Why Policing the Way Voices Sound Has to Stop
BU vocal theory researcher argues that to fight oppression, we must embrace the kaleidoscopic identities—and sounds—of marginalized voices
As a vocal coach at Boston University College of Fine Arts (CFA), Christine Hamel thinks of herself less as a trainer who’s liberating universal vocal abilities and more like a tour guide helping her students take their voices where they want to go. That subtle difference in approach is rooted in Hamel’s commitment to dismantling the patriarchy, systemic racism, and social injustice—all in the context of the voice, an “iterative and kaleidoscopic” expression of who we are, she says.
Hamel (CFA’05)—CFA program cochair of performance, an assistant professor of voice and speech and of acting, and program head of acting—is part philosopher, part vocal chameleon. And her forthcoming coauthored book, Sounding Bodies: Identity, Inequality, and the Voice, due to be published in 2021 by Bloomsbury/Methuen, takes the subject of voice in society head-on.
Since childhood, Hamel has been immersed in acting, dancing, and singing. “I always felt very playful with my voice,” she says. As a kid, she consciously adopted, like, “valley girl” speak.
At Williams College, as a studio art and English major focused on critical theory, she began taking that playful lens to challenge norms. Then, pursuing an MFA at BU College of Fine Arts, she took that exploration to the stage. “There was this power of iterating myself in different ways as an actor, I wanted to make Shakespeare feel down-to-earth,” she says. Hamel became keenly interested in gender and how people “perform” gender in their daily lives and as actors. At BU, she founded the Femina Shakes initiative, retelling Shakespeare through a feminist lens and exploring age-old characters through a wide range of gender identities.
It led her to question how people perform in different kinds of bodies. Her outside-the-box thinking butted up against the way that older generations had approached voice and theater.
Around 2013, “vocal fry” or “creaky voice” had become part of the public lexicon—terms that described how some American millennial women like the Kardashians were speaking in a low vocal register, where air pops or creaks through the opening of the vocal folds. To Hamel, it signaled a marked increase in the way women’s voices were monitored and policed. “It was so problematic—so much vocal shaming was going on,” she says. “I always kinda liked ‘creaky voice’—it’s a perfectly viable option of speaking.”
She began questioning the social norms behind the outcry against vocal fry’s increasing use among young women and gay men, and the myths that it was actually harming voices. (At the time, headlines like “What is ‘vocal fry,’ and is it harmful to your voice?” and “Why Old Men Find Young Women’s Voices So Annoying,” were popping up in national media. IMDB even published a list of celebrities with the most annoying voices.) Was this society’s way of keeping the communities employing vocal fry oppressed under the dominant white patriarchy?
As she researched inequalities in the ways that gendered voices were policed, she expanded into studying all the ways that a person’s identity and position in society’s structures of power impact our voices: how voices develop, how voices are received by listeners, and what voice trainers can do to be more sensitive to marginalized voices.
Working with transgender students to develop their voices was especially eye-opening—or ear-opening. “As a coach, you can’t rely on sedimented ideas about anatomy or gendered voices,” Hamel says. “We have to meet students at the place where they want their voices to grow. If we did that with every possible social identity, how would that change an audience’s expectation of what they’re going to hear at the theater?”
But along with training voices more equitably, she says, society needs to retrain how we listen. “If I hear the same sound from two different bodies, do I judge them differently? If I police the tone of someone’s voice, do I really want to hear what this person has to say? When we’re coaching students, we have to ask ourselves, if we’re trying to arrive at a certain sound, is that for the benefit of the predominantly white middle class?”
Simply put, seeking to undo all the vocal markers of the way a person’s been shaped by economic, political, and social forces, she says, is a white supremacist theory. The Brink caught up with Hamel in a series of email and phone interviews and got a crash course on how to challenge oppressive vocal norms that protect historical structures of power.
With Christine Hamel
The Brink: When you talk about voice training, are you talking about training for work in the theater or about training for everyday communication?
Hamel: I’m talking mostly about theater voice training, although many theater voice trainers are employed as coaches for business executives, public speakers, and “regular people” who are looking to strengthen and develop their vocal capacities in various ways.
What exactly is an anti-oppression vocal training theory?
Commonly used theories for voice training emphasize the individual’s capacity for growth and change, as if the playing field and social context for training is a neutral, equitable, and benign one. Anti-oppression vocal theory actively acknowledges that voices, bodies, and identities are constructed by social and political forces (for good and for ill), and seeks to dismantle the systemic injustices that marginalize certain voices and bodies.
How is voice training changing to become more inclusive?
Many voice trainers are moving BIPOC voices to the center of discourse in theater training classes, so that texts traditionally used are being questioned, which plays used for teaching are being questioned. There is even change around this idea of checking in—most theater training involves a “check-in” at the beginning of a session. You’re checking in with your mental, emotional, physical state, and actively trying to clean those slates to focus on class. But one of the things lacking in that exercise is that it doesn’t account for the different lenses of how a person’s race impacts their experiences, and does not yet actively welcome a person’s experience of their body through the lens of race—or other identities—as a significant aspect of what their body carries with it. What was it like to walk through the day as a racialized body before class started?
Can you talk more about that—how does a person’s experiences relating to their race impact their ability to walk into a room and be ready to sing or act?
Vocal trainers are recognizing there are day-to-day traumatic aspects of being Black in America—which can increase the baseline level of anxiety that a Black individual might have coming into the room. This old-school presumption that everyone can “check in” and get to this relaxed, “I’ve shaken it off” state, is out of touch with the fact that many Black Americans keep their guard up for survival. Just like I can’t experience myself without gender, there are group belongings and identities that bodies cannot shake off. During warm-up, teachers need to pay a little more care to the fact that not all of their students can wipe their slates clean in the same way.
You mention that certain kinds of voices are more likely to be identified in need of liberation (and training) than others, and are more subject to vocal policing than others. What are those voices and who are the vocal police?
One classic example of this is the notion of “vocal fry” or “creaky voice.” Many voice trainers have decried the use of this vocal sound as everything from limited, unhealthy, and psychologically damaging to infuriating, irritating, and an example of “throwing away personal power.” Almost always these criticisms (many in mainstream media, and often in voice training and theater circles) have been levied at women’s use of this vocal quality exclusively, rarely acknowledging its source in masculine vocal mannerisms or its existence in several languages (Danish, for instance) as a legitimate, and sustainable, phonemic feature.
The aim of voice trainers—and “supporters of women” who urge women to reclaim their “big, strong voices”—is often to support voices that patriarchal society has historically “sent into hiding” so they can come out and compete in a “man’s world.” Such a strategy is likely to fail for women, however, as using the vocal mannerisms stereotypically associated with masculinity will not afford women the same benefits that men get from them. Further, this will hold true even more so for Black and brown women (especially transgender women), whose “big, strong voices” are not likely to be received at all the same way as even their white counterparts, subjecting them to heightened vocal policing in the same way that their bodies are more generally policed. The vocal goods they offer are heard inequitably.
Vocal police could include elementary school teachers, family, media, peers, coaches, bosses, spouses, voice trainers…anyone who suggests that one’s voice is “too (loud, strident, irritating, soft, weak, ingratiating, etc.)” to be taken seriously or to keep one out of harm’s way. This type of policing, in a vocal context, maintains the status quo of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy.
You mention that voice is replete with ethical, social, and political meanings. How are those meanings incorporated in voice and how are they expressed, and recognized, by listeners?
The term “code-switching” might help us here. Through the voice, one can express a sense of belonging (or not) within a social group: one’s tone, rhythm, cadence, volume, timbre, and range signify a host of cues about the power and social relationship between speakers. Language and grammatical structures will convey this relationship as well, but it runs deep into the grain of the voice.
Voices from Black and brown bodies in predominantly white spaces are received differently than they will be in BIPOC affinity spaces, and their voices may be produced differently, incurring an undue burden of vocal and existential labor: it takes energy to keep switching up how you sound in order to stay safe.
In our book, my coauthor and I argue that voice is produced in social relationships at the outset, from the very beginning of the in utero experience, as we forge neurological pathways to mirror and reflect the sounds of our “most important people.” Our survival depends upon it. There is evidence that babies’ cries make adjustments to account for a parent’s own vocal quality and pitch (along the lines of gender identity—perhaps a lower pitched cry for dad, higher for mom, etc.). Conversely, adults may adjust their speaking pitch based on perceptions of the child’s gender.
The creation of voice truly goes both ways as a sense of belonging emerges. The ethical piece comes in how we take collective responsibility for the code-switching that inevitably develops to secure survival for any individual or group, and to become mindful of when it is mandated or expected (for instance, the expectation of a “formal vocal register” in a work setting, which really can just be code for “white vocal register.” See Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You for more on this).
You say that we produce our voice as part of our various intersecting identities within structures of power, and that these constructed voices are existentially meaningful. What exactly are those structures of power and how do they influence voices?
This is an idea [from philosopher Michel Foucault] that bodies themselves (and we argue, voices) are always “produced” within and by structures of power to build certain capacities through necessary limitations. Race is a prime example of a social construct that was produced by particular economics, structures of power, and policies in order to perpetuate and maintain the financial interests of those in power. However, just because racial categories are societal constructs, and are the result of racism, doesn’t mean that racial identities are without deep existential meaning or cultural significance for individuals and communities.
It matters how race is enacted in one’s body and is envoiced in relation to others; the way any social identity (racial identity, gender identity, class, sexuality, etc.) gets picked up and communicated in the voice is deeply important, and beyond that, provides ways of being that may be valued deeply by an individual in relation to their beloved communities. One’s sense of self and various social identities are revealed in how one discursively produces one’s dynamic, changeable voice in a meaningful relationship with others. This all matters profoundly when we are training voices: too quickly voice trainers can dismiss the markers of racialized (or other) identities as the “extra,” superfluous effects of socialization that limit the freedom of the voice that lives “underneath.” This is how racialized and other social identities begin to get erased on a vocal level.
That touches upon something you talk about in your book, this idea some voice trainers have that there is a “natural/free” voice hiding underneath socialized voices. You find that particularly problematic—why is that?
The philosophical assumptions in “natural/free” voice work refer to the notion that one is born into vocal freedom—with a two to three octave range—and that as one moves towards adult socialization (learning to “be polite,” or to inhibit vocal impulses that would get you into trouble, or learning to “fit in”), one is burdened with limitations on one’s vocal freedom to “speak out,” what is viewed as a “universal right.”
This understanding relies heavily on the revival of late-1960s romanticism to try and reclaim a natural state of being by rejecting the pernicious and limiting aspects of Western culture, constraining sociopolitical forces and oppressions, etc. This way of thinking is problematic for a couple of reasons.
First, vocal “freedom” in this sense is more available to those with greater societal privileges than others, who are willfully able to come out from under the thumb of oppressive forces and mandates without putting themselves in danger, thereby reinforcing social inequities. In a Black man who is soft-spoken and very polite in the way his voice sounds, there might be voice trainers that seek to “rewild” that voice, but that’s not considering that they’re encroaching on this delicate place—it might not be safe in his life to vocalize in a “big, strong voice,” for example.
Second, the natural/free voice philosophy doesn’t acknowledge that voices are socialized from the beginning. We are always limited and shaped by our relationship to society, and this doesn’t need to be a problem. That I am born already “specializing” in my mother’s native language (well before I can speak words), for instance, is good for me and my ability to thrive, and not, as natural/free pedagogy implies, simply robbing me of my personal freedom. Natural/free voice approaches overemphasize personal autonomy to unlearn social habits, and underemphasize the importance of relationships in the very formation of our voices and selves.
You say that one of the problems with “freeing the voice” from the constraining effects of socialization is that it can erase voices that have been shaped by the intersections of race and gender and sexuality.
Yes. To attempt to strip away all effects of the social influence on a voice (which, I would argue, is not possible), is to conceive of a state of vocal freedom that precedes culture. That’s to assume that there is an essential, untouched humanity “underneath” the accrued layers of socialization an individual has experienced, a humanity still waiting to be recovered. It also assumes that the “humanity” underneath is closer to something more authentically you. But a person’s gender, race, sexuality, class, etc., are not simply to be “stripped away,” revealing something more authentic underneath. It is all those things, tied to our lived experiences, that make us our authentic selves.
Additionally, it leads to a way of thinking that pervades liberal humanist thought: underneath all of the social categories, we are all just human, and more or less the same. This dismisses the profound impacts of systemic inequalities on lived experience, and the profound meaningfulness found in social identities.
It can also lead to a notion of the un-gendered, un-classed, un-raced individual that aligns with the experience of the dominant norm of white, cisgender, heterosexual masculine bodies who might move through the world as if they were “just individuals” who weren’t marked by social identities. So, for voice trainers to try and “strip the voice” of social markers could easily veer students into vocalizations that are more aligned with dominant masculine norms—again, the “big, strong voice”—as an idea of what vocal freedom sounds like.
What is “envoicing” and how does it bring into being certain vocal identities, characteristics, and habits that perpetuate (or resist) systemic injustice?
The idea of envoicing—and ethics of envoicing—is to acknowledge that the production of voice extends beyond merely the audible sonorous aspects of vocal sound and the individual’s role in producing those sounds. It recognizes voice as a fundamentally interactive event that creates meaning. The meanings and evaluations of vocalizations—whether they are viewed as disruptive, or impressive, or shrill, or beautiful—are the products of power and value discourses.
The ethics of envoicing recognizes a responsibility for how both individual and collective practices produce certain kinds of voices and listening practices. For instance, in voice/text coaching for theater—particularly for, let’s say, a production of Shakespeare featuring actors of color—there is a responsibility that I, as a coach, could either perpetuate or resist systemic injustice.
I could, on one hand, encourage BIPOC actors to sound “intelligible” in certain predictable, comfortable ways for a predominantly white middle class audience, which risks effacing and obscuring some modalities of voice that may not align with the dominant white listening ear. Or, I could push up against those expectations and support a multiplicity of ways to speak Shakespearean prose, recentering the experience around the specificity of the cultures of the actors in the room.
That then insists that a primarily white audience must listen in with more commitment and energy, that they must move through some discomfort, and that they must retrain and unlearn a Eurocentric and habituated way of listening to that kind of text.