I first had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Jennifer O’Meara through a paper she presented on feminist memes and the ways in which they enact imaginary vocal agency while at the same time perpetuating gendered stereotypes of the female voice. Within the general constellation of media studies approaches to voice, this was certainly a fresh and memorable intervention. And Dr. O’Meara’s newest book, Women’s Voices in Digital Media: The Sonic Screen from Film to Memes, does this and so much more.
An expansive text that looks to the past in order to look forward, the book closes a critical gap in the theorization of women’s voices by revisiting, challenging, and extending classical conceptions in film studies and critical media studies, carrying them into the digital and transmedia age. The book’s stated objective is to provide much needed “hindsound” through productive revisions of film voice theory (14). O’Meara defines hindsound as a process of excavating verbal and vocal echoes in time and across media space, with particular attention to technologized developments and their historical precursors.
Indeed, not only is this theoretical update vital to future theorizations of the gendered voice in media, but the book delivers it brilliantly by engaging with a vast array of scholars and a careful tethering to ongoing technological changes. Each chapter and each iteration of voice technology is accompanied by key analytical frameworks that lend themselves to further investigation and offer the reader models for attempting their own analysis of emergent genres and technologies of vocal performance.
As O’Meara states, the main question of “how the treatment of women’s screen voices has changed or stayed the same in response to technological change” is only a jumping-off point for what unfolds as a journey across vocal practices, platforms, and notable examples of vocal genre subversion (5). The mobility and permeability of women’s voices traveling through media is marked, as the author suggests, by a “certain dissolution of boundaries and thus new ways of hearing or more precisely new ways of audio-viewing” (6). To this end, the concept of intermediality helps to scaffold the female voice’s slippage and mobility from screen to screen, from media to media, within diverse technosocial contexts.
One of the key concepts O’Meara mobilizes throughout the book is time, or rather, the dislodging of the recorded voice from its temporality as it is replayed or dubbed across different medial contexts. Using the framing of terminable versus interminable meanings, O’Meara’s examples demonstrate how the circulation of historically dubbed performances exists within their fixed meanings and at the same time is reanimated by diverse emergent discourses, as concerns and issues shift with time. Essentially, voice can have a terminable meaning within the context of the original media; however, other discourses emerge and become attached to it over time, making the meaning interminable.
One of the examples foregrounded in the first chapter involves the use of archival vocal footage and dubbing as “vocal afterlives” that credit or conceal the labor and identity of the voice actress (15). Such an example allows O’Meara to challenge the assumption that it is inherently harmful for the voice to be linked to a female body—an assumption that stems from classic formulations of the female voice as what Silverman calls a psychoanalytic “acoustic mirror.” Instead, using a media archeology perspective, O’Meara argues that recognition of the dubbed voice can benefit voice actresses and generate social capital. Examples of this argument include not only classic dubbing but also newer forms of voice-off narration, such as the disembodied “reflexive voiceover” of (celebrity) Instagram video (99). In essence, O’Meara demonstrates that film theory itself is interminable, since film voices are temporally layered with digital traces of their original recordings. Like the acousmatic presence of the ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) voice, the persistent femaleness of the digital voice is an iconic and agential presence that acts as an anchor for audiences within increasingly diverse and interactive audiovisual spaces.
Using the concepts expanded cinema and intermedia (with their key principles of immersivity, interactivity, and interconnectedness), O’Meara offers a model for understanding how different interfaces of spatial media create “effects of immersion” by way of the presence and absence of sound (100). For instance, the female digital voice speaks intimately to a presumed headphone listener on social media, inviting them to “unmute” by providing only limited captions. Conversely, the circulation of voice recordings in the context of deepfake AI can serve as raw data for computer-generated voice assistance (at best) and for deepfake porn (at worst), as encapsulated and quoted in one provocative slogan: “Ever wanted Natalie Portman to yell obscenities at your neighbor? Adobe has you covered” (73).
On the topic of technologized and/or roboticized female voices, O’Meara significantly develops existing theory by mobilizing three case studies of media that cinematically represent female digital assistants. Bringing together work on AI and the posthuman voice, she argues that women’s voices are now, and have been, used as “central anchoring devices in the dystopic presentation of technologically enabled diegetic worlds” (54). Once again, it is, to use Doane’s term, the phantasmic body—the humanness of voice—that adds complexity and ambiguity to the posthuman aesthetic. By drawing a link between ASMR voices as “heteronormative models of care and intimacy” and the notably “damaged” or artificial quality of female voice assistants, O’Meara demonstrates how such digital voice performances are focused not on the content of the messages but on the quality of voice as a carrier of meaning (62). Given that voice in the digital realm is at least partially cyborgian, the book makes yet another connection to contemporary critical media studies in arguing for the inherent queerness of the technologized voice. Beyond the idea that cyborgs are queer, O’Meara masterfully weaves together examples across media, bringing in actual queer voices in programs such as RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo TV, WOW Presents Plus, and VH1, 2009–) in order to conceptually link queerness with the posthuman voice. As AO Roberts argues in the essay “Echo and the Chorus of Female Machines,” sonic renderings of transgender voices already stretch conventions of what constitutes male and female vocal register. Further, the performativity of the drag voice on television oscillates between intermedial tropes of gendered vocality and cyborgian dimensions of dubbing that have been a historical cornerstone of drag performance.
O’Meara’s final destination on the continuum of female voice iterations (and, ironically, the first topic I associate with her work) is the soundless medium of memes. Using both GIFs and static visuals with captions, she argues for memes as “voice” bytes that enact playful political activism by silently echoing imaginary voices. While “unvoiced,” these intermedial artifacts can be seen as a return to silent film, where the recognizability of the source personality renders the voice audible through “mental enunciation” (150). What is more, the full affect is experienced through a combination of superimposed text, movement, and external intertextual reference.
Once again, O’Meara moves much further with her theorization than a celebration of memes as surrogate voices for voiceless groups. In terms of political affect, she positions these subtitled experiences of voice as digitally novel incarnations of political cartoons aimed at a media-savvy audience, which is then likely to “hear” the message in a particular voice, with particular performativity, as an intertextual reference of popular culture.
O’Meara masterfully revisits some of the core assumptions in past theorizations of the female voice on-screen, most notably revising the preconceived semiotics of the voice-diegesis relationship. Given the diversity of temporalities, platformization, and accompanying cultural poetics of listening, her claim that the acoustic mirror has been shattered is justified—and she skillfully threads a narrative of its dispersing vocal shards. O’Meara doesn’t just survey and update theory; she lays out a multifaceted framework for future analysis of the female voice across emerging technological and visual platforms. As rare as it is to find within a mature field like critical media studies a text that delivers a paradigmatic update on a major conceptual framework, Jennifer O’Meara has done just that. This will be the book to read for any and all scholarly work on the gendered voice and its intersections with technology and the screen.