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Theresa May and chips

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:03

This week's blog from the module team of Advancing social psychology (DD317) considers the significance of some of the election news coverage.

As the election campaign progresses, there was extensive coverage this week of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, eating chips in the street (to be precise, fries dipped in ketchup). So what was that all about?

In Chapters 10  and 11of the Advancing social psychology textbook, we discuss the concept of performance. This proposes that in daily life people perform identities through how they speak and move, the appearances they present and the ways they relate to others. To perform an identity successfully, it's usually necessary to conform to an established image by looking and sounding 'right' and generally doing what people expect. This can be difficult. For example, we suggest that a woman Prime Minister might have some problems performing the identity of an authoritative political leader because there are fewer established social expectations attached to that identity for a woman than a man. It's less clear what she should look like or do in order to be a proper Prime Minister.

On the other hand, there are now plenty of expectations about performing the identity of a UK political candidate. You are required to wear a high vis vest and hard hat on a construction site, talk to small children at a primary school, visit an elderly person in sheltered housing, deal cheerfully with a heckler (without hitting them) and eat messy food in public. Perhaps there is a logic to these expectations. They have to be carried out in front of the cameras so they could be seen to demonstrate a relevant political skill: effectively managing the media.

But Theresa May's chip-eating can be understood in another way. There is a vague and unconvincing association of class, as if the PM is identifying with 'ordinary' people who don’t eat anything but chips. (Really?) Forty years ago, the equivalent for Mrs Thatcher was to visit a butcher’s shop during her first election campaign. She bought sausages, a chicken and an enormous quantity of mince. This was an unlikely range of meals for a millionaire household and of course no one really believed that she did her own weekly shopping or cooked the family dinner, yet the event gave an immense boost to her popularity.

Perhaps the point of this, and the chips, is exactly that the politician is doing something that is not her normal behaviour. Is it a rather cruel test, as if the electorate enjoys humiliating the candidate by asking her to do something she may find uncomfortable? (Revenge for all that boring tv coverage?)

More subtly, perhaps this is a test of confidence, requiring the candidate to deal smoothly with an awkward situation. In another piece of media coverage this week, the actress Maxine Peake, a woman from a working class background, referred to the confidence (and likeability) of Old Etonian actors she’d worked with (Guardian 29/04/17). She asked why the state education system doesn't give people 'that sense of entitlement, that you can'. Her comments suggest that confidence is a classed attribute. In other words, it may have become a marker of a certain class identity.

If that’s the case, then performing confidently in an awkward situation might take on an additional meaning. Of course it's silly for these (woman) politicians to pretend that they do their own food shopping or have chips as a meal, but if they can carry off that silly behaviour, without looking uncomfortable, then they will be performing the confident identity that is also associated with the traditional ruling classes. Perhaps they need to accomplish that performance successfully in order to prove that that's where they belong.

There's more discussion of identity and performance in Advancing social psychology (DD317).



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