Author: Lucy Bowling
Advisor: Prof. Kira Hall, TA Rebecca Lee
Class: LING 2400: Language, Gender, & Sexuality
Semester: Fall 2022
Jesse Armstrong’s hit HBO drama Succession is, at its core, a show about a family business. It is also a show about the business of being a family, and all of the battles that go on behind the scenes when there are multiple powerful people under one roof. The patriarch, Logan Roy, grapples with some complex and delicate relationships with his children, one of whom, supposedly, will be Logan’s successor and take over as CEO of Waystar-Royco. He has to ask himself many questions that a father normally doesn’t: How will the PR response be if I send my son to rehab? How do I emotionally manipulate my youngest to side with me on this acquisition deal? Will my daughter be able to sweep this sexual harassment case under the rug for me? How do I prevent my idiodic son from running for president as an independent?
The Roy family is full of dysfunctional relationships and even more dysfunctional language. Tom Wambsgans, wife of Logan’s only daughter Siobhan (Shiv) Roy, sums up the show’s use of language quite nicely when discussing Shiv’s potential deal with her dad:
“It’s like you and your dad have finally admitted how much you’re into each other, you know? And now you can...you know... not this, but now you can bang.”
The words “bang,” “fuck,” “fight,” and “kill” are used interchangeably to describe business deals, and with Logan Roy as an almost omnipotent power in the show, incestual sentences like this are uttered many, many times. This is not done purely for the sake of comedy, but for creating an atmosphere of aggressive corporate life which is only intensified by jarring language use.
Armstrong and his team of writers have a foul mouth: in Episode 5, the word “fuck” is uttered a whopping 99 times. But this use of profanity isn’t senseless: it is simultaneously deliberately stylized and a real attempt at commenting on masculinity in the business world. The stylization of language in the show, which often ends up being overtly masculine, aggressive, and unprofessional is what attracted me to the thought of making a video essay about the show. In the course LING 2400: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, we discussed at length how different cultural subgroups develop and utilize their own language, often indexing more complex social hierarchies and norms. While language within the show is to a degree played for laughs, it is also used to expertly comment on gender and create characters whose vocabulary is indicative of important parts of their character.
Oftentimes, the show creates an atmosphere of locker-room banter to the nth degree, with phallic metaphors being a staple in most of the men’s vocabulary. But the show also subverts the audience’s expectations in several ways. Women like Siobhan Roy use the same foul language as her brothers, while her nervous, new-to-corporate life cousin Greg Hirsch speaks about as submissively as he can.
We can better understand these complex uses of language by applying early theories of language and gender proposed by Deborah Tannen (1990) and Robin Lakoff (1975) about how language and gender inform one another. While Lakoff focuses on the concept of “women’s language,” Tannen divides language into a “two-cultures” model, namely rapport talk (associated with women) vs. report talk (associated with men). In addition, we can apply concepts from O’Barr and Atkins’s (1980) paper on powerless language as well as Scott Kiesling’s (2004) essay “Dude” on masculine language.
Is the masculine language used by men on the show an assertion of traditional gender roles? Or do the writers for Succession subvert our expectations of language? In a way, Succession highlights the complexities and nuances of gendered language, showing that while gender does impact one’s use of language, “men’s” vs. “women’s” language is far, far too simple for the Roys.
Succession, Jesse Armstrong, HBO 2018.
Kiesling, Scott F. “Dude.” American Speech, vol. 79, no. 3, Jan. 2004, pp. 281–305.
Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman’s Place. Harper & Row, 1975.
Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don’t Understand : Women and Men in Conversation. Morrow, 1990.
O’Barr, William M., and Bowman K Atkins. “‘Women’s language’ or ‘powerless language’?” Women and Language in Literature and Society, edited by Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman. Praeger, , 1980, pp. 93-110