Rewriting the Gaze: Hearing Sex in Cinema

by: , September 12, 2018

© Screenshot from Anomalisa (2015) dir. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman

‘The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions (already undertaken by radical film-makers) is to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment.’

Laura Mulvey (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema


‘The voice indeed does not mask, but rather unmasks the speech that masks it. Speech can play tricks. The voice, whatever it says, communicates the uniqueness of the one who emits it, and can be recognized by those to whom it speaks.’ 

Adriana Cavarero (2005) For More than One Voice


The problem that orients this paper is straightforwardly simple: is it possible to dismantle the synonymy between the filmed body of the woman having sex and the subsequent (masculine) consumption of the body in question? For Laura Mulvey, writing in 1975 the answer is clearly no. Mulvey’s essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, makes clear that once filmed, the woman’s body is defined by a limited and patriarchal code of spectatorship, which strips her of any autonomy, rendering her objective and consumable by the male audience. To reimagine the matrix of female body ownership within the four corners of the cinema screen would appear to require a radical dismissal of the very code within which spectatorship is structured. And yet, such a reconstruction is not what is sought in this article. Rather, by reconfiguring the aesthetic order by which spectatorship is coordinated I seek to reimagine the aesthetic presentation of female bodies such that questions of autonomy and ownership are not relegated to the (male) audience. Hence, what is achieved in this paper is precisely the task envisaged by Mary Ann Doane’s 2004 reflection on Mulvey’s original 1975 essay, namely, a navigation away from the binary of positive/negative representation in order to assume a political, aesthetic argument within the field of film theory. By displacing the primacy of the visual as the measure for both aesthetic engagement and aesthetic presentation, and considering the aural quality of cinema, what I undertake in this essay is, on the one hand, a revision of the ways in which women are perceived on screen – hence an aesthetic argument – and, on the other hand, an account of female bodily ownership that has political resonance – hence a political argument. Collapsing the distinction between politics and aesthetics allows for a feminist account of the ways in which the depiction of the sexed female body in cinema is redeemed, such that what comes to be seen is the woman who actively has sex; hence she who sexes rather than she who is sexed.

While Mulvey’s essay sets the initial scene for my investigation into the aural quality of film, my central argument is premised on an engagement with the work of Adriana Cavarero. Cavarero, much like Mulvey, works at the vanguard of her field, here feminist Italian philosophy, establishing new ways in which to engage with political questions. She, along with others of this school, is noted for her original and pioneering work: ‘rather than using their political and creative energy to contest male-dominated institutional politics, they sought out and established new spaces in which to found a new politics’. (Bertolino 2008: 128) The project assigned to Cavarero’s work is echoed in the project at hand. Here, I displace the visual primacy of Mulvey’s theory and seek out an ‘aural space’ in which to think about spectatorship. Taking up Cavarero’s reading of the voice in her monograph For More than One Voice, I establish a new space in which to discuss film spectatorship; namely, one in which the sonorous quality of the voice and a framework of aural aesthetics is foregrounded. What is at play in considering the body of the cinematic woman is less the potentially consumable quality of the visual image but the affective quality of her voice. In this sense I take my cue from the work of Cavarero; namely that the voice is a site of power and autonomy that is capable of exposing the specificity of her body as her body and not available for the possession of a (male) gaze. The site of domination that is unsettled by reading Cavarero within the matrix of film-philosophy is the one possessed by the visual order. Rather than deny the force of the image, placing the aural aesthetic at the centre of a spectatorial account of cinema – and thus displacing the primacy of the visual without negating it entirely – I aim to create a new space by which to understand questions of female autonomy.

In essence, there are three moves to be made over the course of my argument, each of which binds Cavarero’s work to the realm of film theory and aesthetics. The methodology underlying this process is invoked to show the potential inter-articulation between the varying branches of feminist thinking, whether the politically philosophical thought of Cavarero or the film-psychoanalytic arguments of Mulvey. First, I uncover the political valence of speech in Cavarero’s work — a quality that is ensconced by Cavarero’s claim that the voice has an unmasking force. Working through the ways in which speech and the sonorous quality of the voice unmask the specificity of selfhood, I turn to Mulvey’s essay in order to reframe her argument in audible terms. Second, I recast the logic of Mulvey’s argument and establish the grounds for an aural aesthetic. Here I develop the framework of experience that Mulvey sets out in consideration of the optical experience in order to show how aurality can function in a similar way. Yet here the aesthetic account of aurality is marked by a process of inter-articulation between screen and spectator. This leads to my third point, which redeems the political aesthetics that Doane sought in her 2004 reflection on Mulvey’s piece and shows the way the aural can inform an autonomously female subjectivity. My argument throughout is premised on the claim that implicit to the visual image is a code of spectatorship that remains tethered by a logic of objectification. Uncovering an aural aesthetics offers a potential remedy to this issue, by subverting the force of the objectifying gaze and returning bodily ownership to the vocal woman, what is equally evoked is her capacity to be heard. Reconfiguring the coordinates of female subjectivity by foregrounding the cinematic representation of the voice thereby negates modes of subjectivity premised on the muteness of women. In my conclusion I enjoin a political argument reminiscent of 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s political condition of plurality, arguing for an account of subjectivity premised on the inter-articulation of bodies.

Situating claims that encompass film – though not purely visual – aesthetics, politics and philosophy within the narrative framework of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s 2015 stop-motion film, Anomalisa, affirms the force of the voice and the aural as sites of political performance. The film’s abstraction of reality through the use of stop-motion puppets emphasises the presence of voice, a stress that is heightened by the film’s narrative preoccupation with voice and identity. All the film’s characters are voiced by Tom Noonan, the only exception being the protagonist Michael (David Thewlis) and the anomalous Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), hence the film’s title – a portmanteau of anomaly and Lisa. The seemingly simplistic casting of three voice actors for the entire film complicates the spectator’s understanding of what it means to connect and empathise with a character. I argue that this disconnection is born in direct relation to the flatness of the character’s voicing, an opacity which is broken principally by the singularity of Lisa’s voice. Her voice resounds in the film as a disruptive force against the monotony of protagonist Michael’s world. While Lisa’s appeal as a ‘woman’ might be thought to be fractured her apparent lack – she isn’t a ‘real’ woman with ‘real’ sex appeal and therefore doesn’t elicit the same desire to be consumed, visually or otherwise, her conspicuous, awkward hand-constructed body exposes a tactile reality about our own physical bodies. Lisa’s body hedges the boundary between artificiality and reality. Her imperfect body perfectly sculpted, her smooth clay skin given, what I will call ‘corporeal depth,’ by the guttural, haptic voice of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. The specific scene under consideration in this paper – the sex scene – highlights the puppetry of our own constructed ideals of sex and romance, playing with conceptions of what sex and female bodies having sex ought to look like, while simultaneously investing ‘reality’ in the sonority of her voice. Indeed, it will become apparent throughout this paper that the particular force attributed to the scene by scholars and reviewers alike emerges via the specific disclosure of subjectivity signified by the voice. (see Bradshaw 2016, Smith 2016 & Smith 2016)

© Screenshot from Anomalisa (2015) dir. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman


The motif of the ‘unmasking’ voice, which overcomes speech and reveals the specificity of the speaker’s identity, is a case that Cavarero builds out of Hannah Arendt’s thesis that speech is the most political of human actions. Following Aristotle’s formula that man is both a political animal and an animal endowed with the capacity for speech, Arendt considers the act of speaking as ‘first and foremost a privileged way in which the speaker actively, and therefore politically, distinguishes him or herself to others’. (Kottman 2005: vii) Yet in distinction to Aristotle, for whom the content of speech represented man’s political nature, speech, is always already political for Arendt. And so Arendt radically departs from Aristotle, assigning in place, political function to each and every individual. Taking up Arendt’s claim regarding the uniqueness of human speech, Cavarero further clarifies the political quality of speech as possessing a revelatory force by virtue of the sonorous voice. In this regard she writes: ‘speech becomes political on account of self-revelation of speakers who express and communicate their uniqueness through speaking – no matter the specific content of what is said’. (Cavarero 2005: 190) Hence, for Cavarero, the voice becomes a mode of revealing the body from which it came in contradistinction to all other bodies. The voice reveals the body, marking it as at once irreducibly unique, but equally as vulnerably exposed. Julia Kristeva, fellow feminist philosopher who also draws closely on Arendt’s work, connects the courage of voicing speech with Arendt’s political ‘space of appearance,’ the sphere in which one distinguishes oneself as politically autonomous – it is this space that Lisa will come to inhabit in the vocally unmasking sex scene of Anomalisa later on.

‘The space of appearance of the polis is such that it invites everyone to demonstrate an original courage that is an agreement to act and to speak, to leave the shelter of the personal in order to be exposed to others and, with it, to be prepared to risk revelation’. (Kristeva 2000: 53)

The double bind of this experience, as empowering and exposing, which marks the political ability and the irreducible singularity and consequently the vulnerability of the individual is what distinguishes the voice as a site of courage. Yet it is the sonorous quality of the voice that truly demarcates the courageous quality of vocalised speech because it is the specificity of sonority that reveals the identity of the speaker.

Pushing at the clarity of this exposure of one’s irreducible and specific identity, Cavarero stresses the reciprocal exchange that is prefigured in the act of voicing, an exchange that Kristeva eludes to in her evocation of the ‘space of appearance.’ For the voice is not merely indicative of the self’s revelation to the other, the voice indicates a reciprocal exchange between voice and ear. The voice evokes a partner who not simply hears but listens, thereby implying a level of respect to sit in silence and seek meaning in the words of another. It is this exchange between voice and ear that I want to stress in the relationship between cinema screen and spectator, or rather cinema speaker and auditor. The emphasis on a material space in which politics can be performed – and hence its apparent privileging of visibility – does not deny the potentially political function of the voice. Rather, the voice creates its own ‘space’ in which the visible is made secondary and the audible is celebrated as a means of political action.

Cavarero confronts the homogenizing force of a masculine ethics that excludes the presence of feminine subjectivity through the figure of the maternal. Indeed, the maternal figure recurs throughout her work as symbolic of a dormant female potential that is refused a space in which to appear. In For More than One Voice, Cavarero seeks to engage the sonorous voice as a political aesthetic by way of the infant and the reciprocal exchange between the maternal ear and the infant’s cry. The infant’s cry, which becomes meaningful as it leaves the body and exposes the infant self as fundamentally dependent, is the original pre-lexical mode of sonorous expression. ‘The voice is always for the ear, it is always relational; but it is never as relational as it is in the first cry of the infant – an invoking life that unknowingly entrusts itself to a voice that responds’. (Cavarero 2005: 169) In other words, the expression of pre-lexical sound, of moans and cries, is the essential expression of relationality. Such sounds impart neither information nor content, they are mere expressions of being and, moreover, of being-in-relation. In a sense they are the lexical expression of the human condition; of an inherent humanness made legible through distinction – it is the infant who cries in the hope that another might attend. The quality of the cry exposes the specificity of the self and in doing so informs the heterogeneous quality of reality; a body cannot establish an account of political selfhood by mere existence alongside other merely living bodies. Such an account of the social describes only the mass, a moving homogeneous block of bodies. Conversely, the sonorous voice reorients a community by exposing its relational structure. The pre-lexical sound is the ultimate political expression because it necessitates the other and becomes the expression of a relational world. I go so far as to argue that there is no purpose in the expression of pre-lexical sound, in essence of pre-lexical noise, beyond the expression of a need for the other. Whether the shout elicited from pain, which reveals the need for another’s protection, or laughter as the inter-articulation of happiness, or indeed a moan of sexual-gratification, which expresses pleasure in another’s company, human noise is the affirmation of human relationality. Sound exists in the space between, emerging from the body as a breath, an expression out into the fabric of space between two or more subjects and is formative of this space, defining the limits of distance between one body and another. Sound is a determinant of intimacy, to feel the rush of spoken words, to hear the sounds of another’s bodies and to feel the way these sounds land within one’s own ears. And yet, this onslaught of sound immediately marks the distance between two selves, who attempt to bridge the separation of their bodies by making themselves audible to one another. Vocalising the self is a move that simultaneously binds and distinguishes.

© Screenshot from Anomalisa (2015) dir. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman


Against the textures of sound that voices give to the spaces of human appearance, I wish now to turn to Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in which a discussion of sound is largely absent. While the essay has been revisited by Mulvey since it’s original publication in 1975, both her own reflections and those of others commenting on the essay have tended to focus on the absence of the autonomous female subject. And while these concerns have been addressed, the point that I want to suggest is that Mulvey’s essay risks neglecting another mode of enacting female agency. For while reflection on the essay has led to new ways of engaging the female body, the question of representation in feminist film literature continues to be framed around binaries of female subject/female spectator or positive/negative representation, without diverging from the matrix of visual language. (see Smelik 1998 & Bean 2002) Not only are cinematic qualities beyond the visual completely excluded from Mulvey’s essay, but the primacy she places on the visual is done without any justification, a decision that furthers the essay’s scopophilic nature. Sound and dialogue are deemed so foreign to the narrative force of film that Mulvey, and those reflecting on the essay, feel no need to address their absence. [1]  The debates that have followed the essay, whether in favour or in protest of Mulvey’s Freudian reading and preclusion of female bodies, have thus continued to read the essay within a discourse of ‘the gaze’ and feminist film theory. And so while some argue that those questions asked by the essay need no longer be central to feminist debate surrounding film given the growing presence of women in cinema, this cannot be said for the essay’s position within a discourse surrounding film’s sensorial qualities. Indeed, while Mary Ann Doane’s reflection on Mulvey’s essay, noted at the outset, calls for there to be more theory produced in feminist film theory, she too does not address the question of non-visual aesthetics such as sound and dialogue. While both Doane, in presenting a case for the role of aesthetics and Mulvey’s original presentation of a theoretical argument, argue for an engagement with the avant-garde in order to resolve, or at the very least potentially resolve, the primacy of masculine trends in film theory, they do not directly invoke an engagement with aesthetics beyond the visual. Craig Sinclair’s critique of the limited vocabulary in film theory takes particular issue with Doane’s prescriptive terms in describing the film experiences: ‘Mary Ann Doane claims that ‘to see’ means ‘to understand’ in the cinema, reinforcing the belief that audience members are principally viewers (not listeners) and showing how even the semantics of film inscribe a visual bias’. (Sinclair 2003: 17) Yet, in saying this, it should be noted that Doane is aware of the insufficiency of critical tools of analysis within film scholarship, a shortcoming that she attributes to the historical short-sightedness of cultural studies as a discipline more broadly.

Despite a significant void in theory regarding those cinematic qualities beyond the visual, by quoting her at length here, what Mulvey argues in favour of cinema’s appeal to the visual can equally be applied to the aural.

‘What is seen on the screen is so manifestly shown. But the mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy. Moreover the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation. Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world’. (Mulvey 1975: 17, emphasis added)

Once, the primacy of the visual is put to one side this passage takes on a whole new level of meaning. Indeed, my intention in recasting the logic that Mulvey applies to the visual in relation to aural aesthetics and more specifically the aural experience of the spoken word is to give rise to a new relevance for the passage (and essay more generally). Thus, here ‘indifference’ is marked by the fact that the audience cannot escape the aesthetics of aurality. While the visual can be repressed by averting one’s gaze or in the extreme shutting one’s eyes, the audible persists, frequently exceeding even the act of blocking one’s ears. Sound, unable to be blocked out reveals the spectator’s inability to remain ignorant, in consuming a body through hearing, the spectator is forced to acknowledge that she consumes. There is thus a form of reciprocity in hearing a film; the audience consumes the audible (and visual) quality of the image and, in turn, the image consumes the spectator’s knowledge of their own consumption. There is thus a form of inter-articulation between modes of subjectivity; the audience’s and the film’s. The ‘sense of separation’ that is produced is thus the bridge that the audible sets up between the reducible totality of the visual image and the potential of an unknowable – or as yet unknown – audible depth behind this. In listening, the spectator enters into a narrative construct and seeks to uncover more in the sonorous voice that hints at what cannot be immediately shown. Mulvey’s identification of a form of ‘playing’ is thus not an act of projection, the body on screen is not reduced to a site of experimentation, a blank bodily canvas on which to project desire, rather the audible body assumes an intangible complexity and defies reducibility, to either a totality or a canvas for voyeuristic fantasy. I introduced such a complexity earlier in the imagery of a ‘corporeal depth’ as brought about through the voice.

In contrast to Mulvey’s possessive and masculine gaze, the audible experience of film denies the reduction of the female body to an object of masculine possession. For while the visual depiction of the body invites the eye to linger and consume, the audible is constantly in motion, disappearing as it appears. Or, as Jean-Luc Nancy writes, ‘the visual persists until its disappearance; the sonorous appears and fades away into its permanence’. (Nancy 2007: 2) Moreover, the audible demands attention, to listen to a film and seek meaning in words and dialogue, demands silence from the spectator, in doing so, the spectator is made aware of their position as voyeur, thus if consumption occurs it is, as noted, reciprocal. What I wish to show in specific consideration of sex scenes is how the spectator is invited to ‘know’ intimately the audible woman without ever being able to consume her through the possessive (masculine) gaze. In this sense the audible body in film can be viewed as reminding the spectator that beyond the visual more exists waiting to be uncovered, or, to follow Cavarero once more, there is more to be unmasked through speech.

Thus what Mulvey identifies in regards to the visuals of the cinematic screen is equally true for the film’s aural elements. In a film a spectator is invited into the intimate and private lives of film characters, where voyeurism exists beyond a visual intrusion of space. ‘Voyeurism’ is equally apparent in the spectator’s ability to hear. Sighs, moans, the shuffling of material and the chewing of food are all audibly haptic ‘glimpses’ the listening spectator is privileged to hear. Those audible omissions the film character is unable to hide, belie the intimate access the listener has to a filmic character. While the face may be hidden by darkness in a horror film the gasp is uncontainable and it is here that a line can be drawn once again to Cavarero’s central refrain; ‘the voice indeed does not mask, but rather unmasks the speech that masks it’. (Cavarero 2005: 24, emphasis added) To hear not only the dialogue of an individual but the haptic sound of an individual is to be granted proximity to, and intimacy with, an individual. Lisa Coulthard identifies haptic sound as that which comes out of the body and assumes meaning ‘in motion’. She writes, ‘the haptic foregrounds tactile experience, the skin or body of film and its relation to the sensations of the spectator’. (Coulthard 2012: 18) The sonority of human sounds is made further apparent in the quotidian banality of Anomalisa; the brush of Michael’s trousers as he walks, the guttural clearing of throats and the undesired invitation to hear Michael relieve himself in the bathroom. While the emphasis placed on ‘voicing’ the everyday – the trousers, the toilet trip, and the humdrum of a bar – all contribute to the construction of a ‘haptic aurality,’ it is in the film’s aurally explicit sex scene, which I will discuss shortly, in which they culminate.


In her 1981 reflection on the original Visual Pleasure essay, Mulvey identifies two issues and seeks to emphasise methods of storytelling that cinema has inherited that attend to fascinations other than the look. From the outset of this second essay, it would thus appear that Mulvey sets out to resolve the issues that plagued the first. However, the logic of this essay remains bound to that of the first: it stays within the limits of the narrative frame and fails to attend to questions of political aesthetics that Doane later laments in her 2004 essay, Aesthetics and Politics. Indeed, the 2004 special issue of Signs, called ‘Beyond the Gaze’, in which Doane’s article was published was unable to break from the matrix of visuals, scopophilia and visible modes of representation that dominates film scholarship. In their introductory article editors, Kathleen McHugh and Vivian Sobchack, sketch out the framework for the special issue following Mulvey’s original binary of representation, although here, representation is addressed positively as it encompasses representations of previously marginalized groups. And so while the journal special effectively departs from the specific binary of positive/negative in relation to feminine subjectivity, as Doane notes it ‘remains ensconced within the realm of representation nevertheless’. (Doane 2004: 1234) McHugh and Sobchack’s stipulation regarding the journal’s content falls short of dismantling the primacy assigned to the visual order of aesthetics and thus remains bound to the logic of a masculine audience; ‘we have selected work that theoretically, historically, and/or critically either discusses or demonstrates film feminism as not only a changing conceptual apparatus but also as a pluralistic cultural praxis’. (McHugh & Sobchack 2004: 1205) And yet, a ‘pluralistic cultural praxis’ while essential to the portrayal of a multiplicity of female bodies, a move which invites a potential multiplicity of sympathetic engagements, it does not necessarily attend to the limited field of aesthetic representations and experiences.

While Doane approaches the possibility of going beyond the necessity of the positive/negative representation and thus a resolution to the question of masculine aesthetics through an appeal to the avant-garde, she remains bound by the yoke of visual primacy. ‘The avant-garde seemed to offer a way out of the dilemma [the necessity of binary positive/negative representation] precisely through its refusal of the totalization of representation, of mimesis, and its deflection of semiotic energy inward, toward the filmic medium.’ (Doane 2004: 123-4) Such essentialism is completely avoided however if the voice is examined not merely as an addendum to the visual, a move which binds it to the consumability and totalizing force of the visual, but if the voice is shown to complicate the very necessity of such a totality in the first place. This is precisely what the haptic depth of Lisa’s voice achieves during the sex scene of Anomalisa. Here, the guttural and corporeal sounds of her voice disrupts the artificiality of her visual puppet body, exposing the power of the voice to redeem a form of bodily agency. What the voice reveals is that everything cannot be revealed, that even to reach out to the ‘audible image’ of the female body with a totalizing grasp is an impossible project. The intangible voice defies reducibility and if considered outside the hierarchy of the senses.

© Screenshot from Anomalisa (2015) dir. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman


In the narrative of Anomalisa Lisa’s voice cuts across the homogenizing force that is the film’s audible world, exposing on the one hand the singularity of her character and on the other the richness that this provides to the fabric of the film’s reality. The film begins with the introduction of Michael, a customer service expert who is unable to connect with the people around him, traveling to Cincinnati to promote his latest book, which ironically details amongst other things ‘connecting with the customer.’ Unable to perceive the individuality of people around him, each person appears to Michael as wearing not only a mask on their faces but also as sharing the same voice (Tom Noonan). The monotonous and destructive spell in Anomalisa is broken by the character, or rather the voice, of Lisa. What Lisa represents however, is not the lustful attraction of the feminine (though her voice in distinction to all others is clearly that of a woman) nor moreover is she indexical of the stability assigned to the male-female union of either marriage or heterosexual sex. What Lisa signifies in virtue of her voice is the fundamental originality and unpredictability of the self and thus the impossibility of reducing the totality of the self to its visible physical exterior. Michael’s world exists, prior to Lisa, as a mundane place where original thought seems almost impossible. The repetitive dialogue of the other characters, which is frequently repeated in the form of billboards or other written signs in the film’s mise-en-scene evokes a sense of perpetual suffocation in Michael’s life. In a further emphasis on the monotony of Michael’s life, both his marriage and his attempt to rekindle an old affair, deny the spectator any sense of satisfaction, carnal or otherwise. It is only in exposing himself to Lisa, in becoming both an ear and a mouth, that a productive relationship is formed. The reciprocal loop that is established between Michael and Lisa culminates in the film’s sex scene, considered, despite the stop-motion aesthetic by popular film critics to be ‘one of the most extraordinarily real sex scenes in film history’. (Bradshaw 2016) Where I argue this scene finds its ‘extraordinarily’ real quality is in the emphasis on a revelation of the self not simply through vocalized speech, but rather through vocalized sound. Hence, it is pure sonority in its pre-lexical form that provides the scene with depth. This depth is important precisely because it prevents the spectator from dismissing the scene as mere puppetry (which in fact it is), and in doing so it assigns a form of subjective and human agency to Lisa (and Michael), which contribute to the film’s political force.

Lisa’s introduction as a vocalized character thus works against the logic of Michel Chion’s concept of the cinematic acousmetre. As one of the few theorists to critically engage with the sonorous voice in film theory, it is pertinent to point out that the acousmetre, Chion’s enigmatic cinematic voice, has a manifestly different role in relation to subjectivity than the sonorous voice of Cavarero and Arendt. For Chion the acousmetre, speaks from beyond the visual limits of the film, revealing something about the specificity of cinema as a medium, rather than the speaking body in question. A fundamental distinction thus emerges between Chion’s discussion of the cinematic voice and my own. Namely, that for Chion the acousmetre must remain outside the frame of the screen if s/he is to retain a sense of power. The acousmetre thus seeks to give depth to the narrative without ever visibly appearing; they have no connection to a specific subjectivity; they are omniscient, without a corporeal base. In this sense the acousmetre cannot affect a discourse of subjectivity, let alone the politics of inter-subjectivity and bodily ownership. Chion likens the moment the voice of the acousmetre ‘enters’ the film, as in the reveal of the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, to the act of deflowering, ‘For at that point [of being made visible] the voice loses its virginal acousmatic powers, and re-enters the realm of human beings’. (Chion 1999: 23) At this point of entry, the acousmetre loses some of that special and mysterious power that it held in being irreducible to a knowable, visual totality. Entering the realm of human beings thus exposes the acousmetre, undoing the power they held in being unattainable.

Yet, what I argue here is that it is precisely in revealing herself through sound, that is, through vocal pre-lexical sound, that the filmed woman removes herself from the realm of the immediately knowable. Sound creates a distance between the visible and knowable woman and the intangible and affective woman, simultaneously alienating the spectator and drawing them in once again. In this sense the body as a site does assume those powers that Chion denoted in the acousmetre – ‘He invites the spectator to go see, and he can be an invitation to the loss of the self, to desire and fascination.’ (Chion 1999: 24) However, here the spectator explores in relation to what was presumed known, sound in this sense exposes the impossibility of reducing the visual to a totality. This act of negation informs the woman’s autonomous subjectivity, while at the same time prevents the audience from attempting to entrap her within a specific code of patriarchal spectatorship in which female subjectivity is ultimately understood as a lack. Returning to the logic of spectatorship that Mulvey set out in her original essay, now the cinematic woman is truly indifferent to the presence of the audience, she has assumed her own subjective identity and engages the audience as a listener.

Lisa is marked by an irreducible singularity from the films very beginning through the mere act of speaking, of exposing herself as individual. What is important is that her voice distinguishes Lisa as a singular being, yet here to be singular is to be marked by difference without being made reducible to this difference. To reiterate a previous point regarding the depth that voice assigns to the visual image, voice reveals an unknowable depth to Lisa as a character, as a woman and ultimately as a human. Or to refer again to Nancy: ‘the sonorous, on the other hand [in contrast to the visual], outweighs form. It does not dissolve it, but rather enlarges it; it gives it an amplitude, a density, and a vibration or an undulation whose outline never does anything but approach.’ (Nancy 2007: 2) Hence, it is in the later scenes when she vocally exposes herself through the pre-lexical sounds of sex that Lisa most defiantly rejects the possessive gaze of the male spectator that haunted Mulvey’s essay and confirms ownership of her singularity. Lisa and Michael’s exchange encapsulates the relational quality of Arendt’s scene of plurality, a site formulated in her monograph The Human Condition as that locus of ‘equality and distinction’ in which the self enacts their singularity in relation to all others. (Arendt 1958: 175) The sex scene’s muted soundtrack, which is pierced by the sonorous revelation of Lisa and later Michael as well, deconstructs the mediation of the traditional sex scene. The immediacy of Lisa’s voice, which defies the mediation of the camera, hence it’s ‘im-mediacy,’ reorganises the logic of the spectator’s experience. In this sense, the scene ‘queers’ the conventions of both heteronormative and patriarchal spectatorship. While ‘the concepts of voyeurism and exhibitionism are shaped by gendered assumptions about heteroxeual male voyeurs and female exhibitionists,’ here Lisa challenges the voyeur to acknowledge their voyeurism. (Mennel 2012: 2) In this sense the film captures queer cinema’s deconstructive dimension, enabling a political argument regarding the agency of female body ownership to assume argumentative ground.

In her introduction to Queer Cinema, Barbara Mennel identifies a power within queer film narratives to rewrite the social codes that accompany queer relationships extra-cinematically, lending queer cinema an even greater political gravity. She writes, ‘Queer Film Studies, however, proposes that non-normative desire undermines cinematic conventions because the subversion of coherent identity also questions the possibility of its mimetic representation in film. Queer film aesthetics challenge the cinematic conventions based on gender-normative heterosexuality’. (2012: 4) While the desire of a heterosexual woman such as Lisa cannot be immediately aligned with ‘non-normative desires,’ the mode of representation does challenge the assumptions around female sexuality and it is here that the film can be placed alongside the critical deconstruction of heteronormativity sought in queer cinema. Indeed, following the heteronormative coding of the female body, Lisa’s voice is especially forceful in its defiance. As Elspeth Probyn, following a long tradition of feminist scholarship notes, ‘the body is a repository for social and cultural rules that, consciously or not, we take on.’ (Probyn 2005: xvi) The body is coded by the historical context in which it exists. Hence, the female body is coded as soft, penetrable, consumable – in all these senses it becomes a site that is yet to be owned, yet to be claimed. The voice works against this logic, untameable and non-consumable, the voice represents the innate potential of the body to assume its own space and fights to be heard against a context that undermines and undervalues the potential of the female. The call noted at the outset of a vocal aesthetics that enjoins a woman who has sex rather than the bodily canvas who is sexed thus also calls for the force of heteronormative coding to be revisited more broadly.

While the presence of sexualised female bodies in cinema is neither uncommon nor uncontested, scenes such as Lisa’s in Anomalisa are part of a larger process that seeks to untether the female body from sites of consumability. Here, this is achieved twice over by virtue of an aesthetic emphasis on voicing the voice: rejecting at once the possibility of the audience projecting a fantasy onto the surface of Lisa’s skin and next by making them aware of the act of consumption such that what in fact occurs is a reciprocal exchange. In each of these instances what I note is an opening up to the power of the female body. By voicing sex the film disrupts the muteness of sexualised women, without ever placing Lisa in an overly festishized position. In doing so it points to new directions in both feminist and film theory more generally. At this juncture it is worth conceding that precisely because the speaking woman demands a form of active muteness on the behalf of her interlocutor, she risks being excluded. Yet even here I argue that this dismissal is knowingly made; to treat the sexing female body with contempt, is nevertheless to recognize (albeit in the act of negation) her agency as a sexually autonomous figure. In this sense I argue that even in such a state of exclusion she does not lose legitimacy. While the lack that Mulvey explored in her original essay denied the very potential of female subjectivity and along with it any possibility of bodily ownership, here subjectivity, whilst it might be denied, cannot be wholly negated. What transpires in the vocalization of the woman in moments of sexual gratification is the necessity for the already present inter-articulation of different subjectivities, a move that in itself is political in nature. To return to the Aristotelian scene developed by Arendt at the outset, it is by voicing one’s singular and yet irreducible singularity that a political scene is able to emerge. Here, what we see emerging simultaneously is a politics of both social and film heterogeneity pitted against the homogenizing force of a now antiquated patriarchal code of spectatorship.


[1] Sue Thornham’s 2015 article, ‘On Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, provides a clear overview of the essay’s reception from its initial publication in 1975 to its place within film theory in 2015, citing the continued debate around whether or not to ‘situate’ feminist film theory in relation to it. While the article does provide a clear sense of how the essay has been received and how it continues to influence contemporary theory, her own lack of engagement with the essay’s preoccupation with the visual is problematic — it upholds the primacy of the visual in reading film.


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Bean, Jennifer & Diane Negra (eds) (2002), A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, Durham: Duke University Press.

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