“Is that my voice?”: Constructing On-Screen Female Performance

After 1930 films have traditionally relied upon the voice to communicate narratives. Another consistent through line can be located in cinema’s “skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure,” to quote feminist theorist Laura Mulvey. These trends converge in performance of the on-screen female. Construction of an archetypal female for film reifies woman’s objecthood within the social patriarchy. This practice reverberates into social ideology and  is recycled back into narrative content. Singin’ in the Rain and Her demonstrate the evolution of filmmakers’ dealings with the female voice as both narrative subject and in practical application.

Synchronous sound brought with it a new set challenges– both technical and aesthetic– with which filmmakers and audiences alike had to contend. While synced sound emerged almost along with film itself, pairing recorded dialogue to film did not gain traction until the late 1920s. The transition to “talkies” has been noted as a difficult one for performers who gained notoriety in silent films, and some did not have voices deemed suitable for the film industry’s new trajectory. The solution here was to record new dialogue with a different performer and try to sync it to picture. Whether in an attempt to mitigate a foreign accent or to capture a prettier singing voice, vocal dubbing provided the post-production team with a certain measure of control over the rendered voice of the film. Though this occurs to all on-screen actors regardless of gender, the practice of overdubbing actresses’ voices has contributed to the prevailing concept that the ideal on-screen female can, and must, be constructed out of disparate parts.

Just as Laura Mulvey observed a tendency toward visual objectification of the on-screen female, Kaja Silverman noticed that “sexual difference is the effect of dominant cinema’s sound regime as well as its visual regime, and that the female voice is as relentlessly held to normative representations and functions as is the female body.”[i] She insists that the cinematic woman is not only objectified by the male visual gaze, but also by its aural equivalent. The piecemeal assembly of qualities from multiple actresses to create a unified female performance both expands the concept of the “male gaze” to include the sonic realm, but also reaffirms the function of the on-screen female as a fetish object to be altered at will.

Hollywood’s separate treatment of men and women’s voices applies to the aesthetic as well as the technological. Since talkies became all the rage, narrative films have shifted from visually centered methods of storytelling to vococentric (a term coined by sound theorist Michel Chion). The difficulties in capturing the human voice during the early days of synced sound came from the lack of technical knowledge regarding recorders and microphones. This is where things get geeky. At this time microphones had low frequency responses and typically omni- or bi-directional polar patterns, the combination of which resulted in a recording full of unwanted noise distracting or overwhelming the dialogue.











L: Omnidirectional polar pattern R: Bi-directional polar pattern

 Moreover, carbon microphones used in early sound films functioned much like a telephone, “rolling off” or attenuating at high frequencies and removing harmonics characteristic to female vocals. Silverman notes that the difficulty in capturing the female voice has been incorporated into film plots; “Singin’ in the Rain suggests that synchronization is synonymous with a more general compatibility of voice to body—that a voice which seems to ‘belong’ to the body from which it issues will be easily recorded, but that one which does not will resist assimilation into sound cinema. Since Lina’s voice ‘contradicts’ her polished appearance, it stubbornly refuses to be recorded.” Monumental Pictures’s leading lady is faulted for her apparent physical/vocal mismatch, rather than technological failings or acceptance of her natural voice.

Over dubbing, or looping became necessary in order to maintain clarity of dialogue, and thus, the clarity of the filmed narrative. In today’s post-production workflow, dubbing falls under the umbrella of ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement). Though microphone technology has advanced, there are still occasions when dialogue recorded from the production is mumbled, incorrect, or otherwise unacceptable and must be re-recorded by the actor/actress after filming has wrapped. The human voice is then literally made an object open to manipulation and control by external sources (the director, recording engineer, etc.). In the event that to-screen performer’s voice is found unacceptable, another performer will be called upon to overdub the lines of the filmed one (Andie MacDowell had such a horrendous English accent that Glenn Close redubbed all her lines in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes). Substituting the voice of one performer for another has been a fairly common practice in the film industry since the synchronous dialogue’s inception and continues today. When taking gender politics into consideration, the control and objectification exerted over the female voice in dubbing serves a dual purpose: to practically achieve the best recording, and to adhere to a specified aesthetic quality. Once again, Kaja Silverman brings attention to the sexualized norms of the dubbing process, that they “[enforce] the general dictum that female voices should proceed from female bodies, and male voices from male bodies. Violations of this dictum are marked as “comic,” and are never more than temporary.” However, when rendered in the final mix, the sound and image should appear to be unified, so as to maintain a convincing total performance.

The wholesale believability of this synchronicity of the on-screen woman’s voice serves as a foundation for my critique. By initially cleaving an actress’s performance along the voice/body boundary in order to work with distinct and “manageable” chunks, it signals an objectification of the performance from the outset. It is the job of the sound post-production team to reassemble the performance through the practical process of same-language overdubbing, which includes ADR recording, resynchroniztion, and mixing in order to match the spatial and tonal quality of the filmed location. While the technological practicalities are not inherently problematic, they carry social parallels and implications that are relevant to the conversation of female representation in film and television.

Singin in the Rain, comically thematizes the struggle of Hollywood’s transition to sound. Dubbing of female vocals occurs on several levels, both within and outside of the story. Central to the narrative is the dramatic irony that Monumental Pictures’ beloved silent film starlet Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) has a shrill and grating voice. The voice Hagen affected for the role of the glamorous Lina Lamont is in itself a stock-character, employed to humorously indicate tacky, low-class women. She is juxtaposed by the lovely ingénue Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Monumental Pictures recognized the monetary value of Lina’s image and remarks on her commodity status in the first minutes of the film; a male PR rep tells her “the studio’s gotta keep their stars from looking ridiculous at any cost.” The explicit acknowledgment of Lina’s glamorous image as a generator of capital and her voice as a threat to that crystallizes in a single sentence Lina’s ability to be divided into her constituent parts. However, Lamont’s less-than- beautiful voice does not spell disaster for her career or the studio. The male stars and studio heads come up with a plan to save face. Cosmo Brown’s solution of having Kathy Selden provide a voice for Lina’s body introduces another female performance into the gendered circuit of production. Compounding the irony, Debbie Reynolds’ voice was overdubbed in several scenes throughout the film. Betty Noyes provided the vocals for the ballad “Would You,” that Reynold’s Kathy Selden character was dubbing for Lina Lamont. Additionally, in a scene where Kathy is overdubbing Lina’s spoken lines, Jean Hagen, in fact, speaks the words the audience hears.

Multilayered and self-referential, the dubbing in this film reveals the artifice of the cinematic apparatus, including the dubbing process, while still upholding the capitalist patriarchal structure that governs Hollywood productions.

When deconstructed via technological means, the on-screen woman’s performance-based identity is destroyed and with it the ability of the spectator to identify with the character on a psychological level. Just as a surgeon would wield a scalpel, the post-production crew dissects the performance of the on-screen female, for the voice is just as integral to the performance as the physical body. The resulting “workable” parts of the actress’s voice and physical form are reduced to fetish objects, subject to the voyeuristic dominance exerted by the patriarchal order. I maintain that the forcible separation of the voice from a woman’s body is damaging to the agency once held in the “oneness” of the unified performance. A female voice without an accompanying body is deprived of the corporeal substance that anchors it in reality and believability for the spectator.

That isn’t to say there is no significance to the reunification of voice and body. The artificial vocal and physical performance is consumed at the final stage of the production process by the moviegoer. By accepting this illusion of a female performance as a unified whole, the spectator enters into an agreement with the film (and filmmaker) as a consumer of not only the film product, but also the constructed female performance product. Audience members consume a film and its content, and through their continued patronage reaffirm the demand for a particular idealized performance of femininity.

We can see such a performance of femininity in the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her, where the female voice divorced completely from the body is placed prominently on display. Scarlett Johansson portrays Theodore Twombly’s (Joaquin Phoenix) ultra-sophisticated operating system named Samantha. Twombly is a lonely, not-quite- divorcé, who, upon purchasing and installing a new operating system with artificial intelligence, chooses for the OS to have a female voice. Theodore’s chosen

dominance over the female voice is the first indication of Her’s adherence to the patriarchal order. His display of gendered agency subjugates any that she might have. Samantha’s potential agency would be stillborn regardless, from her lack of physical body. At first, Samantha functions as Theodore’s secretary; even devoid of a body, she cannot escape the office-type gender politics reminiscent of a 1960s advertising firm. When the two ultimately fall in love it is framed as a positive development that the viewer accepts as fact. Her takes the fetishization of the female voice to the extreme, completely detaching it from the body. However, the quality of the voice, specifically Scarlett Johansson’s voice, is specific enough to have presence, or “an ontological there-ness despite an absence of body.”[i] The inability for Samantha to physically embody herself speaks to her lack of ownership over her individual identity. In fact, when Samantha attempts to bring a flesh and blood surrogate into the relationship, Twombly is unable to cope. Anthropomorphizing an inherently incorporeal voice exposes the anxieties and frailty within Twombly’s psyche and to an extent, within the viewer.

This scene’s effect is particularly potent due to the knowledge of Scarlett Johansson’s appearance. A cognitive disconnect occurs within the spectator’s mind when the door opens to reveal a woman who looks similar to, but is clearly not Johansson. Jonze plays in the realm of the uncanny and evokes a sense of unease within the viewer through voice/body mismatch.

When the talkies took over, along with them came the ability for post-production editors to further manipulate the elements in the film to fit the given aesthetic. Deconstructing and rebuilding a female performance through same-language overdubbing is tantamount to Frankenstein’s assembly of The Creature from the parts of several men, but with the addition of gender politics. Across film genres and eras, Hollywood’s preoccupation with curating female performance has remained constant. Through critical analysis of the narrative conventions concerned with cleaving the female voice and body, one can observe art as an imitatation of life.


[i] Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), viii.

[ii] Troy Bordun, “On the Off-screen Voice: Sound & Vision in Spike Jonze’s Her,CineAction 98 (2016): 59.

by Brett Ashleigh

Brett is a queer femme from Durham, NC. She examines the sonic characterizations of marginalized bodies in film. She knows every word to The Princess Bride, is a sucker for Center Stage and Bring it On, and considers director Todd Haynes her spiritual soulmate.

She holds an MFA in Sound Design and an MA in Cinema Studies from Savannah College of Art and Design, and is pursuing a PhD in Communications from Simon Fraser University.

Find her at :@brettashleigh on Twitter, @brett.ashleigh on Instagram and https://soundcloud.com/brettashleigh on Soundcloud.

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