Draft 2004 27 Defending the Norm: Exploring Sites of Tension in Audience Engagement with aids-related Television Abstract

Sex, Girls & Kiss Curls: 'It's Not Aimed at Us'

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Sex, Girls & Kiss Curls: 'It's Not Aimed at Us'

A simple safe sex message was expected of Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls, and all ten groups constructed such a message. This message has been labeled 'Always use condoms', and can be summed up thus:

[Y]ou should never really think that you know someone so well. You can never know everything about someone's history, so you've got to be careful all the time, and not trust somebody so much that you wouldn't use a condom

{Female Group 1}

This extract illustrates a common understanding underlying constructions of this message: no matter how well established a relationship, the partners can never be sure of each other's past or present risk-taking activities. This is the premise upon which the message was consistently based, and has been labeled 'You can never be sure'. It is further illustrated in the following extracts:
Well first of all she just thought that because she knew the guy that it would be fine. She just trusted him. But you can never really know too much about their past, so she was kind of naïve just thinking everything would be OK

{Female Group 4}

S1 Well you don't know [someone's risk-taking behaviour], that's the thing. And you never know, and sometimes it's a risk. But you also have to, I think, I don't know, it's so...

S2 Because you tell the truth, everyone will tell the truth up to a point

{Male Group 2}

The message 'Always use condoms' was consistently perceived as being directed at women; that is, as a message to women to insist on condom-use during every sexual encounter. The collective audience accounts of this programme consistently included two practical implications of the message 'Always use condoms': females should take more responsibility for condom-use; and condoms should be used in all relationships, both casual and long-term. When located within the wider sexual culture of these respondents, however, what appears to be an unambiguous safe sex message becomes problematic. The practical implications of this message threaten the shared frameworks of cultural mores and expectations surrounding condom-use and trust in heterosexual relationships.

Speech Will: A Widely Used Escape Route

Toula, a young, punk/Goth hairdresser in Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls, was shown giving a potential sexual partner an ultimatum: either use a condom or we don't have sex! Based on her appearance, most groups, both male and female, characterised Toula as a 'slut' or a 'slurry'. Within these groups' lived ideology of safe sex, 'her type' does not use condoms. There was a shared understanding that slutty women do not carry condoms because they do not care enough about themselves or their partner. The audience groups therefore needed to account for the difference between this lived understanding of safe sex and the current media representation of a slut with a condom. In response to this contradiction, these Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls groups consistently drew on the perceived intentions, or 'speech will', of the producer/writer/director to construct a bridge between the lived and the intellectual.

S2 But I think she was, I have a suspicion that the daggy film maker tried to make her the cool one, you know what I mean? I think she was meant to be the groovy one, cause that's their warped idea of what's cool – “Oh, we'll put her in black leather and...”

S1 Well, all it was, all they were saying, including Toula in the video, was yeah, Toula can get AIDS cause she's a punk. And this woman, she's an elderly woman and she can still get AIDS...

S2 And this woman's a middle-of-the-road woman. So they're just doing a smorgasbord, they're doing the gamut of women

{Male Group 1}

Instead of making sense of Toula's unexpected behaviour with reference to their lived experience of sexual relations, most groups invoked a shared understanding of media. They did not engage with the message, but instead took a step back from the programme, and engaged with each other about the production of the message. Accounts of Toula's unexpected behaviour usually followed the following logic: the makers of the video were trying to impart the message that 'condoms are for everyone', and therefore included the unexpected situation of a 'slut' insisting on safe sex. As expressed by one group of men, Toula was shown using a condom in order ‘to show that she was the outrageous one and yet she still took responsibility, like, you know, she had all the leather on, but she still took responsibility’.
Similarly, in the following extract, Toula's 'unexpected' behaviour is seen to be expected of an advice video. Once again, her behaviour is understood as 'just a message', not as an example of how a character such as Toula would behave in the real world, but as an example of how a character in an advice video would behave:
S3 Yeah, that was a bit of a down vibe she was putting on him, like a big conversation in the middle of it...

S2 She couldn't be hypocritical in giving advice in an advice video

S3 Surely not

S2 Surely not

S1 You'd have to say she'd have to do it with it [a condom] on

S2 The righteous thing

{Male Group 3}

Through such genre-based discursive practices, the threat that this message posed to the lived ideology of safe sex was minimised. The shared appropriation of 'genre' enabled these groups to work through these contradictions without overtly questioning these assumptions. That is, at no stage did any of the audience groups question their shared belief that only certain types of women practice safe sex.
What happens when such practices are not available to audience groups? How do they balance the 'lived' and the 'intellectual' without the distance afforded by these genre-based practices? It would be expected that the audience would be compelled to confront the contradiction head-on. This hypothesis was tested via analysis of a second escape route open to the male Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls groups. A comparison of men's and women's responses to a common action problem demonstrates that, as predicted, the fewer devices open to audiences, the closer to home the message becomes.
Using Audience Positioning as a Defense: Invoking the Addressee

If the television programme is an utterance, then it is an utterance to somebody, and the style of the utterance depends on to whom the utterance is addressed (Bakhtin, 1986). This defines it as an utterance, but can also be used as another distance-producing device by audiences under threat from problematic messages. This can be seen in audience responses to Marge in Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls.

In the video Marge explains that she is currently married to her second husband, but because her first husband slept with other men during their marriage she no longer has unprotected sex. Eight of the ten audience groups found this story-line problematic. Condom-use is not a part of the lived relationships of these respondents.
These group conversations are consistent with several recent studies of heterosexual relationships which found that those in committed relationships rely on the 'safety of commitment' (Holland, Ramazanoglu, Scott, Sharp, & Thompson, 1991, 1992; Kippax et al., 1990; Moore & Rosenthal, 1992; Waldby, Kippax, & Crawford, 1991). Appropriating many of the assumptions inherent in the 'have/hold' discourse (Hollway, 1984), monogamy and trust are assumed by these audience groups to be a part of a committed relationship. Marge's behaviour clashes with this understanding. In particular the groups questioned the lack of trust inherent in a married couple using condoms, and this meaning was shared by both male and female respondents. The following extracts illustrate this point:
S1 But she was over the top I thought. Been married for ten years or something and still using condoms

S2 Yeah, like if you can't trust your partner after ten years then, yeah

{Male Group 1}

I think that was really, well I don't know if it was ridiculous, but it's a real worry because it gives a real implication about trust in relationships. And if you need to use a condom that far into your relationship, then I think it says a lot about the fact that there's not much trust there

{Female Group 1}

In the talk of these young adults, condom-use and trust are inextricably related. It was widely assumed that the use of condoms in all relationships, both long-term and casual, implies a lack of trust. For example, in the case of long-term relationships, suggesting condoms implies a lack of faith in the partner's fidelity and commitment:
But I think the marriage question, like asking, I think like then it would be even harder. Like that girl was having problems asking her boyfriend, I think it would be even harder like in a marriage sort of thing. Because I think it would be a trust issue sort of thing. It would be "Oh, don't you believe that I'm committed, blah, blah, blah"

{Female Group 4}

When requested of a casual partner, the use of condoms implies that the woman suspects her partner of engaging in risk activities, and can even impugn the heterosexuality of her partner (Wilton & Aggleton, 1991). As articulated by one group of women, it suggests to the man that ‘maybe you think I'm a drug taker or a homosexual whatever, homosexual tendencies’.
It is clear from audience discussions of the unexpected sexual behaviour of Marge that a paradox exists in understandings surrounding the use of condoms in relationships. Most groups constructed an understanding that Marge's insistence on using condoms with her husband is problematic because it implies a total absence of trust. However, these groups simultaneously premised their constructions of the video on the notion that 'You can never be sure'; in other words, it is naïve to trust your partner. There is a clash of meanings in these social constructions of the programme. Although agreeing with the message on a general level, its implications have no place in the lived sexual culture of these respondents. There is a contradiction between the general and the specific.
Trust is often assumed and unquestioned in the talk of young heterosexuals (Stephenson, Kippax, & Crawford, 1994). It is difficult to talk about trust because it is taken-for-granted that you cannot have a committed relationship without it. Audience constructions of this video, however, problematise the taken for granted continuum between trust, truth and committed relationships.
In their initial accounts of Marge, four groups (all three male groups and Mixed-Sex Group 2) unequivocally stated that the answer to her 'problematic' situation is for both partners to be tested for HIV. In this way each partner knows that they are not at risk from the other, and the illusion of trust is maintained.
S3 Well, I mean, if you're involved in a relationship with someone, and you do want to have sex without using condoms, well the easiest way to know is to get tested...

S2 Is to get tested

S3 ... and wait 'til you get the results and then figure it out, you know

{Male Group 3}

This 'solution', however, does not resolve the contradiction inherent in audience constructions of the video; a reliance on the results of HIV tests requires a great deal of trust between partners. The talk of these respondents consistently indicates a failure to perceive this contradiction. The social practices and meanings through which trust is sustained in heterosexual relationships are simply not questioned. Rather than problematising trust, this talk reinforces its essential and unquestioned nature.
Despite drawing on the theme 'You can never be sure', and discussing their experiences of lying to and cheating on their girlfriends, these respondents repeatedly stated that a combination of HIV tests and trust is the answer to safe sex in relationships:
S1 If you've decided that you're going to invest so much time with another person, god it would be a pain in the arse to have to use a condom every time you have sex. Why not um...

S2 Get tested...

S1 ... have faith in one another, in what one another does, and get tested, and get tested again and again if you're unsure

S2 I agree

{Male Group 2}

Solving Marge's 'dilemma', however, does not account for the need for an account, and herein lies the main problem for these groups. The meaning of the programme was premised on the notion that 'You can never be sure', yet behaviours that indicate a lack of trust are problematic. To further shore-up the unquestioned nature of trust, and smooth over the contradiction, all three male groups and two of the mixed-sex groups worked to distance themselves from the programme and its message. Parallelling the responses to the contradictions inherent in Toula's stance on condoms, Marge's unexpected behaviour was accounted for in relation to the 'speech will' of the 'speaker': her story was only a vehicle for a message. The appropriation of this discursive practice was enabled by the collective positioning of the audience in relation to genre.
In itself this discursive practice does not alleviate the threat to the taken-for-granted nature of trust, and a second strategy was drawn upon as audiences attempted to further distance themselves from the programme. Many of the focus group accounts at this point indicate that audiences position themselves in relation to the perceived addressee of the utterance; that is, they make assumptions about the intended audience of the programme, and position themselves as either a part of the audience or not. Positioned outside of the intended audience, the male and mixed-sex groups were able to use this positioning as a distancing device, thereby reconciling this contradiction. However, positioned as within this audience, the female groups were unable to produce distance, and therefore were forced to confront the mismatch between the lived and the intellectual.
It's Not Aimed at Us: Dodging the Message

Audience positioning in relation to the intended audience was successfully negotiated as a legitimate bid for meaning by most male respondents. When appropriated to account for unexpected experiences with the video, it enabled sense to be made of contradictory conversational moments.

S2 I think it was definitely, um, aimed at a particular audience. Obviously girls, and probably a certain class of women as well

S1 I can't imagine it actually getting the message across effectively actually, the whole thing. I know it wasn't aimed at us

{Male Group 1}

S1 At no stage, right... it was always 'I better watch out, he may have something'. It's never 'I've got something'. It's always 'He's got to have something

S2 Well it was obviously made for women. I mean we can figure that out can't we

{Male Group 2}

In positioning themselves as outside the intended audience, the problem of Marge was avoided by the male and mixed-sex groups, and the conversations immediately moved on to other topics before the unquestioned nature of trust in relationships became questioned.
Nowhere to Run: Facing the Contradiction

On several occasions audience positioning was also invoked by the female viewing groups in an attempt to create distance from the video. At these conversational moments individual audience group members attempted to position themselves as outside the intended audience of the programme. For example, accounts of Marge's unexpected behaviour included the claims that the video ‘targeted older age groups’ (Female Group 4) or ‘twelve year old girls’ (Female Group 2). However, such discursive practices were not accepted as legitimate bids for meaning by other group members. The programme was obviously aimed at young women.

For example, responses to the initial question, ‘Tell me the story you have just been told’, often included references to the 'intended addressee'. These initial bids for meaning invariably positioned these women as a part of the intended audience:
So they had a range of ages, so it was targeted at a wide audience of women

{Female group 2}

Without the distance afforded men by their perceived position in relation to the intended audience, these women were compelled to engage with the text at a deeper level. Contradictions were explicitly articulated and confronted, and the programme interpreted within the context of the participants' lived sexual culture. The subsequent discussions of the fragile balance between trust and condom-use in relationships evoked notions of fear.
it shows that the main, well that's one of my main fears if I got married, like you don’t know what your husband's doing, whether he's sleeping with a woman or a man. So, I mean, it's just like one of those unknowns. But I mean, you can't go your whole married life wearing a condom.

{Female Group 3}

That's what I'd be afraid of if I were married. Even a long-term relationship. You might stop using condoms after a while, but you don't really know. That's the scary part

{Female Group 4}

Despite an awareness of the need for safe sex in long-term relationships, the women in these focus groups share an understanding that condom-use is unacceptable. The threat to the stability of the relationship is too great. This is consistent with previous Australian research reporting a tendency for women to put the stability and happiness of their relationship above their own sexual pleasure (Roberts, Kippax, Spongberg, & Crawford, 1993). Here, they are putting the stability of the relationship above their own sexual safety.
Unable to deflect this problem by invoking the 'intended audience', these women had no alternative but to articulate the unspoken (and contradictory) assumptions underlying heterosexual relationships. Sensing the threat to the unquestioned nature of trust in relationships, but positioned as the intended audience of the video, there was no immediate solution to this dilemma. Aware of the instability of trust, but unable to act upon this knowledge, these women continually articulated a sense of fear.
Although the methods of bringing up condoms suggested in the video were not taken up as viable options by these women (e.g., ‘they all sounded poxie to me’), audience engagements with the text at least resulted in the unquestioned assumptions surrounding trust and safe sex in relationships being foregrounded and questioned. Change to social norms was at least opened-up.

In both studies, audience groups unanimously agreed with the AIDS-related media messages constructed in response to the programmes. However, the taking up of these messages in lived sexual practice appears to remain constrained by the wider sexual assumptions of the groups. This tension represents the transformational power of media messages about AIDS.

Human beings live in a world of contradiction, and in order to act intelligibly these contradictions must be resolved, transcended, or ignored (Davies & Harré, 1990; Haug, 1987; Shotter, 1984). If contradiction is sensed, there is a moral obligation to resolve this conflict. A sense of this moral obligation was clearly evident in audience accounts. Throughout the audience conversations a great deal of discursive effort was expended on trying to 'ignore' the clashes of meaning opened up by the programmes. The accounting practices of groups sometimes enabled audiences to achieve this aim, or in other cases to resolve the conflicts fairly unproblematically (at least at a superficial level). The very process of ignoring the sensed contradictions itself requires work on the part of audiences. Viewers were seen continually restructuring their conversational activities until their interpretations of the programmes became relatively uncontradictory. However, in a number of cases, the working through of these contradictions lead to the foregrounding and questioning of previously unarticulated social norms. It was at these conversational moments that genuine change became a possibility.
The least transformation occurred when audience groups were able successfully to negotiate a space in which they could create distance between their lived sexual culture and problematic media messages. In this way, they were able to smooth over contradictions without addressing or questioning the social barriers to their being taken-up in lived sexual practice. Some groups, however, found themselves acting into an interpretive context in which distance-producing practices were unavailable. At these moments, the taken for granted was problematised, and assumptions were shaken. In particular, the social norms surrounding trust in relationships (especially 'the safety of commitment’) were foregrounded and questioned. The level of disengagement available to each group was shaped by audience understandings surrounding the genre of the programme being viewed. In line with a Bakhtinian conceptualisation of the television programme as an utterance, audiences made assumptions about the speech will and the intended addressee in these struggles for meaning.
These accounting strategies produced a greater level of distance for the Beverly Hills 90210 groups because not only could the problematic safe sex activities of the characters be passed-off as 'just a message', but could also be marked-off from sex in the 'real world'. Every Beverly Hills 90210 group referred to 'Hollywood', 'typical 90210' or 'typical American TV' at least once during the process of accounting for action problems. Through this way of talking, the problematic representations of AIDS and safe sex in this programme were no longer considered 'real', and therefore no longer considered a threat. When invoked in combination with the 'speech will' of the makers of the programme ('Its just a message'), the mismatch between the groups' lived experience of AIDS and that represented on television was resolved. Whenever their lived understanding of safe sex was threatened, Beverly Hills 90210 groups were quickly able to invoke what I have termed the 'real life vs media' dichotomy as a successful discursive strategy that enabled them to maintain a distance between the lived and the intellectual ideologies of safe sex.
This strategy was not available to the Sex, Girls and Kiss Curls audience groups, who within the first minutes of discussions compared this video with other sources of public-health information. This included educational programmes on Australia's two public television stations, ABC and SBS (‘It would be silly for anyone to watch it unless they could only get SBS’), educational videos seen at school (‘It's like one of those stupid videos you get in PE’), and specific public-health campaigns (‘It's sort of like your “Sex Life Be In It” sort of educational videos’). These sorts of comparisons closed-off any strategies of disengagement seeking summarily to dismiss the programme as in some way divorced from the real world. The closing-off of this strategy seems to have weakened the potency of dismissing the actions of the characters as simply a means of conveying a message. Unlike the accounts given by Beverly Hills 90210 groups, audiences of the public health video were compelled to invoke understandings of the perceived addressee of the programme. This strategy of dismissing the programme as 'not aimed at us' was only successful for the male-dominated groups. The female groups, on the other hand, were forced to confront the clashes of meaning head-on.
It is premature to conclude that people watch and/or talk about all television drama in a way that is too disengaged to allow any sort of transformation to social norms. Australian television has a history of producing 'realist soap opera' (such as the now defunct A Country Practice, GP, and, to some extent, Heartbreak High), which are devised to tackle contemporary medical and social issues from a 'responsible’ and 'realistic' position (Tulloch & Lupton, 1987). Further research is needed to explore whether such locally-produced drama provides less potential for audiences to disengage from problematic messages.
There is also scope for further research to vary the composition of viewing groups to include a wider representation of the types of social groupings in which television viewing might occur; for example, excluding couples, or looking at wider family groupings. This could open up a wider variety of action problems (as well as closing off some of those reported in this thesis) via a re-ordering of the relative positions of sexual partners, as well as shedding further light on the taken-for-granted understandings framing the meanings attached to safe sex by young adults.
Similarly, an examination of audience understandings of social issues when these issues are woven into the fabric of the series, rather than presented in discrete issue-based episodes offers a potentially fruitful avenue of research. It is expected that, without a clearly delineated issue-based storyline, audiences will engage with the entire programme; focussing on the 'issue' and its context in its entirety (at least as represented in the series). In focussing on an issue from several perspectives, audience groups are expected to experience a variety of action problems, thereby widening the scope for social norms to be questioned.
The distancing practices both enabled and constrained as a function of audience positioning point to the need to target media-messages at specific audience groups. This is by no means a new idea, but is lent extra weight (both theoretical and empirical) by the clear demonstration of the importance of audience perceptions of the 'target' audience in the process of audience engagement with television.
The current study also points the way to a novel group-based method of health promotion where the common sense assumptions serving to impede safe sexual practice can be eroded through their being foregrounded and questioned in group discussion. The focus group conversations used in this study, and the subsequent action problems encountered by audience groups, indicate that issue-related television can be used as a health education strategy precisely to achieve this aim. This can be achieved by social poetics, the practice of bringing people up against the things that they take for granted, causing them to see them as surprising (Katz & Shotter, 1996). A trained 'cultural go-between', a third person 'outsider’, could draw attention to conflict and contradictions as they arise in audience in audience group conversations thus maximising the destabilising effect of action problems on taken-for-granted assumptions.
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