Why Policing Way Voices Sound Has to Stop

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 program cochair of performance, 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’s 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 her 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 theatre.

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 theatre?”

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.

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