual police interviews adhere to this guide when interviewing people with intellectual disabilities, especially in probing the inconsistencies with pragmatically difficult questions. Evidence was gathered from 19 interviews with people with what the English police force called “learning disabilities” reporting sexual assault or rape. Of the 19 only 3 of them went to court, and only 2 succeeded in getting a guilty verdict.

 

RESULTS

Spoiler alert, there were departures from the guidelines. Mainly in areas the guide explicitly advised against. They were a) implying the story made no sense or was very unlikely or b) implying the witness’ behavior was to blame. These implications involve complex pragmatics that may be difficult for those with intellectual disabilities to process.

Basically, these questions present a logical problem that requires extra processing that people with intellectual disabilities might not be able to handle. Hypothetical phrasings like “If it was raining, why didn’t you bring an umbrella?” cast doubt and indicate failure to do something appropriate, but the interviewee may not pick up on that. Hypothetical questions also require the interviewee to process something that did not happen and is not a part of their memory. On top of that, they need to see that their conduct was unexpected or wrong and detect the implication of blame in order to defend themselves and their credibility. Complicated.

These types of questions challenge the victim’s conduct and truthfulness. This is exactly what the interviewers are asked not to do. The extra stress added by these questions can even impede memory which is why answers to these challenging questions frequently are “I don’t know.” This is a problematic answer since a person is expected to know why they do what they do. Being unable to explain one’s actions is a credibility nightmare.

 

Discussion

As the guide says, asking why causes more problems than it fixes. It promotes the feeling of blame when victims often already blame themselves.

And while it is tough for interviewers because they have to record a first-hand statement as evidence for court and check for inconsistencies and vagueness, in order to serve the victim well, the guidelines need to be taken seriously and adherence to them needs to be monitored.

Without very rigorous training and a high level of language competence, it is unlikely that a police officer, or anyone, would have the skills to identify the pragmatic aspects of their own speech or to consider the pragmatic capacity of those with intellectual disabilities.

Even though this study is based on a small sample size, Antaki et al. recommend avoiding probing especially with the hypothetical “Why didn’t you X?”. That seems reasonably obvious, but beyond that there needs to be a robust system for identifying the needs of a victim. Descriptions made by the police of the victim’s disability were cursory. Labels like “learning disability” or “deaf” aren’t helpful or informed assessments.

Finally, interviewing is a skill and those doing it need to be highly trained to serve the victim and their specific needs. That could mean teaching some basic pragmatics to officers so they can avoid complex logical problems, bringing experienced linguists onto the force, or other better ideas I haven’t thought of. The actual application of applied linguistics to interviews could be the difference between putting a sex-offender behind bars or back on the street.

This article is great for pragmatics and sociolinguistics bishes or bishes interested in discourse analysis. There’s even a fun smidgen of Wh-movement and NPI licensing for my syntax bishes.


Antaki, C., Richardson, E., Stokoe, E., & Willott, S. (2015). Police interviews with vulnerable people alleging sexual assault: Probing inconsistency and questioning conduct. Journal of Sociolinguistics,19(3), 328-350. doi:10.1111/josl.12124

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