Play and subversion in Mumsnet Talk

It’s not always wise to admit you have favourites, but I’m going to say it anyway. I looked child-swapat many threads during my study of the Mumsnet Talk discussion forum, but none were as much fun to read and analyse as ‘Can we have a child exchange?’ The opening post to this thread, written by Mumsnet regular BertieBotts, goes something like this:

I can offer one (currently) sweaty and exuberant 5 year old. Reads most things.

Speaks some German. Quite helpful around the house.

Reason for sale: Excessive farting.

Any takers?

The light-hearted, witty and playful nature of this thread made it both engaging and interesting, but also quite an analytical challenge. As I read contributors’ posts to this thread, it seemed that their words always had multiple potential meanings. For example, at one level, the entire theme of the thread, exchanging children, is subversive in the extreme, and contributors’ individual posts often reinforce the ‘shock-factor’ of this thread. They often describe their children in a distanced, impersonal way, as where Clobbered numbers her children as ‘Model 1, 2 and 3’, and uses lists and descriptive categories, such as ‘twenty-one’, ‘excellent cook’ and ‘screen-bound thirteen year old’, which foreground her children’s ‘assets’, but background any personal relationship with or love for them. Such descriptions work to position children as objects for sale – as commodities, who are being promoted in a busy marketplace. Whilst these linguistic strategies could be seen as subversive and shocking, however, it is unlikely that many would actually read them in this way. The playful use of a style that would be more at home in a classified ad means that this thread is framed as non-serious from the start. What contributors are suggesting on another level, then, is that their implied indifference to their children is laughable; inconceivable, even; that what they say is not what they mean.

Looking at the thread more closely, many other linguistic strategies that contributors use when describing their children are in sharp contrast with the kind of distanced, impersonal examples given above, and work to position contributors and their children in a different way entirely. For example, many contributors to this thread use linguistic and digital resources that emphasise their personal, emotive responses to their children. WhispersofWickedness, for example, describes her daughter as “VERY cute”, using both an intensive adjective and intensifying adverb (in CAPS) to describe her child in positive, emotive terms, whilst another writes that her son is “lovely to snuggle and smells nice ”.

Contributors’ use of these intensifying resources builds colourful portraits that focus on their affective responses to their children. At the same time, they can be said to draw on stereotypes around femininity (which are linked to Western ideals of “good” motherhood) – namely, that women orient towards an affective interactional style. In this way, it can be said that Mumsnet users emphasise their femininity in this thread, positioning themselves not just as parents but as mothers, and indeed, as good mothers, since cultural stereotypes around good mothering are often closely linked with stereotypes of femininity. Again, however, the humorous and ironic tone of the thread means that there are multiple possible readings of participants’ words. Whilst, on one level, their frequent use of affective emphasis in descriptions of their children works to emphasise their connections with and personal responses to their children, positioning them as ‘feminine’ mothers, on another level they can be said to play with, and even to subvert, these stereotypes around femininity and ‘good motherhood’.

My latest article in Discourse & Society explores these themes in detail, teasing out the intersecting discourses that come together in this thread to position its contributors as ‘good mothers’, and showing how Mumsnet users both take up, but also resist and subvert this subject position. It emphasises the importance of the digital context in making this kind of play possible. It’s available free, ahead of print, for a limited time, here.

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