A tension has long existed between women's bodies and women's voices in culture, in politics, and in media. Women's bodies have been widely displayed as objects of desire or as allegories of various vices and virtues, but their voices, words, and soundmaking have often been muted or marginalized at best, and censored or silenced at worst. If feminism has been about women finding their voices, speaking up, being listened to, and if feminist history has been about telling the stories of the silenced majority, then which spaces of media and forms of communication have women appropriated to express themselves and to make themselves heard?
This is a central question for feminist/media history, but it is one whose specifically sonic dimensions have all too often gone “overlooked” (for want of a more suitably auditory word). Even the critical language we use is colored by the dominance of the visual. Having said that, a growing literature is beginning to amplify the history of women's soundmaking in and through the media across time, across media, and across genres. To get a flavor of some of the foundational work within the American context, consider these examples: in his history of American burlesque, Robert Allen traces how early comedic stage performance was marked by the often transgressive and bawdy voices of “talking women” who took on male as well as female parts, yet as burlesque performance evolved, it “became increasingly bifurcated: verbal humor provided usually by male comedians and sexual display provided by female performers.”1 Anne McKay writes about the development of electronic voice amplification technology that allowed women's voices to be heard in public spaces, facilitating women's entry into the political arena, where their presence earlier had been denigrated as inappropriate and weak.2 Classic Hollywood cinema likewise notoriously emphasized women as spectacle, as Amy Lawrence explains, “placing women on the weak end of sound/image hierarchies.”3 And in its earliest years, radio replayed these negotiations between body and voice in debates over the suitability of women announcers, whose voices were characterized as monotonous, weak, possessing either too much personality or too little, overly intimate, and, in fact, needing “body” to succeed in this nonvisual medium.4 Most scholarship on women and media continues this tradition by focusing on visual representation of females and the feminine, with consideration of sound and the spoken word left playing in the background.
This special issue of Feminist Media Histories, “Women and Soundwork,” presents a set of articles by established and emergent feminist scholars that foregrounds and interrogates the relationship between women and sound. Their work has been enabled in part by the growth in sound studies research over the past two decades as it intersects with the still-developing field of feminist historiography. The term soundwork is useful to designate media forms that are primarily aural, employing the three basic elements of sonic expression—music, speech, and noise—to contribute to a lively economy of sound-based texts, practices, and institutions ranging from radio to recorded sound to the soundtracks that accompany visual media. Women have been crucial to the development of soundwork from the beginning, as composers, performers, radio writers and producers, recording artists, music directors, sound editors, and myriad other roles that now include the world of online sound. Women have also been active in sound industry management in many roles hidden from public view. And as audiences—listeners, consumers of sound products, and members of listening publics—women have been essential to the economic success, cultural circulation, and social impact of sound-based media of all kinds across the more than thirteen decades since the advent of recorded sound. The vast majority of this activity remains unexplored in media history and risks being lost to cultural memory.
This special issue, then, takes a feminist approach to the history of soundwork, focusing not only on women as soundmakers and listeners, but also on the power dynamics that framed and continue to frame both women's impact on media and their presence in the historical record. Drawing on research on radio, film, television, and music, investigating both contemporary and historical practices, and written by scholars based in a variety of cultural locations, this issue highlights the ongoing relevance of sound-centered work for women's creative expression and cultural experience in a media environment still dominated by silent text and the moving image, as well as the special historiographical and methodological challenges that writing women's history presents.
These tensions are well represented in the first set of articles, which interrogate analytic methodologies as well as sonic practices. Tara Rodgers's article, “Tinkering with Cultural Memory: Gender and the Politics of Synthesizer Historiography,” traces the role that gender has played in the conventions of writing the history of synthesized music and the many ways in which gender has been deployed to limit women's role in the development of electronic sounds, in both real life and historical accounts. Drawing on archival materials that reveal a story quite different from the traditional versions, Rodgers opens a window not only onto an alternative history of the development of synthesized sound, but also onto a new way of thinking about and writing media history. In a similarly self-reflexive vein, Christine Ehrick's “Nené Cascallar's Thirsty Heart: Gender, Voice, and Desire in a 1950s Argentine Radio Serial” explores how the female voice resonates across gendered cultural divides by querying the challenges that both sound and female-focused media genres set for the historian. Frequently, all that remains to scholars exploring radio's past is a body of scripts—written evidence of the vanished sonic work they represent. Using these, Ehrick gives a nuanced consideration of Cascallar's uniquely modern and feminist voice and unlocks the traces of sound within the scripted word.
The next group of essays considers strategies employed by media producers to construct, interrogate, or deconstruct notions of gender in radio, film, television, and music across several cultural contexts. In “The Radio Made Betty: Live Trademarks, Disembodiment, and the Real,” Sarah Murray takes us back to the early years of U.S. commercial radio to focus on the sonic practices behind the creation of one of radio's many “immaterial” women: the fictional homemaker-hostess and company symbol Betty Crocker. Drawing on archival materials, including internal documents, publicity, and recordings, Murray reveals the real-life labor of the women behind the scenes who constructed, voiced, and reincarnated the literally disembodied “live trademark” known to millions. Shikha Jhinghan turns our attention to contemporary Bombay cinema in “Backpacking Sounds: Sneha Khanwalkar and the ‘New’ Soundtrack of Bombay Cinema,” analyzing the innovative, self-reflective methods employed by Khanwalkar to bring a feminist sensibility to cinematic sound. Approaching film sound as an ethnographic exploration and highlighting the voices and cultures of ordinary people, Khanwalkar's work points to a revolution in Bombay cinema style. Shana MacDonald investigates the work of an exceptional group of 1960s avant-garde filmmakers in “Vocalizing Dissonance: Resistant Soundscapes in 1960s Feminist Experimental Film,” examining the ways in which experimental filmmakers Carolee Schneemann, Gunvor Nelson, and Joyce Wieland employed strikingly different relationships between sound and image to defamiliarize the domestic and articulate new forms of female subjectivity.
Finally, two essays on community radio take up the theme of political resistance by asking how sound media encourage innovative and effective forms of community engagement and how they intervene in pressing political and cultural circumstances. Nazan Haydari examines one such moment in “Sabun Köpüğü: Popular Culture, the Everyday, and the Representation of Feminist Politics through Radio in Turkey.” Sabun Köpüğü (Soap Bubble), a program produced in 2000–01 by Açık Radyo (Open Radio) in Istanbul, articulated a movement of oppositional feminist consciousness through a discussion forum produced by women that examined gendered cultural forms and practices at a moment of fermentation and change in Turkey. Haydari's account demonstrates how a program that was not “successful” in conventional terms—its audience was never large, nor did it have a long run—nevertheless marked a moment when a group of newly politicized women carved out a new sonic space to tell new stories in new ways, and which was a notable stepping stone on the way to a greater diversity of voices on air and online. Caroline Mitchell's article, “Re-Sounding Feminist Radio: A Journey through Women's Community Radio Archives,” places sound's interactive and political potential in historical context as she considers the value of digital radio archives in preserving and maintaining a record of women's radio-based political organizing for future generations and the implications of extending the reach and influence of local soundwork to listeners around the globe. Mitchell's essay is also marked by the self-reflexivity of a pioneering activist revisiting the soundwork she was involved with at a different historical moment.
We hope that readers will find much of interest and inspiration in these essays and will build on the insights and critiques made here to extend such analysis to women's soundwork of different times and places, and indeed that this feminist work on sound will resonate with scholars across the range of feminist media histories.