My big voice was frowned upon when I was a girl in the 70s. Now, celebrities from Beyoncé to Michelle Obama are helping to tear up the idea of what a woman should sound like, writes Guardian journalist Viv Groskop.
No one wants to sit next to a loud woman. I know this because someone recently moved the placement card on a dinner table to get away from me. That label – “loud woman” – has never been a compliment, even though some of us may wear it as a badge of honour. Picture a loud woman and she is in Technicolor, with the sound turned up past 11, looking like she is stuck in the 80s: big hair, massive gob, voice like a foghorn, part witch, part harridan, part pub landlady. You definitely don’t want to sit next to her when she has a drink inside her.
What a loud woman looks like, though, has changed hugely in the past two decades. With Michelle Obama publishing her autobiography, Becoming, next week, it is clear that a new generation of women want to redefine the term. As the former first lady puts it: “I admit it: I am louder than the average human being and I have no fear of speaking my mind. These traits don’t come from the colour of my skin, but from an unwavering belief in my own intelligence.” If you ask women whom they would most like to be as a public speaker, many will say Obama. Her speaking style – controlled passion, warm authority, approachable charisma – is extremely attractive. She is the new kind of loud: the volume is calculated and in tune with the audience.
At the recent People’s Vote march in London, at least half of the speakers were women, many of them under 30. They were all impressively accomplished orators, able to play to a crowd of thousands and to the camera at the same time (they were being filmed, so that the video could be relayed). Watching them and soaking up their confidence, it occurred to me that what was impressive was that none of them could be dismissed as loud women. Yet their impact, no matter what your politics, was striking. Their styles were as varied as those of the male speakers. This variation and experimentation among female leaders is something we are only starting to see.
Just as the past few years have seen a rise in the body-positive movement and an understanding of the expression “fat shaming” and the extent to which those ideas have been internalised, I wonder if the “loud shaming” of women is finally being recognised. Samuel Johnson’s horrible quote about women and public performance is more than a century old: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” When I was a child in the 70s, it was common for me to be told to be quiet and stop showing off – at home, at school, by adults of all kinds. It was not until I was much older that I realised I was not being loud or showing off – I was just talking. This is not necessarily a woman thing; it is only in the past few decades that children have been allowed to be as noisy as they want.
Whatever this means is important. Because I think we are redefining what it means to be loud. We are starting to understand that you are not obliged to be loud just because someone has told you not to be. My grandmother was a great role model for me when I was growing up. She could be loud. She ran a corner shop with a rod of iron, spoke her mind, laughed raucously and did not suffer fools gladly. But she also agreed with the old saying: “Empty vessels* make the most sound.” Modern feminism has to hit a happy medium between these extremes. Don’t make noise for the sake of it, but don’t shut up either. There is a lot of experimentation to be done in the space between those options. As for the person avoiding me at dinner? Maybe I was just wearing too much perfume.
* vessels = containers