In my post “Love Letter to Nikki/ Career Advice,” I suggested that successful (early career) representations of women who don’t fit into the tight strictures of appropriate womanhood — in that case, by playing a butch lesbian — is detrimental to a female actor’s star persona. Although it is impossible to quantify, I do think that there is some merit to my claim, and I will continue this argument by referring to a specific filmic regime.
Kaja Silverman, in her crucial work on feminist film theory, The Acoustic Mirror: the Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, writes “It is curious… that the feminist critique of classical cinema has focused primarily on the image track and the construction of woman as object of the male gaze” (viii). Silverman is correct in her assertion that prior to The Acoustic Mirror, feminist film theory — largely following the work of Laura Mulvey — focused on the controlling visual mechanisms of the cinematic, or “male gaze.” This gaze has various components: the gaze of characters, the gaze of the camera (which is sometimes a proxy for the character gaze), and the gaze of the audience. Silverman continues: “It has somehow escaped theoretical attention 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” (viii).
In an earlier post, “Timesqueer: POV editing,” I delineated the first meeting of Nicky (Robin Johnson) and Pammy (Trini Alvarado). This event, during which they first “lay eyes” on each other, obviously takes place within cinema’s visual regime, in the realm of “the gaze.” Following Silverman’s argument regarding the “sound regime,” we also have different voices — and more importantly, responses to them — in the cinema. The audience will hear and respond to a voice, and characters will also hear and respond to the voice of another character.
Several scenes after their first meeting, Pamela finally hears Nicky’s voice:
It is as if this has been withheld, the clear result of which is to heighten tension between the two characters. In the following scene, Nicky talks to Pammy, the first time we see one directly talk to the other. Pammy initiates this conversation with Nicky by calling her name — “Miss Marotta” and “Nicky!” — after which she can not respond verbally; her poem, recited aloud in Nicky’s head, does her “talking.” My main point here is that Pammy not only responds to Nicky’s corporeal presence — to her body — but also to her voice.
It is not only characters, but also the audience, who respond/s. Robin Johnson has a most distinctive voice; it was (and remains) one of the most commented upon aspects of Times Square. In fact, Johnson’s is one of the most distinctive voices in the cinema. It is a voice that is unexpected: it bespeaks a life lived well and hard (cf. the speaking voices of Suzi Quatro and Kim Deal)… but it comes from a 15 year old woman. This provokes a visceral response, one that we see in Pammy, and feel in ourselves. No matter how many times I watch Times Square, I still feel that physical thrill at hearing Robin Johnson’s voice.
Here is Sister DebMac‘s description of Robin Johnson as Darcy Dekker on Guiding Light (1984):“I remember the first moment she appeared like it was yesterday. I was lying on my bed, sort of dozing, listening to the show and I heard THAT voice. I was instantly awake because it freaked me out! I grabbed a tape as fast as I could. . . . I was raised on GL and to have Robin Freakin’ Johnson of all people just show up there was like God was listening to me or something. . . . Can you imagine? I was there in front of the tube religiously every day from then on, just waiting for those Darcy scenes.”
I don’t know if Johnson faced pressure to change her remarkable voice while working as an actor, but I’d be surprised if she didn’t. Mainstream film, media, and, well, society polices the bounds of appropriate gender, removing or producing rough edges as required. Thankfully, Johnson retained her unique voice throughout her acting career. In the Anchor Bay DVD commentary (2000), it is somewhat tempered; it has the frisson of honey on gravel. The RobinJohnson.net analysis of the commentary proposes people that Johnson might sound like — Janeane Garafalo, Jodie Foster — but to me, she only sounds like Robin Johnson.
For it is a voice you will remember, that will haunt your dreams. After your beloved’s face has faded, you will awaken to their voice; you will see them in the body of another, but know them by their voice.
You can’t touch a voice, but you can feel it flow through your body. Like music, it is visceral; you feel it in a way you can’t feel a face or the image of a body. Saxophonist Joshua Redman has said that John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is “one of the first records I ever heard and I hope it’s the last record I ever hear.” Similarly, Carlos Santana states that A Love Supreme‘s introduction is “like the gates of heaven opening. In fact, when I die, if I don’t hear A Love Supreme, I’ll turn back; I’ll know I’m in the wrong place.” When I die, I want to hear this:
And I will know it’s been a life, lived well and hard, and no turning back.