Review of Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture

Review of Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 1 Fall 2020

Author(s): Mavis Boatemaa Beckson

Mavis Boatemaa Beckson is a doctoral student with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Professional Communication and a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies at the New Mexico State University. Mavis serves as a Writing Program Coordinator and a Graduate Assistant at the English Department. Her research currently resides in but not limited to transnational feminist voices, new material feminists studies, comparative rhetoric, and technical writing.

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Edgar, Nell Amanda. Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture. Ohio State UP, 2019. 220 pages.

Amanda Nell Edgar’s Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture responds to the inquiry of how gender and race merits an audience as well as the media’s role in resisting and oppressing marginalized voices. The book delves deeper into how mediated and cinematic vocal performances reinforce cultural assumptions, representations, and perceptions about diverse voices, bodies, and gendered identities (2-3). By focusing on voices that are heard (culturally privileged ) and ignored (culturally marginalized), Edgar demonstrates through numerous case studies and rhetorical analyses of prominent voices in mainstream American society (Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Morgan Freeman, Adele, etc.) that “racial and gendered disciplinary mechanisms shape voice and vocal identity…and represent the complex interaction of bodies, the social forces that mold those bodies, and the media formats that circulate them” (4). The book, written in four chapters with extensive introductions and conclusions, accomplishes Edgar’s objective to draw from cultural theories of music, discourse, race, gender, vocal sound, and other areas to “poise rhetoric and media scholarship in a better position to communicate the value of sonic literacy to students and those outside academic spaces” (157). Overall, Edgar’s project contributes to the question that has been pursued by scholars of rhetoric and feminism, who has the power to speak and who has the power to create a listening audience? For Cheryl Glenn “identity and power determine who may speak, who merits an audience” (25), and what the results of the speech will be. Yet, Glenn argues the politics of vocal identity and circulation can be problematic in enabling the oppression, marginalization, and misrepresentation of “Others.” Simultaneously, Jacqueline Jones Royster’s famous essay “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own,” addresses the problematic ways in which dominant culture and identity perpetuate the displacement and rejection of the voices of the “Othered” (35). Like these scholars, Edgar’s book also offers a valuable investigation into how race, gender, status, religious affiliations, and space complicates the composition of voice as a normalized human entity. However, Edgar’s work focuses more on reconstructing voice as a political and cultural inscribed artifact used by the culturally privileged to (un)consciously reinforce racialized and gendered oppression.

Edgar’s introduction grounds her inquiry by building on a new theoretical framework and methodology that she terms, “critical cultural vocalics,” an interdisciplinary approach to studying vocal production in media studies and resisting “the idea that voices are biologically sexed or naturally racialized and that instead embraces vocal sound as a socially shaped material text” (4). This frame challenges readers to investigate voice intimacy (the familiarity of a speaker’s voice to an audience) and voice identity (what vocal sounds reveal about a speaker) as inseparable ideological mechanisms that reinforce how minority voices are misrepresented, disciplined, and even restricted by the media  (4). Also, the exploration of vocal identity and vocal intimacy in the introduction depicts how voice becomes culturally privileged—“voices that are widely familiar in mainstream media circulation” (5) and “allows audiences to maintain unchecked assumptions about race, gender…which consequently shapes and reshapes systems of discipline and oppression” (5). In sum, the detailed anchor of her methodology sets up the rest of the book by helping readers understand the “interaction of identity and mediated voices” (20) while examining voice as a hegemonic tool profitable to the culturally privileged.

In Chapter One, “Singing in the Key of Identity: Adele and the Vocal Intimacy of the Blues,” Edgar sets out three key concepts: “vocal racial passing/appropriation,” “difference/Identity,” and “authenticity” to inform her rhetorical analysis of voice. Starting with a series of flashbacks to the controversial media comparison of Adele’s vocals to prominent Black singers after Adele’s 2012 Grammy performance, Edgar establishes what she calls “vocal racial passing-vocal appropriation” (31) a concept which explores how voice is socially structured by “media industry practices” (24) or “how a singer identified with one race performs a vocal sound that is identified with another race” (26). Developing this idea, Edgar delves into the brief history of Black and immigrant voices in the entertainment industry by highlighting how racialized vocal differences (Blackvoice vs. whitevoice) were structured through exaggerated dialects coached to sound more “ethnic” than their white actors to white audiences (28). To further explore “Blackvoice”—the colonization and appropriation of Black vocal sound (36), Edgar examines Adele’s performance under the complex scope of  “authenticity” and “difference” to raise consciousness about “vocal identity as socially constructed” (48), which ultimately creates a powerful and profitable situation for the culturally privileged (49). Overall, this chapter draws attention to at least two critical ideas. First, it highlights the colorblindness and racism in the music industry that caused “rock and roll bands to harness vocal emotion born from the cultural diasporic pain in Black blue culture” (33), “allowed white women singers to inject their physical bodies into Black voice” (33), and rejuvenated white masculine domination in the music industry (34). Second, Edgar demonstrates through Adele’s performance that vocal identity and vocal intimacy are cyclically connected and can conjure deep connection between singers and listeners even if the singer demonstrates problematic appropriations (48).

The second chapter takes a different route by focusing on how culturally privileged voices owned by minority bodies can still be subjected to systemic oppression. Beginning with an analysis of the “white traits”—dialect, soft spokenness, and tone—of Black actor Morgan Freeman, Edgar explores how Freeman’s culturally privileged vocal performances and cinematic roles are embedded with racialized and gendered stereotypes (52). First, Edgar examines multiple movie roles played by Freeman to establish his vocal identity and vocal intimacy with his audience as powerful. Despite this, Edgar argues Freeman’s Black masculinity is contained and recouped under themes and roles that reinforce racial servitude and marginalization of people of color (81). For instance, Freeman’s role in early movies like Unforgiven (1992), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and many others were usually designed to make him dependent upon the primary white character which reiterates his servile persona created to “soothe, rather than disrupt, white-supremacist representational systems” (80). This chapter, like the first, reveals how the vocal intimacy within the speaker-listener relationship and vocal identity give voice the ability to “replicate and strengthen cultural racial hierarchies” (82). Furthermore, the chapter exemplifies the kind of rigorous scholarship that can emerge from uncommon objects of study like TV shows and movies, setting up a valuable inquiry into racial subordination that remains stable beneath vocal identities and culturally privileged voices.

The first two chapters show the varying ways vocal identity shapes vocal intimacy between a speaker and listeners. Chapter three furthers this analysis of voice by teasing out how “the act of imitation in political satire layers culturally privileged voices and encourages marginalization based on race and gender despite its ostensibly progressive politics” (85). Through a rhetorical analysis of the bodily and vocal performance of actors Fred Armisen, Tina Fey, Jay Pharaoh, and Dwayne Johnson on the popular television show Saturday Night Live (SNL), Edgar explores the ways pitch patterns in the satirical impersonation of political figures (Barack Obama and Sarah Palin) reveal how some bodies are exaggeratedly gendered to “solidify racialized gendered stereotypes” (114). For instance, Fey’s impersonation of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s voice on SNL was explicitly high pitched, reinforcing the image of white women as “emotionally excessive and unstable” (93) and positioning Palin as a “less desirable political candidate” (113) in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s voice which was “pleasantly melodious” (103), and made him seem “stronger and as authoritative fit for Presidency, especially against his feminine competitors” (113). This chapter typifies mediated interactions between listeners and speakers by elaborating political impersonations as powerful production mechanisms and narratives that can “subtly shift identities based on ideological contexts” (114). It also delineates voice appropriation, especially based on race and gender, as harboring the potential to reinforce and naturalize the types of bodies and voices that are assumed suitable to be represented in powerful positions within society.

Chapter four, “Whitevoice 2.0: Online Speech and Comedians of Color,” provides perhaps the most intriguing case study, which explores how marginalized identities and voices come to matter through a contemporary form of storytelling and comedy (145). Edgar begins with a historical context and social media analysis of how Black and Latino comedians used comedy to draw attention to issues of race and discourse through the mimicry of whitevoice. This tactic according to Edgar, enabled comedians of color to expose the privileged identification of whiteness, to call into question the economic disparities between white and Black families (127), exploit differences in linguistic communication patterns (131), and to bring marginalized stories to the public eye (117). What makes this chapter especially interesting is that unlike the previous case studies, Edgar reconstructs vocal intimacy and vocal identity as listeners being aware of “the standard speech within a community and being able to differentiate their normal vocal rhetoric from whitevoice vocal rhetoric” (146). Thus, the vocal intimacy and identity circulating between a speaker and listeners in this context can only be established through a communal and political project aiming to challenge white normativity while creating shared and comfortable relationships with listeners through familiar comic experiences and stories.

In the concluding chapter, “A Call to Listen,” Edgar recapitulates the cultural and disciplinary mechanisms and codes that condition voice for speakers and listeners. She does so by readdressing the practical and reflexive procedures involved in studying voice as an artifact of oppression and privilege (153) while motivating rhetoric and cultural media scholars to “take up the study of voice from a variety of methods beyond traditional textual analysis” (156). However, Edgar concludes with a final reflection and twist on “hearing representation”—a concept that examines deeply entangled narratives and voices that promote inequality, marginalization, racism, and discrimination against Black folks and LGBTQ+ groups.” (158) This call for research is particularly valuable because it interrogates representation as “not only visual but…embedded in stereotypical and conventional depictions of marginalized groups” (158), which perpetuates the neglect of oppressed bodies and shapes the reception of media representation and discrimination.

As a graduate student, I find this book very useful because the methodology Edgar offers and case studies she provides can serve the current discourse on social media repetition and recirculation, media cancel culture and vocal appropriation, as well as the call for accountability for racialized actions by vocal media activists. While her work exposes the complex politics of voice in the United States, it is relevant to mention that the issues she examines in the book are rampant in many transnational locations, and her methodology which focuses on “understanding the role of voice as bodies travel or are restricted, heard or ignored” (160) can offer transnational feminist scholars an approach to reimagining the cultural, socio-political, and consumer discourses within these spaces. I hope that Edgar or rhetoric and media cultural scholars would follow up with research that considers her theoretical insights in light of digital and social media representational trends during current police brutality protests, celebrity vocal influence in the COVID-19 season, and the media’s role in the current political climate.

Works Cited

  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29-40.