Ugly “American”? part 3: Anti-Americanism as plot element

[Yes, I know The Guess Who have stated repeatedly that they did not intend this song as anti-American.] On the assumption that we’re together on the previous argument that due to script problems, Sarah’s Americanness is the most decisive or at least a very decisive element of the character as played by Genevieve O’Reilly, I move on to today’s question, which was raised at the end of the post yesterday: How do prejudices about “Americans” affect portrayals of them by “non-Americans” in “non-American” shows, specifically Sarah in Spooks 8? To provide a basis for talking about the script and characterization problems that emerged for Sarah / O’Reilly, I am going to define anti-Americanism briefly and give an example to demonstrate how it might be influencing portrayals of Americanness in the episodes of Spooks that I’ve seen, and thus Spooks plotlines. That means series 7 and 8; I’m not commenting here on Tom Quinn’s relationship to a CIA agent named Christine, about which I am totally in the dark. Also, terminologically, I will refer to U.S. citizens as “Americans,” although I recognize that citizens of many other countries are also Americans. Naturally, stereotypes about these Americans are separate (the reason so many U.S. student backpackers in Europe in the 1980s stitched Canadian flags patches onto their backpacks) and not so much at issue in Spooks. It’s just that there’s no good way to say “U.S.-ians” as there is in Spanish (estadoünidenses, itself admittedly a somewhat awkward noun) and anglifying the German variant (US-Amerikaner) seems awkward to me, too. Let me know if there’s a better option.

The United States of America has been the most important world power since the end of the Cold War. [Grammar mavens — note an exception here to the rule about collective nouns in U.S. usage, where the plural name of the state nonetheless takes a singular verb!] Some historians see this situation obtaining as early as 1917, when the European powers had exhausted themselves in ways from which they were never to recover, and U.S. entry into World War I tipped the balance for the Triple Entente, a result that reflected a growing industrial and economic primacy that had been developing in the U.S. since the 1870s. Even in the bipolar world of the Cold War, historians are finding today in the wake of its ending, the U.S. was usually superior, even if this was not obvious at the time. 

Inevitably, ongoing U.S. political superiority creates not only admiration and good feelings, but envy and bad ones, and all kinds of shadings in between. Americans can afford not to care about what happens in any individual African or European or Asian or Middle Eastern state — or at least they think they can — but the same is not true for citizens of those states, whose experience of globalization at the hands of forces currently driven by the U.S. forces them to form opinions. Given that such a distribution of political power makes a cultural and economic impact, a phenomenon that its critics refer to as Coca-colonization, Americans who live away from home for any length of time are inevitably confronted with images of the U.S. drawn from local culture that respond to the political, economic, and cultural position of that locality to the U.S. I’ve only lived for any length of time in two countries other than the U.S. (Germany and México), but portrayals of and prejudices about Americans immediately came into play as soon as anything about me revealed that I was a native of the U.S. These stereotypes affected the sort of expectations that local interlocutors placed on me in all kinds of situations, not alwas in ways that I understood immediately. (And of course the reverse is true; I am not without my own stereotypes about Mexicans and Germans, and though these ideas grow more complex with time, and get corrected, honed, and reformulated as my experiences expand, they never go away completely.)

These cultural codes are by no means always negative; rather, they can be incredibly complex. One of the most common complications, in my experience, is the “present company excepted” motif: “Americans are ________ (fill in the blank with stereotype), but you are not ________ (stereotype).” Another second common complication: “Of course the U.S. government is ________ (fill in characteristic), but we know that you can’t do anything about that.” No question that positive sentiment about the U.S. can be found easily in the outside world as well. But given the relative positional subordination of those who express such views, they are often negative, and this stance we term anti-Americanism. My point here is not to write a treatise on that prejudice, to complain about it (it is the price Americans pay, for good or for ill, for our country’s dominance), or even to whine about its effects on me (on the whole, despite occasional negative experiences, I’ve profited much more than lost from the accident and privilege of being an American). I just want to discuss a bit how anti-Americanism and its complications in the U.K. may play into understanding or misunderstanding Sarah as played by Ms. O’Reilly based on what I know about it, which is certainly not comprehensive, and how I see it played out in Spooks 7 and 8.

In a particularly upsetting scene, Sarah Caulfield (Genevieve O’Reilly) tells Lucas North (Richard Armitage) that she believes she’s beginning to get the hang of the “special relationship,” as Lucas, now about to test the information he’s gotten at work about how she’s been lying all along, reveals a brief but murderous stare that indexes his feelings of betrayal, in Spooks 8.5. My cap.

Viewers of Spooks can’t help but notice that the tension within the U.K. government and its secret services over the U.K.’s relationship to the U.S. –the nature and bounds of the so-called Special Relationship, a term Sarah uses at the beginning of the scene pictured above– is an ongoing subtheme and indeed a plot machine for the drama. The significance of this plot strand makes the way that American characters behave in Spooks a central matter of concern in the script. This significance lies not just in the mere superiority of the U.S., which troubles the British characters, though that carries many negative outcomes; it’s also manifested in the ways in which the U.S. characters express their superiority to their British counterparts and enforce it upon them. For the former emperors now imperialized, the perspectival change is sweeping, and like any imperialized group, they express their powerlessness in various ways, one of which works via the exploitation of stereotypes about the imperial power to their own advantage. (Interactions on this basis are a frequent theme in colonial fiction about imperial situations; it shows up a lot in Anglo-Indian fiction, for example.) Sometimes these are painful, at other times funny, but what unites them is that for the vignette to be believable to the core viewership of the series, BBC viewers in the U.K., then, the U.S. characters in Spooks have to conform not so much to American definitions of Americanness (how Americans are) but to British expectations about Americans (how the Brits see us). 

I was talking to someone at dinner last night about the question of “the American villain” on U.K. television and she diagnosed the stereotypes of such characters as symptoms of British post-imperial angst, so what I’m about to say may be obvious to people whose knowledge of British TV is wider than mine, but of course I don’t want to take the risk of being misunderstood. In order to make this point about the scriptwriting clear, before I move on to talking about how this problem affected the writing and characterization of Sarah specifically, I want to discuss a neutral example that doesn’t involve O’Reilly to demonstrate how the exploitation of stereotyping works. In this scene, I think that the Spooks 8 writers and actors got the British-American interaction exactly right with regard to the believability needs of the core audience for Spooks, so we can use it to see clearly how the characterization of Americanness works without complications from our attitudes about the characterization of Sarah or Lucas. 

Random: This scene was on my mind recently anyway as I had an email exchange with a friend who just returned from a trip to use the finest libraries in England for her research. The libraries were great and she loved London and Oxford, etc., etc. She only had two complaints about the trip: the bizarre flavors of potato chips (“crisps”) in the U.K., and –well– the English, especially what she termed their infuriating passive aggression. To her credit, she searched for info about the “crisps” and discovered that the strange flavors are not even necessarily beloved by every Brit. (Oh, and can I say that I’m sympathetic to her on this issue because the ubiquitous potato chip flavor in Germany is called “Paprika,” which is a sort of sweet red pepper taste, and the major other snack option beyond the pretzel is the Erdnussflip [like corn puffs except with peanut flavor instead of cheese], and so Germany is always really great for cutting my snack consumption.) Setting aside the chips, then, that leaves the (ahem) alleged passive aggression.

Lucas North (Richard Armitage) involved in a covert operation to obtain data about about entrances to a former undisclosed CIA location in London in Spooks 8.5. My cap.

Yes, it’s the famous “glove p*rn” scene in Spooks 8.5 — and I think we don’t look at it too closely because we love seeing Mr. Armitage bite that glove off his fingers. He also draws that moment out rather deliciously (starting here for the five [!] caps). I also admit I like it because he smiles so seldom in this series that it’s a relief to see him as a cheery, average bloke, even if Lucas is only acting.

In this scene, Section D is trying to obtain more information about what happened in the building where Sarah’s boss, Samuel Walker, died, because they question the official story that his death was a suicide. (We as viewers already know differently, because we watched Sarah murder Walker.) They need information from a card swipe machine in the entrance to the CIA Counter-Terroism [sic] Surveillance building. Lucas dresses up in biker gear to masquerade as a messenger delivering a package to the building. As he walks into the building, with what I as an American, and thus potentially the “Americans” in the scene, are supposed to read as average London working bloke bravado and corresponding gait, he encounters an African American security guard (played by Bentley Kalu). Lucas informs the guard that he has to deliver a package. A fellow security guard, in this case a white female, stands and observes in the background. The “package” Lucas drops on the scanner is a receiver / transmitter of some kind that Tariq, back on the Grid, uses to steal information from the scanner. The point of the ruse is that the package needs to be close to the scanner long enough for Tariq to upload the necessary information once a phone line to the Grid has been established.

In my judgment, this scene only works at all to advance the plot because “our gang” all know in advance exactly how the Americans will behave, and –which is more important– the show’s core audience also believes that their assumptions are credible. We start with Lucas’s entry into the building, in which Armitage has at least two microexpression moments signaling annoyance. (Maybe more, but the place I am capping from doesn’t let me slow the frames down while viewing.)

Lucas North (Richard Armitage) enters the CIA Counter Terrorism Surveillance Building in Spooks 8.5. My caps.

Lucas starts the encounter with this negative vibe in order to ensure something will happen of which he is already fairly certain: no one is going to sign for this package. “Go’ a package for ya, mate,” he says, not even looking Kalu in the face. Now, of course the CIA guards aren’t going to want to accept the package because there’s no real office there, but a vital assumption that makes this scene work is that the guards also won’t be observant enough even to look at it. (The smart thing to do if they really wished not to call attention to themselves would have been to accept the package with a smile and throw it in a corner somewhere, but Section D somehow knows the Americans won’t do that.) Instead, as Lucas somehow knows in advance, rather than being friendly, the Americans will behave implacably and thus move the encounter to just the confrontation he needs to have happen.

Two CIA security guards (Bentley Kalu and an unidentified actress) react as Lucas North enters the CIA building in Spooks 8.5. My cap. Incidentally, I can’t resist mentioning that, given his shoulder to waist ratio, Kalu would really benefit from wearing a tailored shirt with the typical British waist suppression. Look at the sloppy waist on this uniform shirt. Blame it on the CIA. Everyone knows Americans have no style.

Sure enough, the answer from Kalu: “Place is closed,” shaking his head and already looking annoyed. “W’you sign for it?” Lucas persists. Answer: “Nah. No packages.” Lucas: “Go’a deliver i’, mate.” Consonants are dropping here at a rate that suggests they are dying of sudden heart attacks — how homey! how frightfully English! — and Armitage raises the tone on the end of the sentence to make Lucas sound hopeful and conciliatory, as well as looking optimistic, now that he knows that Kalu is going to do as predicted, i.e., refuse the package.

Lucas North (Richard Armitage) as delivery boy pulls a facetiously innocent face after he’s maneuvered the desired behavior out of the CIA guard in Spooks 8.5. (Mood: “Please, sir, can I have some more?”) Source: Richard Armitage Central Gallery.

Key to this exchange for the British viewer assessing its credibility must be that Lucas the Brit starts off a little brusquely, but becomes more and more reasonable in ways that would be expected to achieve a result if his interlocutor were British, as Kalu the American, who starts off a little suspicious, becomes more frustrated and insistent and even less likely to cooperate, because that is how Americans are. The grounding assumption throughout is that Americans can be manipulated because they are not sensitive enough to understand normal manners. Lucas needs this effect to be reliable because the open telephone line created by the call to his fake dispatcher is necessary to complete the data transfer. We see Kalu insist again, with an expression that shows even a little more frustration, first widening his left eye threateningly:

and then saying, with a scoffing twist of his cheeks, “Like I said.” (Spooks 8.5, both caps mine.)

Lucas’s response is “yeah, yeah, I ge’ the message,” but in fact, he has engineered this message himself in order to force Kalu into a situation where he will have to facilitate Lucas’s desired end. “Just go’ make a call,” he continues. Presumably, the assumption here on the part of the scriptwriter will be that Lucas has annoyed Kalu so much that Kalu will have forgotten any and all training he’s received on the potential terrorist exploitation of cell phones. I mean, what if Lucas had been calling in an air strike here or detonating a bomb? This is a covert CIA location, so presumably that’s the reason there’s no pat down and security scan and depositing of cell phones (“mobiles”) at the door, but even so. This is the CIA Counter Terroism [sic] Surveillance building. The mind pales.

Having demonstrated his willingness to be conciliatory, Lucas now turns to feigned unconscious escalation in order to start the data transfer, reporting: “Val! I’m at the Gordon Street dropoff. I’ve go’ a job’s [?] won’t sign.” Spooks 8.5, my cap. What I love about this moment is that Armitage’s voice is neutral, but what we see of his facial features just a second earlier suggests that Lucas might enjoy seeing what will happen when he gives this unwelcome message to his dispatcher. [ETA: what Lucas actually says is “I’ve go’ a jobsworth won’t sign. On the meaning of the term, which I couldn’t hear properly when I wrote the original post, and resulting interpretations, see comments on this post by MillyMe and feefa.]

The camera gives us one more piece of evidence of the Americans’ unreasonability as, now having been reported to an unknown third person as non-compliant, Kalu turns in frustration to his female colleague, as if to say “what part of NO does this guy not understand?”:

and she responds with her own look of impatience at the messenger’s ridiculous behavior. Note the look of superiority in her eyes and the impatient, scornful tightening of the muscle at the left side of her mouth:

(Bentley Kalu and unidentified actress in Spooks 8.5. My caps). She could be saying, “oh, these pesky has-been imperialists!”

If you can look at this sequence on video somewhere, you’ll notice that the glance between Kalu and his colleague escalates the Americans’ sense of insistence and superiority to the last possible point, and it’s almost too much, as if the joke is being drawn out too long. But the interaction has to go on to this point — indeed the female actress seems to be in this shot only for this reason, as she never speaks or does anything else — in order to underline the Americans’ gullibility. That is, every time they insist that they will not take the package, they underline that Section D’s (and by extension the core audience’s) views about the quality and trajectory of their typically American behavior were totally justified.

Once Kalu is on the phone with Ruth, who’s playing the role of Val, the fake dispatcher, the main point of the events in the scene is continuing the phone call until the data transfer is complete. She manages to involve him in a conversation in which she starts on the same route as Lucas by asking him what the problem is with the package. He tones down his annoyance, replying, “I’m not authorized to take any packages,” and affirming in response to a repeated query, “None at all.” Ruth is taking Kalu down the same road that Lucas has earlier, so that when she asks him what she should do with it, he says, “It’s not a discussion, ok? No packages, period,” and she can then continue to escalate, saying, “Well, you’re not being very helpful. I think it’s bloody rude, actually. All I want to do is deliver a package.” All the while, Lucas is nonchalantly looking down, observing the package, and then the camera cuts to give us a brief shot as he stretches out his hand to reorient it slightly on the scanner. And in response to Ruth’s escalation, at the crowning moment of the scene for exploitation of stereotypes about Americans, I think, Kalu offers a classically stereotypical American response:

“That language is not necessary, ma’am. You have a good day,” is the CIA guard’s (Bentley Kalu) response to the fake dispatcher’s use of the term “bloody” in their conversation about the delivery of the package in Spooks 8.5. My cap.

Kalu’s brow wrinkles in strong consternation, and then his face shuts down as he delivers the line. He’s really angry that “Val” has used the word “bloody.” Of course, since the data transfer is not yet complete, “Val” / Ruth has gone too far, and one wonders whether she planned it. She’s pushed the stereotype buttons of calling an American “rude” (stereotype: Americans are always calling other people rude) and unhelpful (stereotype: that’s why Americans believe they are in the world, to help people), and then on top of all that, she plays the obscenity card, which ends the conversation with Kalu. This is the one moment at which I have any suspicion at all that the scene could be ironic. That is: Kalu’s statement is certainly the sort of thing an American would say (“language”) and also the sort of thing that stereotypes about Americans underline — not only a (n often fundamentalist religious) prudishness about language, but also a maniacally petty bourgeois obsession with manners that always focuses on the letter, not the spirit, and ends in overreaction about the wrong things. My only question is whether Ruth intentionally used the word in hopes of annoying him, or said it without thinking and ended up hoist with her own petard. If the former, then this part of the scene falls into the pattern of Section D relying on anti-American prejudice as an operational assumption; if the latter, then perhaps the writers were poking fun at British prejudices about Americans. How we answer that question depends a fair amount on how we read the camera’s brief cut to Tariq’s face as Kalu gets off the phone:

Tariq (Latif Shazad) looks incredulous as the CIA guard ends the conversation with Ruth as fake dispatcher in Spooks 8.5. My cap.

The purpose of this shot seems to be to offer a Section D reaction to Kalu’s statements. It’s not clear if the point of it is to say “you’re right, and although I never thought this ruse could work, Americans are so ridiculous that it has” or a more subtle “I really can’t believe he would end the conversation over a mild curse word, what will you do now?” All in all, though, I believe the scene is not ironic, particularly because it ends by restoring order to the British-American relationship in familiar ways. Kalu gives the phone back to Lucas, who continues a brief chit-chat until the transfer is complete, and then tells the guard he’s been very helpful. At this point, whether or not the scene left its initial assumptions behind for just a moment, it’s firmly back on the ground of negative stereotypes about Americans. First, Lucas returns to his mood of the beginning of the scene, which is from frustration to conciliation. Looking at the screen caps as he chatters on to Ruth, we see Armitage giving him the same expressional arc as earlier:

Again, five separate caps from the wonderful people at Richard Armitage Central Gallery show Lucas visibly moving in stance from near clenched teeth to irritation to the struggle to put a good face on things, at a level at which his interlocutor cannot avoid but see it. Then, the crowning British statement of the scene: “Thanks a lot, mate,” Lucas says, taking the package, “really helpful.” Although we as viewers know that Lucas’s words are emphatically not ironic, as Kalu’s willingness to drag out the interaction by insisting on not taking the package got the spooks the data they wanted, Kalu has no way of knowing that. In fact, he has to know that he has just not been very helpful. Thus, this moment in the interaction seems to rely on the old saw that Americans do not understand irony, and indeed, Kalu just looks confused:

The CIA guard is confused but watches the messenger leave the building and we are granted a gratuitous rear silhouette of Lucas North (Richard Armitage) in the flattering biker gear. Both my caps.

[An unresolved question for me that I thus factored out of this analysis: what role does the race of the actors cast in the roles of the CIA guards play in our perception of this scene?]

I admit that I find this scene a bit humorous, as I’ve been involved in some variant of this scenario repeatedly when I’ve visited parts of England outside of London. London seems to be used to deviant behavior. But elsewhere I’ve had the experience off and on of making a request or a response in a casual or formulaic encounter, as at a hotel or on the street, that I thought was within the bounds of reason, and receiving a response that has to be ironical, so that I knew I had said or done something impossible or at least outside the canon of normal behavior, but had no way to figure out what it was as everyone around me was smiling firmly and energetically. It’s not a constant experience, but it happens off and on. And I also get why many of the things in this scene are coded as typically American, and I find some of those same things funny or annoying myself. (And I am emphatically not claiming that Americans are innocent of treating British visitors to the U.S. in line with their stereotypes about the U.K.)

Nonetheless, I think the only reason this scene is bearable and believable is that Kalu himself appears to be a native speaker of U.S. English and so at least his accent does not point aggressively at the exaggerated quality of the stereotypes that he is inhabiting. One also suspects, given the perfection of his American idiom, that if there were U.S. idiom errors in the script originally, that he eradicated them. So he was two steps ahead of Genevieve O’Reilly for those reasons, and also, I think, at least potentially because he was able to recognize the stereotypes as stereotypes and play them in believable ways. In other words, I think he is the main thing that rescues a low-credibility scene in a problematic script, a scene that relies on anti-American stereotypes as the entire motor of its action.    

In contrast, I think, in addition to not having mastered U.S. usage or a coherent U.S. accent, the way Ms. O’Reilly plays Sarah (and again, I can’t tell if this is the script, the direction, or her personal choices) shows her falling again and again and again into stereotypes about Americans. Moreover, the character was written in such ways that it could not take advantage of the most frequent personal complications of anti-Americanism that facilitate cross-national relationships (the “present company excepted” or “you’re not the government” outs). People who are supposed to be in intimate relationships like “Lucas and Sarah” cannot rely on stereotypes for their knowledge of each other. I’ll argue in the final conceptual piece of this argument that these stereotypes interfere in a fatal way with the character’s chemistry with Lucas, and thus with our perception that there was ever any sort of meaningful screen chemistry between the actors.

Speaking of national stereotypes, it may take a day or two. Tomorrow is Germany vs. England, which is always a big game for me. Can’t wait to hear those chauvinistic English fan chants. “Two world wars and world cup, doodah, doodah!”

~ by Servetus on June 27, 2010.

37 Responses to “Ugly “American”? part 3: Anti-Americanism as plot element”

  1. Oh, you’ve done it now. LOL!


  2. Best of luck in the World cup game Germany v England at Bloemfontein. It is at high altitude and will be quite a challenge for both teams.


    • Welcome, and thanks! it seems like a lot of teams are struggling with either the temperatures or the elevation.


  3. I suppose this is the same question Brits ask i.e. why are all villains in US films English? I seriously doubt these days if the so called ‘special relationship’ exists anywhere other than in people’s memories. I would speculate that the way the guard’s are written and their attitude is probably based on the spectacularly unhelpful security people that the average Brit meets on landing at a US airport.

    In general I think that the average Brit, rightly or wrongly, feels that his/her counterpart – the average American – knows very little of what goes on outside the US and probably cares even less. An anti-British President isn’t helpful either.

    Unfortunately this sterotyping seems to happen to all nationalities in TV and films to some extent or another i.e. Brits are uptight, French and Italians are great lovers, Scots are mean, Germans have no sense of humour etc. The only thing one can do is take each person as you find them regardless of their background.

    As for Spooks and other film/tv productions I cannot for the life of me understand why they cast a British actress (with a pathetic attempt at a US accent) when they could have cast a US lady – same the other way round, what on earth is the point of casting a Brit in something like ‘House’ and then wanting him to have a US accent? As I said at the beginning normally the only Brit accent you hear in US productions is from a villain even though they seem to like casting British actors.


    • welcome, June Young, and thanks for the comment!

      US liking for British actors: I think it’s that (a) they can actually act, usually having been trained to do so instead of just being plopped down before a camera because they look good and (b) there’s something about the body language of many British men that is subliminally attractive. They hold themselves and use their bodies differently than American men. When it’s working out on screen it’s fascinating to watch. If I could find a way to write about this I would.

      re: feeling like Americans are totally unaware of the outside world, yes, and this is a not unfair criticism if qualified in certain ways (e.g., Americans are also not as close to most of “the rest of the world” as Europe is and that significantly alters their perspective on the necessity of such awareness). I had a paragraph about this in an earlier draft and cut it out because it seemed like a tangent, but fwiw: imo, the imbalance in the tv news situation in the respective countries is a huge contributor to the problem of stereotyping, which is paradoxical since you’d think news would seek to inform, enlighten, break down stereotypes, etc. It’s amazing how much of the news in Germany is about the U.S., to the point of coverage of obscure things like weather disasters in g-dforsaken towns in Kansas, and sometimes at the expense of things German. (I’ll spare you the examples.) Outside of the US, even people whose connection with the media is very attenuated (limited to seeing headlines in passing, catching news broadcasts in public places and snippets on the radio, etc.) will be much more informed about the U.S. and the rest of the world than would their counterparts in the U.S. But the information they get is often radically decontextualized, i.e., they think they are more informed, and superficially they are, but often what they have learned is deceptive. I was not a supporter of the second President Bush, but I often felt German tv made him look worse than he was. To some extent this might have been because much of what he said was so simple in terms of vocabulary that with rising English competence in the BRD the tv stations didn’t usually need to dub in a translation of his remarks, although the literal translation of what he was saying did not help to make him look better. In contrast Obama was the darling of the German media right from the beginning. This had something to do with the fact that there was so much frustration with the Bush II administration, but also, I think, that because Obama’s sentences were more sophisticated and vocabulary rich they had to be dubbed aggressively, which made it seem like Obama was speaking on a level with Germans, something Bush had never appeared to do.

      re: ubiquity of stereotyping — emphatic agreement from me — and necessity of overcoming it, too. The reason why I picked this example is that it’s a situation in which no one is expected to overcome stereotype, i.e., it’s just a “casual” interaction. We mostly have the opportunity to overcome stereotype in closer relationships.

      re: casting people with the native accents: also in agreement about that. Why not? Maybe actors think they will get typecast?


  4. I think I’ll start by stating the obvious: we all perceive the world through culturally tinted spectacles. As a Brit I see other stereotypes at work here. Lucas as motorbike messenger naturally assumes the sterotypical role of cheery charming Cockney and a mateyness that goes with that. He would never play this role in a Hooray Henry accent!

    The CIA guard to my mind is a typical jobsworth and is treated as such, and this is not dependent on his nationality. This is someone experienced often and loathed by the British public

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    A jobsworth is a person who uses his or her job description in a deliberately uncooperative way, or who seemingly delights in acting in an obstructive or unhelpful manner.
    “Jobsworth” is an almost exclusively British word deriving from the phrase “I can’t do that, it’s more than my job’s worth”.

    That said, yes, there could be anti-American sentiment at play here and in the way Sarah is depicted, which could in turn have been laziness on the part of the scriptwriters. But in a show like Spooks it seems imperative that there be an opponent. I remember a comment from a Russian poster after Spooks 7 that the British hated the Russians. Other viewers have been uneasy at all the Middle Eastern terrorist plots, but when Connie is revealed as a traitor, we don’t assume the writers hate women, so this works on some levels, not others.

    Football: There are always jingoistic tendencies in sport. When I was a student in London in the 80’s, families and middle class people rarely attended football matches because of the hooligan element. The sport has worked hard to eliminate them, but you’ll always have unsavoury elements with sheer bad manners. I think the German team plays exciting football but in this match I’ll be supporting England and most of Norway with me!


    • Morning, MillyMe! May the best team win! 🙂 I admit that I would be happy if Germany won, but only because this is the place where I learned to appreciate soccer, and because the German team seems to play its best games in tournaments. (Remember the England vs Germany semifinal in the Europe cup in 1996? Now that was a heartstopping game.) Perhaps unfairly, I have no emotional investment in the U.S. team and was pleased to see Ghana advance.

      a) Lucas’s accent: agree that he’s not going to use an upper class accent here if he wishes to be believable. The matter you seem to raise here implicitly is the extent to which the guards’ stereotypes about Brits also play into the interaction and whether the spooks are taking advantage of that. I think that is highly likely (and it’s the reason why I included my perception of the rapidly evaporating “t” in Lucas’s speech, as it’s a bit hard based on dialogue here to figure out what the guards might be thinking, and so I was postulating my own reaction as theirs). I didn’t write much about it, though, because it was harder for me to put my fingers on.

      b) jobsworth: Thanks EXTREMELY for “translating” and defining the one word in the scene which i couldn’t figure out, which turns out to be very important. I am going to link back to your comment from the original post when I get a chance. Based on the guards’ reactions, it seems certain that they must have both understood what Lucas the bike messenger said and been insulted by it. It thus underlines Lucas’s attempt to make them even more resistant, and the development of their ongoing refusal to accept the package. I now see why it is so important for Lucas to deliver that line in a very deadpan tone. (Fwiw, re point a) above, it corresponds to how Americans stereotypically expect to be insulted by Brits — in a tone of such severe understatement that it stings but one can’t do anything about it.) However, I think we have to distinguish between the insult as applied to Kalu and his colleague and its accuracy to understand the scene more fully. If I understand the term correctly (and I may not, as you just taught it to me!) Kalu is not really a jobsworth. It seems clear that he and his colleague are annoyed, not at all enjoying being obstructionist. They want Lucas to go away and are not amused by the continuance of the conversation. They are not behaving like jobsworths (jobsworthies?). So the point of the use of the term would be its force as an insult, not its accuracy as a descriptor. That’s why it works as an insult — because Lucas knows they are not jobsworths (how could they be, as CIA guards working in a foreign country?) but they can’t admit that they are not because it will blow their cover. I.e., it’s another moment where Lucas assumes that they will react stereotypically and uses his knowledge to force them to. As a second point, even if Kalu is a jobsworth, there are definite culturally conditioned moments here. It’s hard for me to imagine a British person in this situation getting so annoyed about the use of the word “bloody,” for instance. People on every continent, of every race and nation, are phoning it in at work every day, but the ways in which they express this stance will necessarily vary by culture.

      I’ve saved your most intriguing comment for last, as I’m still turning it over in my mind, that is, your note that Connie turns out to be a mole but we don’t assume that the scriptwriters hate women. Female use/ misuse of power is a classical dramatic technique for signaling order/disorder. I think this trope plays into all kinds of tv unconsciously. It was just too much for me to explore here, along with the race issue, and it might be too much for the next post, too, but it bears thinking about.

      That shows need villains: absolute agreement. That they need to be portrayed in certain ways for the audience to buy their villainry: this is the stuff of stereotype. The problem is that Sarah is both love interest and villain.


  5. Ouch. It’s interesting how hard it is for me to read this analysis, as a Brit, without the odd imperialized twinge (and I’m not even English, so consider myself doubly imperialized). It’s a salutary reminder of how irksome this scene might be to US viewers.

    But as a member of the core viewership I have to say your analysis is spot on Servetus, and I’m impressed by your ability to nail these particular anti-American stereotypes so dispassionately.

    Like MillyMe I was going to point out the significance of ‘jobsworth’. It’s a derogatory term of course, and for Lucas to use it in front of the security guard is deliberately provocative – hence the reaction of the guard and the look he exchanges with his colleague. In reality it’s unlikely the security guard would have been familiar with this Britishism – another linguistic oversight by the scriptwriters.

    It’s true that Brits have a dislike of petty officialdom (who doesn’t) but this whole scene hinges on a common British stereotype of US officialdom that’s probably based, as June Young says, on experiences in US airports that seem at odds with the politeness stereotype. (British immigration staff are no angels either, if you’re not British.)

    As other commentators elsewhere have pointed out, it’s pretty shoddy of Kudos not to get its scripts checked for linguistic accuracy, at least – there are umpteen professional Americanizers working in UK publishing who’d be happy to oblige. Time pressures are no excuse if they’re aiming at a global market.

    One last thought: of course the Chinese are the new imperium – referred to darkly in Spooks 8 as baddies but interestingly not portrayed.


    • Afternoon, feefa!

      on jobsworth, thanks for the clarification, and see response to MillyMe above. What your comment helpfully adds is info about whether an American would understand the meaning of the term. I wouldn’t have. So there is a fairly serious misstep here, although I suppose we could see the glance between the guards as irritation in response to non-comprehension.

      I found myself wondering while composing this post whether one reason Spooks hasn’t caught in the U.S. (aside from the thing that’s usually cited, which is that the BBC America editing of the show to fit US time formats makes the episodes incomprehensible) is the stereotypical portrayal of Americans. From what i understand Spooks is now shown solely on PBS in the U.S., whose viewers are assumed to have a higher education level, i.e., PBS is not popular entertainment, and its viewers have a whole context of British tv they’ve been watching for years to put this in.

      Sounds like a great job, professional Americanizer. Maybe I should look into it. 🙂

      On the Chinese: yes, I wonder where they are, not just in this show but more generally. In the U.S. in the 1980s there was a great deal of coverage of the Japanese economic villain that came out of U.S. angst about being taken over financially by Japan. That has faded now. But we don’t see a corresponding coverage of the Chinese. Then again I don’t watch tons of U.S. tv. Or maybe it’s that there are so many Chinese in the U.S. that marketers are worried about it? Hmmm.


      • I’m now thinking back to the portrayal of Americans in Strike Back and wincing…


        • Oh, it’s ok, we’re used to it. The thing is that U.S. tv isn’t really that different, frankly. All kinds of stereotypes about non-Americans. To some extent popular drama has to rely on stereotype; any dramatist has to think which strands of the story are worthy of emphasis and which have to simply be understood.


    • BTW, I want to ask, what is the right answer to the question they ask at immigration to the UK: “what is your reason for visiting the UK?” I always give one of two answers: “to attend a conference” or “to use the British Library,” which are pretty much the only reasons I go to the UK. (Well, I was there as a tourist once, I think.) And then the person frowns and starts flipping even more eagerly through my passport, which has not a single non-European stamp in it except for maybe Canada and México, and asking me very specific questions about the conference and the library. It’s fine, they have the right to do that, I’ve never been stopped, but why do those answers provoke such attention?


  6. Not all villains are Brits, I can think just as many have been cast as romantic leads. US ladies swoon over the accent as a Britt buddy of mine can attest. He was a nobody back in the UK and over here all he has to do is open his mouth.
    But I have to confess how after living in this superpower it tends to rub off. I am guilty of going back to Belgium and perceiving it as small and inconsequential. Terrible indeed. But I do remember the feeling of growing up and looking out to the rest of the world.
    You also made me realize if I ever go back to the UK to visit I’ll be perceived completely different. I used to be able to affect a somewhat flawed British accent just by being surrounded by it.
    Salt and vinegar is my favorite and was a first for me as was vinegar on chips (steak fries) Can’t remember whether the Paprika is different from
    what we had in Belgium where that is a popular too.
    I am not going to interrupt my S7 re-watch will catch up later.
    Shout out for the Lucas/rRicky Deeming mash-up! No video about that outthere??


    • Yeah, there’s that scene in Love Actually where the Brit comes over to Milwaukee (about three hours from where I grew up, incidentally) and those American girls just fall on him. Very funny.

      I discovered my favorite way to eat potato chips in a soccer stadium in Guadalajara, Jal., Méx. in 1988: with chili sauce and fresh lime juice squeezed on them. At that time one couldn’t get that in the U.S., now there are all kinds of chili-lime chips, but it’s still best with just the plain chip and the chili sauce and the lime.

      Hadn’t thought of Ricky, but was thinking there was a citation of Guy of Gisborne here somewhere.


  7. This will likely be a minority report, but I just was not impressed with the actress herself, from simply an acting perspective. Whether script, direction and editing had the main impact, is open to individual perception, no doubt. I question whether she came into the part with having created any backstory for herself?

    Stereotyping does recur in Spooks episodes. However, I felt the Russians were given more leeway. Katchimov in S7 was a nasty piece of work, but at least the script allowed him to be a bit “larger then life” and quite amusing. Peter Sullivan (Sarkasian) was permitted, at least, to be a match for Harry. And Elisavieta was allowed a sympathetic portrayal. These actors, though, both British and Spanish, are good actors.

    As for accents, with globalisation, I think regional accents have been fast disappearing, which is possibly the reason that I was less bothered by Sarah’s accent. In England, the “gentrification” of accents (apparently resulting in a standard “RP” accent, which is not necessarily “upper class”), seems to result in an erosion of county accents, which were once distinguishable. Canadian accents (I still maintain we didn’t have an “accent”!) are sounding closer to American (blame the media/entertainment industries.)

    I believe there is some truth to the post-empire attitude of the British toward the highly successful U.S., which can influence dramatic depiction. I believe even British writers have looked at this, if I could just think of an example!


    • O’Reilly may also just be a terrible actress, fitzg. I am not discounting that, although the frequency with which she gets cast in pretty decent productions (see her United Agents CV, which I linked in post one of this series) suggests she must have some dramatic skills. She got important roles right out of drama school, which Mr. Armitage didn’t, and I assume there’s no shortage of pretty faces out there. I haven’t seen her in anything else. My point in general though is to note that her failure in this role was overdetermined. The best actress would have struggled with the series of issues she had to deal with.


  8. btw, I still think Lucas was suffering from PTSD throughout S8. 🙂


    • I don’t disagree, I am just days behind on comments. 🙂 I’d say (on the axis of my argument that “the only way you can know Sarah is to look at Lucas) that the script wants this to be its explanation of why Lucas could end up making such a horrible decision. The problem is that it’s not clear why exactly this character would become the object of a PTSD related search for meaning.


  9. “It’s just that there’s no good way to say “U.S.-ians” as there is in Spanish (estadoünidenses, itself admittedly a somewhat awkward noun)…”
    Hey! Is not awkward! 😉 Is pretty easy to say once you’ve mastered the country’s name in spanish (Estados Unidos), after that, you just have to add -ense(s). See? Easy! Hehe. [Why the 2 dots over the ‘u’?].
    Ok, ok, I just remembered when at school with 9 years old we were taught countries names in english and how I hated it when the teacher asked me about UK (United Kingdom, now that’s difficult to pronounce) until she saw many of us had that problem and so told us just to say UK(‘repeat after me: Iu-Key). Sorry for the little childhood memory :P.

    “he encounters an African American security guard.”
    This sentence surprised me. When I watch that scene (until know) I wasn’t conscious this was an african-american man, nor it was suppose to mean: american people. In fact I just assume everyone was british, well, except for Sarah and Walker…
    Lucas behaviour looked to me as he was acting the part, average ‘I don’t care’ ‘Want to finish and get outta here’ messenger, you know, worldwide trade of messengers? (:P)
    And him reverting to ‘nice’ behaviour was his buying time tactic. While the guard’s attitude to me was average guard’s behaviour towards smart— messenger and somewhat patient.
    Could it be that I’ve been exposed practically all my life to ‘american’ movies and tv-shows that the stereotypes sound true and ‘normal’ but because I’m not american I can’t discern when it is showed as stereotype, which I totally can do when tv, shows ‘latinos’…(rolling my eyes here).

    This stereotypes discussion is so interesting, it happens everywhere around the world, so no one is innocent.

    OML 🙂


    • Sorry if I repeated things of other commentaries, I was in my study-break (as I am now) and did not read other commentaries.
      Back to papers *sigh*


    • Hmmm. We learned in Spanish class at university to say “norteamericanos” for U.S.ians, that you could say “estadoünidenses” but that it was an obscure word that would make people look at you look funny. Spanish instruction in the U.S. is heavily influenced by Mexican usage, of course. We also learned to write the “u” with the dieresis to indicate the separation of the vowels, but looking around, that seems not to be standard anymore.


      • I was going to comment about ‘norteamericanos’ but erase it, lol. When I was young we used to call USians that, don’t know why exactly, maybe an awarness of the incorrectness of the termn, after all NorthAmerica is not just US, there’s also Mexico and Canada and so the ‘correct term’ became ‘estadounidense’. Now no one will look at you funny :P, though lately we’re just saying ‘americans’ too…
        The ‘ü’ is used in words with ‘gui’ to indicate that you should pronounce the ‘u’ because otherwise the sound is as in ‘guitar’. A word with ü is pingüino (penguin) that is pronounced pin(peen)-gu(as in guttural)-i(e)-no.
        Enough with the spanish miniclass…

        OML *sheepish grin*


  10. Have to agree with Fitzg that global accents are starting to merge but locally in the UK – not so much. It may be that in the South East (London and all around) everyone seems to be drifting towards what we term ‘Estuary English’ (i.e. within the area of the Thames estuary); but up here in the North West there are still myriad local accents. I was only discussing this with US friends on a forum recently – for such a small country we have so many accents and they change within a few miles. Manchester and Liverpool are only approx 40 miles apart but you could not get two more different accents, and I live a good 30 miles North of Manchester and the accent here is completely different again. It is really only in the last 30 years or so that regional accents have become acceptable on mainstream UK TV – especially in News and Current affairs, before that everyone had to speak ‘The Queen’s English’ knows as Received Pronunciation. I imagine this is probably the same in US shows as all the critics over here raved about the series ‘The Wire’ but I watched 3 episodes and gave up because I couldn’t understand a word. US people must have the same problem with some Uk shows.


    • I watched “Love Actually” with my mom over Xmas break and she said, “cute film, it would have been nice if they had spoken English.” 🙂 So many of us do have a problem understanding even RP if we’re not accustomed to hearing it. I usually find if I don’t understand something that turning up the volume helps a lot for recognizing clipped off consonants, etc.

      I actually think regional accents are alive and well in the U.S., but that most people don’t really listen for them. For example to me there is a distinct difference in how people from eastern and western Wisconsin talk, but if you weren’t from there, you wouldn’t notice the difference, as it’s fairly subtle.

      When i went to college there was a strong pressure to speak with a sort of amalgamated tv-sounding accent. I complied, but am still not able to cover my origins completely.


  11. servetus, I have not been happy having such a strong reaction to Sarah. And have been trying to rationlise it. Somehow, the reaction seems to have lost objectivity.

    I wonder if the writers’ intent in S9 was to render Lucas less infallible in judgement in S9. (Though, if we’re nit-picking, one could say that in S7 e6, leaving Dean’s mother unprotected was a wee bit fallible). One could speculate that S8 was intended to start peeling away the Hero status, to make the Lucas character even more intriguing. And that through the device of allowing little room for Genevieve to present some sympathetic traits to the audience, Lucas is not being seen in the best light. And one could also speculate that this is a preamble to S9, and the cliff-hanger about Lucas not being who we thought was.

    June, I really am happy to hear that “regional” accents have not been engulfed entirely by Estuary English!


    • One severe issue with everything I am writing here, of course, is that S9 now has the potential to contradict everything we know about Lucas. Sigh …


  12. i’ve only gotten as far as the potato chip part but I wanna just say… mmmm paprika. i always cook with it! now back to the entry…


  13. Very interesting. I guess being Canadian we can laugh about American stereotypes but at the same time fall into them. Us Canadians like to think we’re different (and we are in a lot of ways) but we’re not too different. hehe. Anyhoo I’m talking about this because I’ve never been to England (yet!) and don’t know what else to compare it to.

    I loved the biker delivery boy scene because it gave me a laugh which most of season 8 didn’t accomplish. And RA in that outfit wasn’t bad…


    • Canadians are the better Americans, right, Kat? 🙂

      I actually laughed out loud the first time I saw the end of the scene, at the security guard’s line: “That language is not necessary, ma’am. You have a nice day,” because it so demonstrates the U.S. insistence on a particular kind of politeness even when it’s totally contravened by the circumstances. I share this. I may be annoyed beyond belief, and I may get pushed into anger, but I refuse to be needled into rudeness. So the guy has to end the conversation with a bland pleasantry, and he picks the most common of all of them in the U.S.: “you have a nice day.” I suppose it’s the parallelism to Lucas as bike messenger saying at the end “really helpful.”


  14. […] of words I generated regarding questions of identity, Armitage’s formal clothing and on the problems around Genevieve O’Reilly in Spooks 8. Every attempt to write about Mr. Armitage, even those intended as short one-offs, […]


  15. […] [Previously, on "me + richard armitage": Unintentionally jumping into a bigger question than I had planned to discuss, I described a specific usage problem in Sarah Caulfield's speech in Spooks 8 as a signal that Genevieve O'Reilly is not American, and referenced the resulting frustration of some audiences of the show with what they believed to be a failed characterization. Next, while agreeing that I shared the audience's disappointment with Ms. O'Reilly's performance, I concluded that her problems with U.S. accent and idiom were not the ultimate source of the failure of this characterization, but rather a focal point for larger difficulties in the Spooks 8 script, and postulated that the failure of the characterization was thus overdetermined and not limited to problems with O'Reilly's acting. In particular I indicated an interest in the question of whether the causes of this failed characterization had also influenced audience perceptions of the credibility of the Sarah / Lucas relationship and of the chemistry between O'Reilly and Mr. Armitage, though I did not offer data. In a third step, then, with particular attention to how and why our picture of Sarah was dependent on what we learned about her from Lucas, I discussed the extent to which the characterization of Sarah became reliant on one aspect of the character: her "Americanness," arguing that it was the decisive issue in her characterization because it was almost the only contextual clue we had to her identity until the last episode of the show. (Thus the flubbed accent was more problematic than it might otherwise have been.) Most recently, I pursued the issue by defining anti-Americanism and giving a lengthy example of the ways in which the Spooks 8 script reli….] […]


  16. […] others have existed in the past, but this is the one we live in right now. Given that framework, I’m grateful to be a citizen of the U.S. This completely arbitrary circumstance has probably contributed more than any other factor to the […]


  17. […] The question I had was specifically about the show’s casual anti-Americanism. (Again, please don’t draw any conclusions about my politics based on this reflection. I don’t want to talk about the legitimacy of anti-Americanism, period, I want to talk about anti-Americanism as it’s portrayed in the show.) I think this theme was on my mind doubly in May, 2010, because of the way the trope of anti-Americanism played itself out in the Sarah Caulfield story, so that I got very involved in looking at how it showed up as a plot engine in Spooks. […]


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