Monday, 25 April 2011

The slappers and the slaphead: the role of discourse in the reproduction of sexism

This post attempts to show how sexism is reproduced in language.  It takes the example of sexist language used by Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You, broadcast on BBC1, Friday 22nd April.  The programme in concern might still be viewable at  I have complained to the BBC Trust about Hislop’s language and will post their reply.  The complaint refers to language used in the sequence starting 0:29:05.  This is a transcript of the subtitles provided by the BBC and the language of concern is emboldened and coloured red.  I appreciate that there are worse offenders and worse offences.  However, it might be considered that Hislop’s language plays its own part legitimizing those offenders and their worse offences.

In the episode in question Hislop described some unknown women as ‘slappers’.  A ‘slapper’ is defined in the OED as:

Brit. slang (derogatory). A promiscuous woman.
Freq. in old slapper.
See quot. 1990 for a postulated connection with Yiddish schlepper ‘unkempt, scruffy person; gossipy, dowdy woman’; however there is some gap in sense. Cf. also quot. 1854 at sense 1.

The cited quotations

1854 A. E. Baker Gloss. Northamptonshire Words,   Slapper,‥applied to persons and things, but most frequently to over-grown females.

1990    T. Thorne Bloomsbury Dict. Contemp. Slang 468/1   Slapper in British, a prostitute or slut. This working class term from East London and Essex is probably a corruption of shlepper or schlepper, a word of Yiddish origin, one of whose meanings is a slovenly or immoral woman.
Thorne’s Dictionary example from The Guardian 0n 13th April 2004 is particularly apposite in Hislop’s case.  Here the reference is to David Beckham’s affair with Rebecca Loos

’…it was either Posh's fault for being too thin and failing to follow her husband when he moved to Madrid; or it was Rebecca Loos's fault for being a slapper.’

The quotation is significant because of its apportion of blame.  It wasn’t the husband’s fault for not taking his wife with him, it wasn’t the husband’s fault for going without his wife, and it wasn’t the husband’s fault for getting involved with another woman. It simply wasn’t the man’s fault.  Conversely, it certainly was one of the women’s fault.  Dead simple – a necessary or unavoidable choice between black and white alternatives (OED, either, II.3.c.).  Furthermore, the pejorative is singularly applied to the other woman.  There is no label such as adulterer, deceiver, or liar, or the like.  These aren’t even pejoratives.  I’m not even sure if there is a slang pejorative that can be applied to men.  Even if there is it isn’t applied here and Hislop didn’t use it either.

This is a record of the subtitles provided by the BBC.  Where I could hear words not included in the subtitles I have inserted these in brackets.  The sequence starts at 21:12


RG – Rhod Gilbert
LB – Louise Bagshawe
IH – Ian Hislop
PM – Paul Merton


Time now for the odd-one-out round.
Just one between you this week and the four are:
A, B, C, and D.

You’ve got four blank faces, you cannot see who they are, you’re not allowed to know who they are,
they may or may not have done something with ladies who are not their wives, one of them definitely doesn’t rhyme with (eh) xxx
Even though he’s a footballer.
And, er, one of them might (or might) not …

Can someone call the police.
I’m sitting here next to a Conservative MP who’s trying to break a series of super-injunctions.
I’m absolutely appalled!
These gentlemen are perfectly entitled to privacy.
They may have slept with a bunch of slappers, all of them, without telling their wives, but that is entirely their own affair.
Whether they run banks or play football or act in popular television shows it’s none of your business!

Absolutely none of your business

Or have columns in newspapers.  Really!

Or indeed edit Private Eye.
Could be anybody.
Four people (who) were very disappointed at a photo-me booth
The answer is there is an odd-one-out but, for legal reasons, we can’t tell you which one or why.

Theoretically, might the odd-one-out be Sir Fred Goodwin because he was named by my colleague John Hemming in the House of Commons as being the subject of a super-injunction?
And because he said it, I can report that he said it.
Whether or not he was right, who’s to say?

I do.

I have no idea.

Yeah it was him.

He could’ve made it up out of thin air.

No, no, he tried to get a super-injunction.

I didn’t say that.

Mm. I did, though.

(Just) to put a bit of flesh on these rather vague bones

Yeah just tell us who they are.

Mr Justice Eady, (who’s been) at the centre of the most recent privacy cases, issued an unprecedented injunction to a TV star on Wednesday.
What was it?

It was that no-one could ever publish a photograph involving this person ever again, in any domain in the whole world ever.

Absolutely (right)

And nobody could mention it to their work colleagues, that there had to be total and utter privacy, throughout the galaxy, until time literally ends and Dr Brian Cox goes …

No, no it’s not against the galaxy.
He issued an injunction “against the world”

Judges are making up privacy laws as they see fit.
We don’t have a proper privacy law, which you lot in Parliament should’ve got round to but you haven’t.
And it’s time you did to stop judges just making it up as they go along.
Cos they inevitably balance freedom of the individual privacy against the press’s freedom of expression and, obviously, in the case of a load of slappers and footballers, it’s (pretty) arguable.
But (one day) a proper case will come along where we need to know what’s happening and we won’t be able to cos of these stupid injunctions

Critical Discourse Analysis

The reproduction of discourse positioning in language (such as sexism or racism) has, as van Dijk has identified, two major aspects: the direct enactment of the production of dominance by discursive means, and the consequences of this speech in the process and management of the public consensus on the particular affair, (2009, p.307).  In this post I’m going to attempt to briefly identify the dominant position from which Ian Hislop speaks, how this dominance is manifest in his use of ‘slapper’, and some of the possible consequences of his speech.  To try to achieve this I am deeply indebted to the principles of CDA as set out by Teun van Dijk.  I have followed his structure and his argument in the reproduction of racism.   Like his essay I have begun by setting out the various properties of the context and then go on to identify the properties of the text that reproduce sexism.

Access: Have I Got News For You is a very popular, and sometimes satirical, quiz show broadcast at peak viewing time on the flagship channel of the BBC.  It is one of the most popular programmes on BBC1 television.  The panellists, the host and particularly the resident team captains are therefore graced with access to a prestigious platform from which to speak.

Setting: Have I Got News For You was first broadcast on BBC2 before transferring to BBC1.  It might be concluded that this promotion indicates the BBC’s management consider the programme to be representative of the highest values of the organization.

Genre: Have I Got News For You is not simply a TV quiz show.  Its position in the BARB ratings identifies it as the most popular topical current affairs programme on the BBC.  It is not simply comedy.  Its ‘light-hearted’ satirical format means that it has access to a larger and, perhaps, wider audience than other quizzes or political/topical programmes on the BBC.

Communicative acts and social meaning:  At the interaction level the discourse of dominance takes place within the part of the programme where Ian takes the floor to take a satirical swipe at political malpractice, social hypocrisy etc.  Because of his position both as a team captain and as editor of Private Eye he is a respected social commentator.  The number of cases of libel does not detract the position of respect he holds.  Instead it could be argued that he is/was regularly taken to court because of his high-standing, the wit of his attacks, and the esteem in which he is held by his readers and the large number of regular viewers.

Participant positions and roles: The five participants in the programme on 22-04-11 were four males and one female.  Excluding Hislop the other males are considered to be comedians.  The single white female is a Conservative MP. None of the participants, on air, criticized Hislop’s discourse.  His categorization of the women as ‘slappers’ was heard/watched by millions of people and went unchallenged.  The women involved in the super-injunction case are denied not present and cannot challenge this labelling. There is no prescribed audience participation in Have I Got News For You and so even if they were present there ability to respond would be limited.  Furthermore, the limits of the super-injunction might have made them unable to speak a response.  Consequently, Hislop speaks from a socially dominant position. He makes use of this dominant position to satirize incompetence, inefficiency, corruption, pomposity or self-importance’.  His position within the BBC’s broadcasting schedule means that he is, or at least appears to, speak with the authority of the BBC.  I realise that this last claim is, perhaps, extravagant.  I grew up with the BBC News at 9pm. It was at 9pm that BBC1 television spoke to the world, and that time slot retains a symbolic power.  It would probably be more accurate to say that the BBC speaks through his position.

Speech acts:  Hislop’s speech consists mainly of assertions, and in performing the speech-act he accomplishes a verdictive performative.  It isn’t the case that Hislop is describing the women in question.  He labels them, categorizes them, passes judgement on them, and humiliates them

1. These gentlemen are perfectly entitled to their privacy. They may have slept with a bunch of slappers, all of them, without telling their wives, but that is entirely their own affair.

2. …they inevitably balance freedom of the individual privacy against the press’s freedom of expression and, obviously, in the case of a load of slappers and footballers, it’s (pretty) arguable.

The effectiveness of his speech act is its initial seclusion from open public criticism and the authoritative position from which Hislop speaks.  Initially he is protected because of where he offensively passes a verdict and judgement on the respective women but also because, in this particular instance, the women in question may not have legal recourse precisely because of the super-injunction that Hislop will later rail against.  The judgement made by Mr. Justice Eady in favour of the male individuals doesn’t extend to protecting the women involved from sexist pejoratives.  Hislop’s speech act not only reproduces the sexism of which he should know better but grants authority to cite him as authoritative reference.

Macrosemantics- topics:  Hislop contrasts the ‘slappers’ with two different nouns.  He firstly uses an ironic tone to imply that the ‘gentlemen’ were anything but gentlemen.  Such is the biting satire of Have I Got News For You.  Secondly, he then drops the irony to describe the men simply by an occupation.  Hislop’s normalisation technique derives some of its strength from its x and y construction: x is factual and y is factual.  In this latter case Hislop’s construction strives towards to normalise the existence of the ‘slappers’: some people are journalists, some people are footballers and some women are slappers.  In contrast what is normalised is the discourse of sexism.  Its values are accepted in a prestige BBC programme and go without comment – such is their normality – such is Hislop’s authority.  From the casual ill-thought remark to the weekend kick in the teeth Hislop discursively positions himself accordingly.
The topic of ‘the women’ need not occur.  Hislop could quite as easily have adopted a high moral tone and satirized the relationship whereby the offenders of a moral law seek the protection of the civil law.  Instead, the actions of the men are minimized via the emphasis of the loose moral behaviour of the other women. By redefining topic in terms of the women’s behaviour Hislop effectively translates his moral outrage into an assertion of the dominance of gender.


Judges are making up privacy laws as they see fit. We don’t have a proper privacy law which you lot in Parliament should’ve got round to but haven’t. And it’s time you did to stop judges just making it up as they go along. Cos they inevitably balance freedom of the individual privacy against the press’s freedom of expression and, obviously, in the case of a load of slappers and footballers, it’s (pretty) arguable.
But one day a proper case will come along where we need to know what’s happening and we won’t be able to cos of these stupid injunctions

The framing of the second insult is significant.  Hislop employs deixis to establish a community that suffers because of politicians’ inactivity.  He refers to a ‘we’ that is not the politicians although they too have no access to a privacy law that doesn’t exist.  The implication is that politicians would gain a super-injunction.  Hislop has consequently positioned himself on the side of the people who wouldn’t be able to get such an injunction, but, arguably, wouldn’t need one anyway.  Simultaneously, he has positioned the audience as those, like him who would need to know.  Yet in between these ‘we’ pronouns is inserted the categorization of ‘slapper’. The entire construction functions successfully by excluding footballers and slappers from the fictional ‘we’.  The viewing audience are neither ‘slappers’ nor footballers, and Hislop attempts to position himself within the protective embrace of the morally decent.

Implicitness: implications and presuppositions:  There is such a thing as a footballer.  One might consider sport to be vaguely absurd but there’s no denying that it exists (well one could deny it if one liked, one could deny anything if one liked but footballers certainly exist).  Whereas ‘footballer’ is a noun ‘slapper’ although technically a noun in its OED sense it’s really more of an adjective a description not of a real thing but of how certain men judge women to be.  It isn’t a real thing it’s a discursive construction that goes beyond a man’s attitude.  Nevertheless, the implication in Hislop’s grammatical x and y construction is that slappers really do exist on the same empirical level as footballers, lawyers and journalists (I’m glossing over CDP’s categorization theories here).  One could argue that ‘slappers’ do exist but that would only be within the discourse of sexism.  In this instance one doesn’t simply take up the positions available within a discourse one is given the position by the most powerful within the discourse.  ‘Slappers’ exist because men say they exist: ‘slappers’ exist because Ian Hislop says they exist.  So how are these vile bodies to be treated Mr. Hislop?

Style: The standard BBC response to complaints about the reproduction of sexism on the BBC is to insist that the speaker is being ironic and that the sophisticated audience will recognize the irony, (Mills).  Hislop’s initial use of ‘slapper’ occurs within a passage that is undoubtedly said with an ironic tone (I should know because I’m sophisticated, allegedly).  However the irony does not apply to his use of ‘slapper’ but at Bradshawe’s attempt to be … oh I don’t know… funny…liked.  The second usage occurs within a direct address to the wider audience about the need for a privacy law.  If the second usage occurred in an ironic passage one would need to conclude that Hislop is not in favour of a privacy law.  In such a case his performance as satirist is considerably secondary to his performance as a hypocrite.

Summing up

Hislop expresses, signals and legitimizes dominance in a number of ways.  This is not simply the case of a man calling a woman a ‘slapper’.  Dominance is here reproduced not simply because Hislop is a media personality; not simply because he has a reputation for challenging authority not only in Have I Got News For You but also in Private Eye; not simply because he has access to speak to a large number of television viewers; not simply because he is a team captain on one of the BBC’s prestigious topical affairs programmes; and not simply because that programme is now in its fortieth season and that the BBC have, by implication, merited it a success and have considerable confidence in its ability to project BBC values.

Googling ‘BBC sexist language complaints’ generates over a million hits, and the first page provides links to those who might have been expected to be the usual suspects, Chris Moyles, and Top Gear. Would one expect to get a hit for Ian Hislop or Have I Got News For You? At one time I would have thought not.

Hislop’s reproduction of discursive sexism is successful because he has positioned himself with Moyles, Clarkson et al.  They do it so he can do it – he does it so they can do it, and all of a sudden it’s the norm.  And that’s the successful part of reproduction in this instance – sexism’s normalization.

This is the link to Jane Martinson's blog at The Guardian


slapper. (2007). In Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. Retrieved from

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"slaphead, n.". OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. 24 April 2011 <>.

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