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What Do We Hear in Depp v. Heard?

As you probably know—whether you want to or not—the jury reached a verdict earlier this summer in the trial between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. The trial, in the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia, involved defamation and counter-defamation claims by the two actors. Heard published a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post in which she claimed to be “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp sued her for defamation, she counter-sued, and a seven-week spectacle of celebrity, misogyny, and power followed, in which Depp substantially prevailed.

What does a close listening to Depp v. Heard tell us about this particular trial, as well as about sex and power in the courtroom more generally? 

Depp v. Heard did not just randomly become a media circus. As Joanne Sweeny noted in Slate, the judge made two procedural rulings that led to the ensuing frenzy—and greatly tipped the scales toward the plaintiff. Firstly, the judge allowed cameras in the courtroom to broadcast the proceedings. The Code of Virginia leaves this decision largely up to the court’s discretion, but also stipulates that coverage of “proceedings concerning sexual offenses” is prohibited. Despite the content and high-profile nature of this case, Judge Penney Azcarate decided to proceed with the broadcast. 

Untitled Image by Flickr user SethTippie

Azcarate’s decision is strikingly at odds with the court’s emphasis on silence and decorum. Court order CL-2019-2911 stated, for example, that “Quiet and order shall be maintained at all times. Audible comments of any kind during the court proceedings … will not be tolerated.” In fact, Azcarate interrupted proceedings during trial to tell courtroom spectators to keep their mouths shut. During trial, extraneous noise is heard not just as uncivil but as a threat to impartiality and fairness. However, according to the judge’s logic, this threat is only perceived  within the courtroom. 

This brings us to the second procedural ruling of consequence here. Despite the frenzy enveloping the case, Azcarate decided not to sequester the jury. Jury sequestration involves  the members of the jury being isolated  from public and press during a trial, in order to avoid accidental or deliberate exposure to outside influence or information. Video from the courtroom flooded the internet and, as commentators have argued, likely and unduly influenced the jury, who were not isolated and prevented from accessing TV or social media. As Depp’s legions of supporters raged online, social media effectively became part of his legal team. This  work was done in great part through sound. 

Social media online commentary forensically dissected Heard’s oral testimony, noting changes in her breathing patterns or her speech cadence. Often they would hone in on the fact that she “exhale[d] erratically,” or “can talk so fast,” as seen in this Entertainment Tonight compilation:

The online jury adjudicated on all these vocal elements as proof that she was lying. One internet article described her in audiotape evidence as “cackle[ing] like a witch” and alternating between “laugh[ing] hysterically” and using a “baby voice.” Heard’s detractors took her voice as proof that she was emotionless, robotic, calculated, too well-rehearsed—but also that she was chaotic, nervous, crazy. 

In contrast, commentators described Depp’s voice as “calm,” “calming,” and “soothing,” with Tik Tok users hash-tagging ASMR to audio of him. One fan even posted a ninety-minute ASMR video of his testimony. Multiple Twitter users claimed that “you can hear the pain” in his voice, from an audiotape admitted during trial. At other times, he is applauded for “giggling” and laughing during the trial, with fans hearing it as evidence of his authenticity and “kind soul.” One YouTube commentator, Grandma WHOa, writes that they wish he would record an audiobook so they could “listen to his calming, sexy soothing man voice.” 

So far, so predictable. These are well-established, recognizable patterns about how we hear men’s vs women’s voices in public life—e.g. critiques of Hilary Clinton’s shrill, whiny voice. But listening in to the trial also reveals that this isn’t just a case of online fan culture on overdrive. Instead, it shows how broader social dynamics around gender and power don’t just create outside noise, but are built into formal legal practice within the courtroom.

Much of the conflict here follows a common pattern in defamation cases involving sexual violence claims, with questions around who gets to be a victim (see in my forthcoming piece in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory titled “The Tone of Justice: Voicing the Perpetrator-as-Victim in Sexual Assault Cases”). Depp claimed to have suffered through the defamatory statement and through a longer history of abuse by Heard. His fans framed him as a hero and a victim, using the  social media hashtag #HeardIsAnAbuser. On the other hand, they refused to believe Heard’s claims of having suffered abuse. This determination was based at least in part on Heard’s vocal performance and courtroom testimony, with detractors hearing duplicity in her exhalations, her rapid pace, the occasional firmness and confidence of her tone. As one Depp supporter commented on a video of Heard’s testimony,  “There’s no way a victim sounds like this.” 

Yet in a key strategic move, Depp’s lawyers chose to make Heard sound precisely as sexual assault victims often do during trial. Seeking to dismantle her credibility, they looked to the toolkit of how to deal with a victim in court, mobilizing a well-worn set of legal techniques used to interrogate survivors of sexual violence. In one cross-examination, for example, the plaintiff’s counsel declares that Heard’s “lies have been exposed to the world multiple times.” This claim is then manifested through a series of vocal disciplinary tactics to undermine Heard’s testimony and depict her as a false witness.

For instance, the lawyer, Camille Vasquez, repeatedly employs a common interrogation technique of speaking over and cutting off Heard as she is replying to a question. As legal scholars and sociologists have shown, such techniques are often used in sexual assault cases to intimidate and shape perceptions of the complainant. In a pioneering study on courtroom talk during rape trials, Gregory Matoesian, in Reproducing rape: Domination through talk in the courtroom (1993) describes how lawyers reproduce patriarchal relations of dominance and subordination by “usurping” the witness’ ability to respond (186). As he notes, questions—wielded like weapons of attack by skillful lawyers—are more powerful than answers. 

Vocal technique and dynamics are key here. In Vasquez’s cross-examinations, she repeatedly raises her voice to interrupt Heard, disciplining her before the jury and spectators. She laughs at her testimony and infantilizes Heard, at times speaking to her in calm tones before quickly shifting to a harsher timbre. At one point, Vasquez snaps her notes shut and walks back to her seat while Heard is still answering her question. Heard is forced into abrupt silence. Unable to respond to the question she was asked, she audibly loses control of the narrative being spun. Vasquez also frequently speaks over her and directly to the judge, objecting that Heard is being non-responsive. The lawyer performs for the judge and jury her refusal to listen to Heard. 

At other moments, Vasquez’s voice and affect telegraph exasperation, as she audibly sighs while Heard attempts to answer a question. As Heard and Vasquez go back-and-forth over a line of questioning, Vasquez’s voice bristles with irritation as she speaks in clipped tones, with sharp inflection at the end of each line: “Yes?” “Right?” “Yes or no?” These interjections add an aural layer of interpretation to Heard’s testimony in real-time, guiding the jury to hear the witness as evasive and therefore unreliable. Vasquez’s expressions are all part of a careful vocal strategy, implicitly saying to the jury, “Can you believe this woman?” 

Screenshot from NBC Today video, “Amber Heard Breaks Silence: I Don’t Blame The Jury”

Of course, the answer is no. Jessica Winter, writing in The New Yorker, points out that Heard lost in part because of her “tearless crying,” the fact that she appeared insincere. Winter acknowledges that successful testimony is about “affect and presentation”, a reality that is no secret. In fact, jury instructions in Depp v. Heard clearly state that determinations of witness credibility are based in part on witnesses’ “appearance and manner.” Jurors must use their “common sense” to “determine which witnesses are more believable.” 

But how is “common sense” established? Listening closely to this trial reminds us that such understandings are constructed and regulated through sound as well as through determinants of “appearance and manner,” both in and out of the courtroom. Vasquez’s performance, Heard’s subordinated testimony, and the commentary of millions of avid consumers underline that Heard and Depp sound to many people exactly as common sense and conventional norms would dictate. 

A woman claiming abuse and assault at the hands of a more powerful man is always subject to patriarchal ways of listening, even if she is rich, famous, straight, and white. These ways of listening are contradictory. Research shows that “masculine” voices are heard as more authoritative and dominant, while women are often heard as weak, uncertain, lacking confidence. The public ear hears other racialized and gendered voices through similar power inequities, including queer, nonbinary, and LGBT voices or voices of people of color. In the context of sexual assault adjudication, however, Heather Hlavka and Sameena Mulla show in their Law & Society Review article “That’s How She Talks”: Animating Text Message Evidence in the Sexual Assault Trial” “that a confident voice and calm performance can work against a victim-witness in court, by suggesting that she is not passive or meek enough to be a ‘real’ victim.” On the other hand, they note that a victim-witness who cries on the stand may give the impression of performing or acting. Lawyers audibly manipulate these perceptions, as the examples here show, and men (particularly heteronormative, white men in positions of power) reap huge benefits from them.  

Many observers of Depp v. Heard have noted the toxic social media sludge around the case, as well as the danger that the verdict poses to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. But listening closely to the proceedings shows us that these outcomes aren’t random and aren’t just part of informal processes like trial by Tik Tok. 

Instead, formal court proceedings manipulate and mobilize social scripts around survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and around women and marginalized others, to reach their outcomes. We can hear how this strategy plays out through sound and voice, from sighing and interrupting to laughter and silence. The jury instructions in Depp v. Heard state that “Our system of law does not permit jurors to be governed by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion.” But despite claims that the legal system is based on objectivity and impartiality, we can hear that the law never exists in a bubble – and lawyers often and successfully rely on this very fact. 

Featured image: “Courtroom” by Flickr user Karen Neoh, CC BY 2.0

Nomi Dave is a former lawyer, interdisciplinary researcher, and co-director of the Sound Justice Lab at the University of Virginia, where she is Associate Professor of Music. She is currently co-writing  and co-directing a documentary film, Big Mouth, on a defamation lawsuit connected to a sexual violence case in Guinea.

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Voice as Ecology: Voice Donation, Materiality, Identity

I first heard about voice donation while listening to “Being Siri,” an experimental audio piece about Erin Anderson donating her voice to Boston-based voice donation company, VocaliD. Like a digital blood bank of sorts, VocaliD provides a platform for donating one’s voice via digital audio recordings. These recordings are used to help technicians create a custom digital voice for a voiceless individual, providing an alternative to the predominately white, male, mechanical-sounding assistive technologies used by people who cannot vocalize for themselves (think Stephen Hawking). VocaliD manufactures voices that better match a person’s race, gender, ethnicity, age, and unique personality. To me, VocaliD encapsulates the promise, complexity, and problematic nature of our current speech AI landscape and serves as an example of why we need to think critically about sound technologies, even when they appear to be wholly beneficial.  

Given the extreme lack of sonic diversity in vocal assistive technologies, VocaliD provides a critically important service. But a closer look at both the rhetoric used by the organization and the material process involved in voice donation also amplifies the limits of overly simplistic, human-centric conceptions of voice. For instance, VocaliD rhetorically frames their service by persistently linking voice to humanity—to self, authenticity, individuality. Consider the following statements made by Rupal Patel, CEO and founder of VocaliD, in which she emphasizes the need for voice donation technology: 

“Here’s a way for us to acknowledge these individuals as unique human beings.” (Fast Company)

“I was talking to [a] girl we made a voice for. She told me that people are finally seeing her for who she really is.” (Medieros)

These are just a few examples from a larger discourse that reinforces the connection between voice and humanity. VocaliD’s repeated claims that their unique vocal identities humanize individuals imply that one is not fully human unless one’s voice sounds human. This rhetoric positions voiceless individuals as less than human (at least until they pay for a customized human-sounding voice). 

VocaliD’s conflation of voice and humanity makes me wonder about the meaning of “human” in this context. For example, notions of humanity have been historically associated with Western whiteness—and deployed as a means of separating or distinguishing white people from Others—as Alexander Weheliye points out. Though VocaliD’s mission is to diversify manufactured voices, is a “human-sounding” voice still construed as a white voice? Does sounding human mean sounding white? Even if there is a bank of sonically diverse voices to choose from, does racial bias show up in the pacing, phrasing, or inflection caused by the vocal technology? 

Photocredit: iphonedigital @Flickr CC BY-SA

I am also disturbed by the rhetoric of humanity and individuality used by VocaliD because the company adopts the same rhetoric to describe the AI voices they sell to brands for media and smart products. Here’s an example of this rhetoric from the VocaliD AI website: “When you need a voice that resonates, evokes audience empathy, and sounds like you, rather than your competitors, VocaliD’s AI-powered vocal persona is the solution. Your voice — always on, where you need it when you need it.” Using similar rhetorical strategies to describe both voiceless people and products is dehumanizing. And yet, having a more diverse AI vocal mediascape, especially in terms of race, is crucially important since voice-activated machines and products are designed largely by white men who end up reinforcing the sonic color line.

Interestingly, the processes VocaliD uses to create a custom voice reveal that these voices are not, in fact, unique markers of humanity or individuality. It’s hard to find a detailed account of how VocaliD voices are made due to the company’s patents, but here are the basics: VocaliD does not transfer a donated voice directly to a voiceless person’s assistive technology. VocaliD technicians instead blend and digitally manipulate the donated voice with recordings of the noises a voiceless person can make (a laugh, a hum) to create a distinct new voice for the recipient. In other words, donated voices are skillful remixes that wouldn’t be possible without extracting vocal data and manipulating it with digital tools. Despite perpetuating narratives about voice, humanity, and authenticity, VocaliD’s creative blending of vocal material reveals that donated voices are the result of compositional processes that involve much more than people.

Further, considering VocaliD voices from a material rather than human-centric perspective amplifies something important about voices in general. All voices are composed of and grounded in an ecology. That is, voices emerge and are developed through a mixture of: (1) biological makeup (or technological makeup in the case of machines with voices); (2) specific environments and contexts (geography may determine the kind of accents humans have; AI voices have distinct sounds for their brands); (3) technologies (phones, computers, digital recorders and editors, software, and assistive technologies preserve, circulate, and amplify voices); and (4) others (humans often emulate the vocal patterns of the people they interact with most; many machine voices also sound like other machine voices). Put simply, all voices are intentionally and unintentionally composed over time—shaped by ever-changing bodily (and/or technological) states and engagements with the world. Voices are dynamic compositions by nature. Examining voice from a material standpoint shows that voices are not static markers of humanity; voices are responsive and malleable because they are the result of a complex ecology that involves much more than a “unique” human being. 

However, focusing solely on the material aspects of vocality leaves out people’s lived experiences of voice. And based on online videos of VocaliD recipients—like Delaney, a seventeen-year-old with cerebral palsy—VocaliD voices seem to live up to the company’s hype. Delaney appears delighted by her new voice, stating: “I was so excited to get my own voice. I used to have a computer voice and now I sound like a girl. I like that. And I talk more.” Delaney’s teachers also discuss how her new voice completely changed her demeanor. Whereas before Delaney was reluctant to use her assistive technology to speak, her new voice gives her confidence and a stronger sense of identity. As her teacher explains in the video, “she is really engaged in groups, she wants to share her answers, she’s excited to talk with friends. It’s been really nice to see.” For Delaney, a VocaliD voice represents a newfound sense of agency. 

It’s important to recognize this video is not necessarily representative of every VocaliD recipient’s experience, or even Delaney’s full experience. As Meryl Alper notes in Giving Voice, these types of news stories “portray technology as allowing individuals to ‘overcome’ their disability as an individual limitation, and are intended to be uplifting and inspirational for able-bodied audiences” (27). While we should be wary of the technological determinism in the video, observing Delaney use her VocaliD voice—and listening to the emotional responses of her mom and teachers—makes it difficult to deny that donated voices make a positive impact. For me, this video also gets at a larger truth about humans and voice: the ways we hear and understand our own voices, and the ways others interpret the sounds of our voices, matter a great deal. Voices are integral to our identities—to the ways we understand and think about ourselves and others—and the sounds of our voices have social and material consequences, as the SO! Gendered Voices Forum illustrates so clearly. 

An image VocaliD used to advertise themselves on Twitter. Image used for purposes of critique.

It’s worth repeating that VocaliD’s mission to diversify synthetic voices is incredibly important, especially given the restrictive vocal options available to voiceless individuals. It’s also necessary to acknowledge the company has limitations that end up reproducing the structural inequities it tries to address. As Alper observes, “In order to become a speech donor, one must have three to four hours of spare time to record their speech, access to a steady and strong Internet connection, and a quiet location in which to record” (162-63). With these obstacles to donating one’s voice in mind, it’s not surprising that all the VocaliD recipient videos I could find feature white people. Donating one’s voice is much easier for middle to upper class white people who have access to privacy, Internet, and leisure time.

This brief examination of VocaliD raises questions about what a more equitable future for vocal technologies might look/sound like. Though I don’t have the answer, I believe that to understand the fullness of voice, we can’t look at it from a single perspective. We need to account for the entire vocal ecology: the material (biological, technological, financial, etc.) conditions from which a voice emerges or is performed, and individual speakers’ understanding of their culture, race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability, sexuality, etc. An ecological approach to voice involves collaborating with people and their vocal needs and desires—something VocaliD models already. But it also involves accounting for material realities: How might we make the barriers preventing a more diverse voice ecosystem less difficult to navigate—especially for underrepresented groups? In short, we must treat voice holistically. Voices are more than people, more than technologies, more than contexts, more than sounds. Understanding voice means acknowledging the interconnectedness of these things and how that interconnectedness enables or precludes vocal possibilities. 

Featured image: 366-350 You can’t shut me up, Jennifer Moo, CC BY-ND

Steph Ceraso is an associate professor of digital writing and rhetoric at the University of Virginia. Her 2018 book, Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening, proposes an expansive approach to teaching with sound in the composition classroom. She also published a digital book in 2019 called Sound Never Tasted So Good: ‘Teaching’ Sensory Rhetorics—an exploration of writing, sound, rhetoric, and food. She is currently working on a book project that examines sonic forms of invention in various contexts.

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REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

What is a Voice?–Alexis Deighton MacIntyre

Mr. and Mrs. Talking Machine: The Euphonia, the Phonograph, and the Gendering of Nineteenth Century Mechanical Speech – J. Martin Vest

Only the Sound Itself?: Early Radio, Education, and Archives of “No-Sound”–Amanda Keeler

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