Tag Archive | Christie Zwahlen

Contemporary Television’s Construction of Sonic New Jersey

At the start of The Soprano’s sixth season, in the wake of being accidentally shot by his dementia-suffering uncle, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano enters a coma-induced dreamstate in which he reimagines his life as a successful precision optics salesman. A show interested in Freudian psychology, The Sopranos is full of dream sequences, but this one stands out as the longest and most frustrating, as first-time viewers must watch as the hour-long plotline follows Tony’s convoluted dream while his family waits in agony at his hospital bedside. Within the dream sequence, Tony awakens to find himself at a sales conference, where he has mistakenly taken someone else’s briefcase, and he attempts to find its rightful owner. Despite the frustrating circumstances, Tony has lost his tough, mob boss demeanor: instead, he’s professional, polite, and patient, qualities that the former Tony rarely exhibits throughout the show’s six seasons.

Screenshot from YouTube video “The Sopranos – Join The Club /When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die 720p”

But what immediately strikes me about this dream sequence is the sudden loss of Tony’s thick Jersey accent. Gone is the fast-paced speech filled with dropped ‘r’s’ and long ‘a’s’ and ‘o’s’. Instead, Tony’s way of speaking is relatively accentless, aligning with what is considered a neutral North American accent. By dreaming of himself as an upwardly mobile, white-collar worker, Tony has not only imagined a new career, he’s also imagined a new way of speaking, one that lacks any clear markers of region, class, or ethnicity. This transformation ultimately tethers Tony’s New Jersey accent to his identity as an Italian American mobster with working-class roots, and it reinforces the idea that speech is indicative of one’s class. The dream sequence is one instance in which television constructs the New Jersey accent as signifying a certain brand of whiteness—not quite white trash, but perhaps one step above it, a form of whiteness lacking sophistication, riddled with ignorance and superficial wealth.

Here I examine contemporary television’s construction and performance of the Jersey accent in order to understand what it confers about class status and ethnic identity. As others have argued, New Jersey dialects are actually quite eclectic, though contemporary television tends to represent the state’s accent as defined by long vowels and quick, poorly articulated speech:

I’m interested in how television shows such as The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and Real Housewives of New Jersey, among others, construct the Jersey accent as a homogenous indicator of ethnicity and social class. Within these predominantly white shows, the Jersey accent is associated with whiteness, situating characters at a distance from dialects susceptible to scrutiny and violence, such as nonwhite immigrant accents or who embody what Nina Sun Eidsheim calls sonic blackness, but it also signifies that these characters do not come from respectable backgrounds or generational wealth.

Screenshot from Season 1 Episode 1 of MTV’s Jersey Shore

New Jersey has served as a popular setting for contemporary television, and reality television in particular has capitalized on the state’s materialistic and ostentatious reputation. As Alisha Gaines argues, reality television has a “full-blown crush” on the state, as its geography serves as “a stage for class and social passing, a late capital playground of ethnic representation.” MTV’s Jersey Shore is the most well-known reality TV show to emerge out of New Jersey. Although only a few of the show’s main characters originate from the state, they all embrace a stereotypical Jersey aesthetic: the big hair, the tanned bodies, and yes, the accent. Like The Sopranos, Jersey Shore’s Italian American characters claim to have a complicated relationship to whiteness. The characters attempt to reclaim the derogatory term “guido” (or “guidette,” in the case of the show’s female characters) and admit to not fully identifying as white: “I’m not white,” the show’s Nicole Polizzi (Snooki) says at one point. “I’m tan. That’s what I am.”

In Episode 7 of the show’s first season, Snooki meets Keith, a man she’s surprised to have hit it off with not only because he’s not Italian, but also because “he talks like a cowboy.” Yet Keith does not have a Southern accent, as one might expect, but instead speaks in a standard North American accent. Snooki’s assertion that he speaks “like a cowboy,” then, points to not only how accents are perceived (in the eye of the beholder), it also centers and normalizes the characters’ Jersey accents and calls into question how American television audiences have been trained to experience and think about accented subjects.

Predictably, within New Jersey shows, accents and “improper” ways of speaking often become the butt of the joke. For instance, in The Sopranos episode “Cold Stones,” Tony gifts his wife Carmela a Louis Vuitton wallet containing thirty grand in cash. “This is the real Louis Vee-toon,” he assures her, butchering the pronunciation of the French designer’s name. Tony may be able to afford the “real thing” (and then some), but his inability to sonically perform it gives him away: this is not a lifestyle he inherited or was born into; it does not come natural to him.

In a similar vein, Bravo produces blooper reels of the New Jersey Real Housewives mispronouncing common words (skooers instead of skewers, lopter instead of lobster, bought instead of brought, for instance).

Here, these characters’ mispronunciations are intended to indicate their ignorance and lack of education, echoing the show’s hints that their female characters have mob affiliations and primarily live off their husbands’ money. Within the Real Housewives of New Jersey and other Jersey-based shows, commenting on the state’s accent often functions as a way of implying that their characters are not to be taken too seriously, thereby influencing how audiences perceive this way of speaking beyond these shows (see, for instance, this Reddit thread).

As it pertains to whiteness and class, the privilege that the Jersey accent does or does not confer is difficult to unpack. Scholars such as Jennifer Stoever and Shilpa Davé have shown how nonwhite accents are subject to surveillance and violence in ways that white accents are not. Similarly, Christie Zwahlen argues in her Sounding Out! post “Look Who’s Talking, Y’all” that “In contradistinction to ‘foreign’ sounding accents, Southern accents are a classic symbol of American cultural belonging, like apple pie for the ears.” But what version of whiteness, and more specifically, Americannes, does the Jersey accent connote? While within the shows examined here, the accent is spoken primarily by characters belonging to immigrant groups that have been encompassed within the category of whiteness (often Italian and Jewish Americans), the legitimacy of these characters’ social class and education level is often under scrutiny. These characters’ interest in flashy outfits, gold jewelry, and French Chateau style decor (you know it when you see it) is represented as trashy and artificial, a performance of wealth rather than the actual embodiment of it.

In many ways, the “improperness” of the Jersey accent becomes another way of indicating that these characters are not highly educated and therefore their words, thoughts, and even their wealth, are deserving of suspicion. And a show like The Sopranos, in which most characters have organized crime affiliations, confirms that this suspicion is well-warranted. Indeed, this is not the whiteness or social status assumed to accompany standard English or American accents.

“New Jersey” by Flickr user Doug Kerr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Unsurprisingly, these shows’ centering of middle-class whiteness and its sonic registers ignores the disparity that exists across New Jersey’s geographies. While the state is one of the nation’s wealthiest, it’s also home to poorer cities of color that continue to suffer from the effects of suburbanization and neoliberal urban development. For example, scholars such as Kevin Mumford and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas show how a city like Newark (a frequent setting on The Sopranos) has been heavily shaped by inequitable and volatile racial politics. And yet, the shows examined here eschew these socioeconomic and racial differences, erasing New Jersey’s communities of color from the state’s cultural discourses.

In an episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder expresses her fear that her Irish accent makes her “sound like an immigrant,” to which city treasurer Nucky Thompson responds, “But we’re all immigrants, are we not?” While his response echoes the assimilationist myth of the U.S.-as-melting-pot, it hits on something precise about New Jersey: as the state with the third-largest immigrant population, the homogeneity of the region’s accent is largely a construct. While contemporary television presents audiences with an all-encompassing Jersey accent, in actuality, the state’s diversity makes it nearly impossible to pin down exactly what New Jersey “sounds like.” Examining New Jersey’s representations in popular television reveals how the accent has become one of the state’s most prominent and recognizable features, and shows how these representations have the potential to reductively categorize an entire population.

Featured image: “Memorial Day Weekend” by Flickr user SurFeRGiRL30, CC-BY-2.0

Shannon Mooney is a PhD student in English and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her M.A. in English from the University of Connecticut in 2018. Shannon studies contemporary multi-ethnic U.S. literature, television, and film, with a focus on cultural geography and critical race theory. Her work examines how multi-ethnic writers and artists from New Jersey engage with the state’s natural and industrial landscapes to make sense of their positions as political and historical subjects. Shannon is also the Creative Director of Paperbark Literary Magazine, a publication rooted in sustainability and environmental justice.

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Listening to and through “Need”: Sound Studies and Civic Engagement

ActsofSonicInterventionThis April forum, Acts of Sonic Intervention, explores what we over here at Sounding Out! are calling “Sound Studies 2.0”–the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.

Two years ago at the first meeting of the European Sound Studies Association, I was inspired by the work of scholar and sound artist Linda O’Keeffe and her compelling application of the theories and methodologies of sound studies to immediate community issues.  In what would later become a post for SO!, “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” O’Keeffe discussed her Smithfield Square project and how she taught local Dublin high school students field recording methodologies and  then tasked them with documenting how they heard the space of the recently square and the displacement of their lives within it.  For me, the idea was electrifying, and I worked to enact a public praxis of my own via the ReSounding Binghamton project and the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project.  Both are still in their initial stages; the work has been fascinating and rewarding, but arduous, slow, and uncharted. Acts of Sonic Intervention stems from my own hunger to hear more from scholars, artists, theorists, and/or practicioners to guide my own efforts and to inspire others to take up this challenge.  Given the exciting knowledge that the field has produced regarding sound and power (a good amount of it published here), can sound studies actually be a site for civic intervention, disruption, and resistance?

In the forum we will catch up with Linda O’Keeffes newest project, a pilot workshop with older people at the U3A (University of the Third Age) centre in Foyle, Derry “grounded in an examination of the digital divide, social inclusion and the formation of artists collectives.” Artist Luz Maria Sanchez will give us privilege of a behind-the-scenes discussion of her latest work, “detritus.2: The Sounds and Images of Postnational Violence in Mexico.”  We will also hear from artist, theorist, and writer Salomé Voegelinwho will treat us to a multimedia re-sonification of the keynote she gave at 2014’s Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference in Viseu, Portugal, “Sound Art as Public Art,” which revivified the idea of the “civic” as a social responsibility enacted through sound and listening.  Today we begin with longtime SO! community member and writer, Christie Zwahlen, Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, who argues that any act of intervention must necessarily begin with self-reflexivity and examination of how one listens.  If you decide that a community is in need, can you still hear what they have to say?

–JS, Editor-in-Chief

Community engagement is an important piece of Sound Studies 2.0, the latest iteration of the field that moves beyond discovering and justifying sound as an object of study and toward a politics and praxis of intervention. New knowledge about sound and listening can both be produced through and actively inform community-based work. Likewise, sound studies can inform the theory and practice of community engagement in meaningful ways.

Listening plays a critical role in the field of community engagement, insofar as our work is undertaken in response to community-articulated needs. Though needs can be expressed through various modes, listening to residents and community partners remains crucially important to our work as practitioners. As has been reiterated countless times, the strength of relationships is what drives and sustains community-based work and enables collaborative endeavors. Yet, as important as listening is to this work, it is rarely, if ever, discussed in sonic terms. We know that listening both produces and perpetuates power inequity, yet have neglected to examine how listening mediates our understanding (or lack thereof) of community needs.

Thus, as Jennifer Stoever’s recent  Sounding Out! post argues for the importance of a civically engaged sound studies, I am also arguing for the importance of a sonically informed community engagement praxis, one that demands self-reflexivity about our own listening practices as we attempt to identify community needs. What does “need” sound like? To whom? How has the state of being “in need” been sonically constructed by dominant modes of listening and the sonic color-line? How can we, as Community Engagement practitioners, guard against the compulsion to hear needs articulated in the absence of their verbal expression?  In other words. what do we hear–or not hear–when we listen through the power-laden filter of “neediness”?

Old Navy Community Service, Image by Flickr User Jorge Quinteros

Old Navy Community Service, Image by Flickr User Jorge Quinteros

Like Sound Studies, Community Engagement is considered a relatively new field. Often equated to a movement within higher education, it has built steam on the strength of its learning outcomes for students engaged in Service-Learning and other high impact learning experiences. Furthermore, many higher education institutions explicitly prioritize working with their communities towards positive public outcomes in their mission statements, positioning outcomes for community residents as equally important to student learning.

Both research and practice have taught us that community engagement is most effective when based on community-articulated needs.  Projects should address genuine needs as voiced by the community. As Barbara Jacoby writes in Service-Learning in Higher Education, “an effective [service-learning] program allows for those with needs to define those needs” (42). This central tenet of community engagement praxis issues a power check on community-campus partnerships and attempts to shield community members from the sometimes arrogance of University “experts” who falsely believe in their ability to speak on behalf of Others, re-enacting the very processes of silencing and oppression this work seeks to eliminate. Community voices are often stifled in unequal research or “service” encounters and are also often mis-heard by what Stoever calls the listening ear, which hears non-normative speech as an indication of need. Furthermore,the idea that need can be self-identified implicitly speaks to the recognition that visual markers of social difference affect our opinions and perceptions of others–particularly when those Others are from marginalized communities. Because of this, the voices of community residents are often figured as the gateway to “pure” knowledge about community needs.

While the concept of “voicing” needs in community-engaged work is broader than its sonic meaning (e.g. referring to the collection of data via surveys, needs assessments, other written communications, etc.), meeting face-to-face and speaking with community residents is still considered a best and necessary practice in the development of mutually beneficial relationships. The material “touch” manifested through the vocalic body connects us in ways that email, needs assessments, and other forms of digital communication cannot compete. Of constant concern to community engagement practitioners is how we can better respond to community-articulated needs and how best to inform ourselves of their existence. Missing from the discussion, however, is an interrogation of how listening shapes the way we hear needs articulated. What does someone in need sound like, or rather, what has our culture determined what someone in need sounds like? Are we hearing needs articulated where they do not exist? As much as the field of Community Engagement prioritizes listening in its praxis, the process itself is not understood as a material one. If we are basing our work on the voiced needs of community residents, how can we do this well without investigating our own listening practices or acknowledging at the most basic level that listening is a social process, not just a physiological one?  Delving more deeply into these questions can help us to develop a sonically-informed community engagement praxis, one which takes into account our own biased ears as we engage with community members.

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Fairview Spanish Service Learning 2011, Image by Flickr User Mosaic36

 

To think through the damage that mis-hearing need can do, I want to examine the case study of Rachel Jeantel, the young woman who was a key witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial in July, 2013.  Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the teenager whom Zimmerman stalked and shot to death as Martin walked home from the corner store to his father’s house in Sanford, Florida.  Many commentators placed blame for Zimmerman’s acquittal on Jeantel’s voice and use of African American Vernacular English, which were denigrated and dissected by courtroom officials, the media, and the Twittersphere. When the trial was over, a self-dubbed “village” of mentors descended on Jeantel, determined to provide her with a plethora of services that she, in fact, resisted. Krissah Thompson’s Washington Post article “For Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, a ‘village’ of mentors trying to keep her on track,” details Rachel Jeantel’s “transformation” after the George Zimmerman trial. A prime example of the way certain voices and bodies are figured as expressing need without ever saying a word, this “village” of mentors inferred from Jeantel’s voice a great longing for help.

As courtroom officials and many in the social media cosmos painted a sonic image of Jeantel as untrustworthy and unintelligible, Karen Andre–an African American lawyer and old friend of Jeantel’s lawyer Roderick Vereen–was thinking about what she could do to help the young woman she heard and saw on the stand. Taking the lead in Jeantel’s cultural makeover, Vereen is referred to as the “village elder.” Since the case ended, he has made Jeantel his project, despite, as Thompson reports, their expectations “differing wildly.”

Rachel Jeantel and Mentor Roderick Vereen

Rachel Jeantel and Mentor Roderick Vereen

As Karen Andre watched Jeantel’s testimony on television, she contacted Vereen directly to offer herself up as a mentor, because “simply, it looked to her as if the young woman needed one.” But it was not only Jeantel’s appearance (which was itself highly criticized) that motivated Andre to contact Vereen. Regina Bradley uses the term “sonic ratchetness” to describe Jeantel’s testimony and its reception as “an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.” It was this sonic ratchetness which signaled to Andre that Jeantel needed assistance–assistance becoming the “respectable” black woman to which she undoubtedly aspired. Though many spoke out in defense of Jeantel, the degree to which negative portrayals of her were accepted as fact further evidence the pervasiveness of the sonic color-line in guiding our response to black vocalics–as deficient, non-normative and indicative of need. In essence, through her speech, Jeantel has been characterized and interpreted by many (including members of the black professional class) as a charity case.

On Jeantel’s “progress” thus far, Vereen remarks, “her word choice was terrible [during the trial]. She didn’t know how to communicate or express herself clearly. Rachel has learned to confide with adults. She has become very open now.” As a black professional operating daily within the cultural norms of the U.S. court system, Vereen hears Jeantel’s use of African American vernacular as objectionable. By emphasizing her improved proficiency with white heteronormative discourse and increased “openness” as major accomplishments vis a vis her “progress,” Vereen highlights Jeantel’s manner of speech as both a determinant of need and a barrier to her functioning within the normal parameters of American social life. Vereen “helps” Jeantel by disciplining her speech to conform with normative white speaking and listening practices.

When asked about the public commentary surrounding her and her testimony, Jeantel says she “had to laugh it off.” Suddenly interrupted by Rose Reeder, another village mentor, who urges, “No. Be Honest,” Jeantel concedes that she was angry about being judged. Reeder’s censuring here evidences the ways in which Jeantel is silenced by the “assistance” being provided her. Interrupting Jeantel in this manner forces her to disclose personal information, at the risk of seeming like a liar. In capitulating to her mentor, Jeantel gives up a very basic right of expression. In effect, Jeantel’s improved “openness” to adults (thanks, village!) functions to silence and distort her authentic voice.

makeover

Rachel Jeantel during her makeover from Ebony Magazine post-Zimmerman trial.

“I think the thing that moved me most,” says Tom Joyner, another of Jeantel’s mentors and host of the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show, “was when the attorney kept asking her questions and she kept saying, ‘You’re not listening to me.’ And it occurred to me, ‘Yeah, not only was that attorney not listening to her, but I think that none of us were listening to the Rachel Jeantels of the world.” Ironically, Joyner who has offered to pay for Jeantel’s tuition at any historically black college of her choosing, is not listening well either. As the Washington Post piece also highlights, Jeantel and her Creole-speaking mother were rarely (if ever) consulted as to what types of aid were actually needed or desired (if any). Instead, Joyner and the village interpreted Jeantel’s voice alone as adequate evidence of need sans investigation.

What Joyner and others hear and what Jeantel is actually asking for continue to be incongruous. Jeantel would like to pursue a career in fashion. Joyner’s foundation refuses to pay. Vereen’s prescription is for Jeantel to attend Florida Memorial, a small historically black university in Southern Florida. As to whether the “village teachings” actually worked, Vereen condescendingly avows, “We took her to the water, and now the rest is up to her.”

The manner in which Jeantel has been forcibly coerced to abandon her “sonic ratchetness” (at least in public), provides an important warning to those of us engaged in work which advances the “public good.” It should lead us to question whose good we are enacting and how our ideas about the public good are informed by what we hear and mis-hear.

As is often the case in community-based work, it is fruitful to return to Kretzmann and McKnight’s asset-based community development (ABCD) model in thinking through an ethical course of action.  The ABCD model focuses its attention on a community’s assets instead of its needs or deficiencies, empowering even the least empowered members of a community to use what skills and talents they possess to work towards changes they desire. Viewing alternative modes of articulation as an asset (vs. an indicator of inherent need) may prove useful in staying attentive to our listening practices as they relate to marginalized communities. Though denigrated as improper speech, culturally specific modes of articulation convey meaning in their distance from the norm. These modes of articulation are complex in their practical and historical constitutions. Both in what is said and not said, we must acknowledge that our listening ears fabricate meaning beyond the verbal, and that sonic constructions of Otherness can distort and inform how we hear needs articulated.

 

Featured Image: MANTA, Ecuador (May 19, 2011) Mass Communication Specialist 1st Kim Williams talks with a student while painting a wall at Angelica Flores Zambrano school during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service event. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released) 110519-N-NY820-275

 Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.

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Look Who’s Talking, Y’all: Dr. Phil, Vocal Accent and the Politics of Sounding White

From the first time Phillip C. McGraw, Ph.D.—better known as “Dr. Phil”—appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1998, dropping lines like, “My dad used to say, boy, don’t let yer alligator mouth overload yer hummin’ bird ass,” I was hooked. That accent! That no-nonsense, Southern sauce! From what fount of otherworldly knowledge did Phil drink? An insecure teen, gnawing and thrashing my way through high school’s convoluted social milieu (not to mention the murky waters of multiraciality), Dr. Phil’s frank, accented approach to life’s difficulties appeared as a god-send. It didn’t matter much what Dr. Phil was actually saying or whether his words when strung together formed logical thoughts, it was more the way he said things that affected me so. His deep, sing-songy lilt—preachy and avuncular—brought to mind a grandpappy smoking a pipe, whose wisdom was drawn from a hard day’s farmin’, not a god-forsaken textbook.

With Oprah’s endorsement, the Cult of Phil grew fast and strong. Dr. Phil became a national figure–the corporate media’s version of a public intellectual and my own personal hero. His daytime talk show provided him with a regular platform from which to dispense more of that golden, “Texan-dipped” advice, as The New York Times put it. Selling over 2 million copies, his 2003 classic Self Matters began the onslaught of McGraw-family oeuvre, including several by his wife, Robin, and son, Jay–the face of Phil’s teen self-help brand.  Not just a sage, Dr. Phil’s commitment to the McGraw family brand let us know he walked the walk. As evidenced by Dr. Phil’s opening credits, which feature behind-the-scenes glimpses of Mr. and Mrs. McGraw canoodling and his smiley next of kin, this family was for real.  They loved and laughed together while cross-promoting each other’s book projects. Teenage Me wondered, did white people get better than this?

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Screen capture from the opening credits to Dr Phil

Today, Dr. Phil’s star, and my admiration for him, have faded significantly, but one thing remains the same. Ever since I can remember, my older sister and I have communicated almost exclusively via over-the-top, celebrity impersonations and Dr. Phil became a particular mainstay; even now, we religiously observe the maintenance of the Phil “voice.” Pre-Phil, I can recall my sister addressing me in a raspy, befuddled tone startlingly akin to the Keanu Reeves of yesteryear. Not soon after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure became a permanent piece of our home VHS library, Reeves’ trademark method of delivering lines amidst staggered, nonsensical pauses became an obsessive, sisterly tick. “Dude, shut the door when you pee” she might say, staring blankly at me and cocking her head abruptly to the side.

The use of certain impersonations shifted with the ebb and flow of popular culture’s somewhat predictable tide, depending on whose video was “TRL’s” most requested or whose face most frequently graced the cover of TV Guide. I rehearsed George Herbert Walker Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” campaign ad in front of the stained glass mirror adjacent to the family room television; after that, it was all about Phil Hartman’s witty and endearing impersonation of Bill Clinton.

https://screen.yahoo.com/clinton-mcdonalds-000000491.html

It went on that way until Dr. Phil’s shit blew up, and everything became solidified–as if, finally, my sister and I had found our one true voice. With age, I came to understand that Phil wasn’t the prophetic genius I’d hoped he was and that our compulsive Phil-talk was an oddity, to say the least. I began to wonder why, even as adults, we continued to embarrass ourselves in public and take such pains to text each other in mock-“Texan” (thank goodness for smart phones’ “add word” function).

It’s actually quite common for people to adopt alternate voices or speech patterns. Take, for example, child-directed speech (“babytalk”) or pet-directed speech. Both are customized forms of vocal communication or “prosodic modification,” which, while differing dramatically from normative adult speech in their intonation and grammatical structure, are considered customary forms of address. In fact, cross-linguistic studies show that babytalk and pet-directed speech are common across other European languages, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. As such, parents and pet owners can rest well knowing that prosodic modification of the child and dog varieties are nearly universal human ticks. Unfortunately, research into child- and pet-directed speech didn’t provide much insight into the unique phenomenon of “Phil-talk.” I had hoped to find other accounts in the literature, a history of similar episodes that might lift the shroud of tomfoolery, explain it away as all too common or evidence of psychological disorder x, y or z, something treatable with an esoteric name.

"Dr. Phil in Jacksonville" by Flickr user Craig ONeal, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Dr. Phil in Jacksonville” by Flickr user Craig ONeal, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While at this point in my life Phil-talk is more or less an asinine charade, it continues to function as a key component of our familiar vernacular. Interestingly, when re-visiting the many impersonations that have come to define our adolescent years (the Keanu years, the Bush Sr. years, the Phil years), one thing becomes clear: all the voices we’ve adopted have been those of white, male, cultural standard-bearers (Ironically, Keanu Reeves also happens to be Hapa, though I never knew as much. His breakout role as “Ted” helped to popularize the “California dude” archetype). Additionally, I should note, that at no time did any female impersonations enter my repertoire. If you’re going to gain a voice, better make it a male one, no? The racial and gender dissonance that Phil-talk begets drives the urge to perform it.

The author's mother, with the author's sister and the author. Picture is property of the author.

The author’s mother, with the author’s sister and the author. Picture is property of the author.

From an early age, my mother would tell me tales of her sacrifice—how hard she worked when she came to this country and how difficult life could be in 1960s post-war South Korea—all in a voice with barely a shred of mispronunciation or foreign intonation. My father, a second-generation Swiss-Italian American, scrupulously corrected her syntactical missteps and any other vocal nuances that sounded un-American. It was important to my mother to succeed as an American, and most importantly, that her children succeed too. The pressure I felt to make her content was borderline unbearable. When I started doing the voices, it made my mother happy. She sometimes tried joining in, attempting to mimic key Phil phrases like, “You have gawt to get reee-al,” but to no avail. “You do it better than me,” she’d say, “…my accent.”

When I was young, people looked at me and asked, “what are you?” OR “where are you from?” “America,” I would say. “I’m an American.” These questions were provoked by the racial ambiguity of my mixed-race heritage–the hint of Asianness that marked me as something else. I could not change the shape of my eyes, the contour of my cheeks or the fact that my mother was Korean. But, I could try my hardest to act and sound like an American. Phil-talk became a way to obscure the Asianness, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did, in fact, belong.

Rather than being merely a childhood performance of celebrity impersonations, I have come to think these various chapters were actually an attempt to perform sonic whiteness. Whether it was Keanu’s California dude cadence, George Bush Senior’s waspy nasality, or Phil’s prolonged Texan twang, I tried to perform in what Aja Martinez defines as “white voice” in her article “‘The American Way’: Resisting the Empire of Force and Color-Blind Racism” (593). She talks about Latino/a students using a “white voice” at school because they equate it with the voice of higher education, but I am really using it here as an explicit racial performance. As a a half Korean, half Euro-American teen girl (now woman) who decides to very literally adopt the voice of a White, 50-something, Texan, TV psychologist, “white voice” was the name of the game, and people loved it–especially my Korean immigrant mother.

For Asian Americans in particular, a people whose national belonging has been culturally questioned and legally denied, accents substantiate and make audible what the eye sees as un-American. In Shilpa Dave’s recently published Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, she explores accents as they relate to cultural citizenship, national belonging and “the allocation of power.” Someone with an accent is “designated as an outsider to the dominant culture,” writes Dave. In contradistinction to “foreign” sounding accents, Southern accents are a classic symbol of American cultural belonging, like apple pie for the ears.

Would Phil’s wisdom sound as powerful or palatable without the accent? His appeal stems not only from his sometimes entertaining “Phil-isms” (e.g. “You can’t hide the sunrise from a rooster”), but from all that he and his voice signify. A white, male doctor giving advice on TV is hardly noteworthy, but Phil’s recognizably Southern accent separates him from the pack and softens the blow of his often severe advice.

Angela George [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Angela George [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Phil’s accent (and his ringing endorsement from Oprah, long a trendsetter for the white middle class) have a way of diminishing racial and class barriers and cleverly marketing his advice as “good ol’ common sense” that everyone can get behind. Though Southern African American vernacular is often represented, negatively, as “improper” or evidence of inferior educational attainment, a White doctor using many of the same linguistic nuances is considered “charming” and “folksy.” One of the reasons people listen(ed) to Phil is because he’s a good, moustachioed Southern doctor that’s gunna tell it to ya straight, ya’ll. This kind of cultural capital is hard to manufacture. This, I figured wrongly, was what I stood to gain, not considering for a moment all that might be lost.

Constantly searching for ways to be seen, heard, and accepted within an American system of racial binarism that privileges whiteness, denigrates blackness, and locates yellowness somewhere in a No Man’s Land of racial categorization, sound’s flexibility has always seemed to me like a means to belonging. Furthermore, as a multiracial, Korean/White woman, even no man’s land can seem out of reach. As Michael Omi notes in the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Multiraciality disorients and confuses insofar as it can discredit entrenched signifiers which make race perceptible to the eye and ear.

Previously on Sounding Out!, I discussed my identification with Nas and the rap world as both a move towards color and the formation of an authentic, multiracial self. A move in the opposite direction, experimenting with “white voice,” functions as another attempt to navigate America’s system of racial identification, albeit in a much more problematic vein. After years of Phil-talk and vocal impersonations of the white male variety, I am finally putting a stop to the charade. However earnest (or subconscious) an attempt to belong, the loss of time spent mimicking Phil represents an era of racial silencing that is somewhat difficult to stomach. Despite the amusement it has brought to friends and family, I am putting the voice to rest in service of getting real.

Featured image: “Dr. Phil” by Flickr user House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.

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