Sound Body: Ohio abortion laws, Wendy Davis, & Rachel Jeantel

A number of recent events led me to think about the way women’s relationship to the state and to citizenship/civil personhood is constituted in and through sound. I also want to think about the technologies that help women’s bodies make the “right” or “wrong” kinds of sounds. The state uses ultrasound machines to make women’s bodies speak with “voices” that aren’t their own (because they belong to the proto-citizens in their wombs); Wendy Davis used some running shoes, a back brace, and social media to, as Gov. Rick Perry put it, “scream” about reproductive justice in the Texas legislature; and Rachel Jeantel performed “sonic ratchet” (to use Regina Bradley’s term) in a Florida courtroom and on television sets/computer screens across the globe.


As a cis-woman who spent her teens and early twenties in southwest Ohio (John Boehner’s district, to be exact), I’ve always been and continue to be interested in that state’s regulation of women’s reproductive health. Even though I don’t live there anymore, I’ve been following the state’s various attempts to restrict access to abortion and contraception. There was the heartbeat bill not long ago, and now there’s a budgetary amendment that effectively makes ultrasound a prerequisite for a birth control prescription. (It redefines pregnancy as beginning at fertilization, not implantation; because hormonal contraception prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus, they cause, in this view, an “aborted” pregnancy.) As Chrissie Thompson, from my hometown paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, explains:

Republicans added on Tuesday a last-minute provision requiring a doctor to use external medical means – likely an abdominal ultrasound – to find the heartbeat. The doctor would then have to notify the woman about the presence of the heartbeat and the fetus’ likelihood of surviving to full term.

Heartbeats and ultrasounds are both about using sound to make a foetus present, to give it a ‘voice’ (the sound of the heartbeat) and a visible body (the ultrasound image). By appearing in sound, by making noise that the state then hears, foetuses are conferred civil and/or moral personhood–they “count” as real, full people because the state “hears” them.

This is literally about recognition of civil personhood by the state. In March 2011 a foetus was set to testify in front of the Ohio General Assembly. As Nick Wing put it in the Huffington Post, “The testimony…will consist of projecting an ultrasound image of the pregnant woman’s uterus onto a screen in the courtroom. The image will also show the fetus’ heartbeat in color.” Here, a foetus is made present before the state as one of its constituents in and through sound and visualized sonic data (the ultrasound image). Sound is the medium through which a foetus exists and is recognized as a member of civil society and deserving of its protections. Abortion is “murder” only if it’s a “person” that’s killed–and not, say, another form of life, like a plant, animal, or collection of cells. And in Ohio at least, foetuses manifest their civil personhood through sonic technologies and audiovisual broadcast. Literally. These instruments make a woman’s body resonate with a “voice” (which is a common metaphor for civil personhood, as expressed, for example, in voting) that supersedes her own. In order to hear the sounds made by foetuses as (political) speech, the state’s ears have to be tuned in a way that renders women’s actual political speech inaudible as such. When your ears are tuned to hear the “speech” of foetuses, women’s political speech will sound like irrational screaming.


This is exactly how Governor Rick Perry heard Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, who spoke for more than 13 hours in front of the Texas state legislature in a successful filibuster of a different set of abortion restrictions. “The louder they scream,” Perry argues, “the more we know we are getting something done.” So according to this logic, the proper function of the state is to take women’s rational, Roberts-Rules-following, duly-elected, fully enfranchised political speech and distort it into irrational, unruly, pre-political screaming. One way to do this is to stress women’s bodies to the point where they can’t resonate properly. Mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds (especially transvaginal ones) are one example, but Davis’s own physical endurance is another. She needed physiological support–good running shoes and a back brace–to keep her body in a position that allowed her to continue speaking, both physiologically (good posture=good breathing=good breath support=not going hoarse) and procedurally (rules about filibusters prohibited her from leaning on a podium, for example). Davis followed the rules. She made sure both her body was properly disciplined and that her political speech was appropriately “germane,” and she was still reduced to a screeching harpie. Because that is, as Perry’s comment indicates, the state’s job. To remix women’s political speech into screaming. Criticizing Davis for having been a single teen mother, Perry, like his colleagues in Ohio, did this by filtering Davis’s speech through her reproductive organs. It’s like the only voice the state will listen to is the one my uterus makes, because this uterine voice will “confess” (in the Foucaultian sense) my goodness or badness as a woman. So even though the political speech coming out of Davis’s mouth was fully rational and rule-abiding, it was drowned out, in Perry’s ears, by the unruly screaming done by her uterus.


Rachel Jeantel also gave official testimony to the state this week. In her case, I want to think about the ways that televisual/internet broadcasting modulated the way we “heard” her. How did the broadcast of her testimony on television or over the internet “ratchet up” what Regina Bradley calls, in her brilliant analysis, Jeantel’s “sonic ratchet”?

Is there something specific about broadcast media that allows it to transmit racialized affect–both the black, feminized, creolized/foreign, working-class ratchet-y “accent” of her delivery, and the disgust and/or empathy that ratchet-y accent ought, from the perspective of hegemony, to arouse in us, the audience? I don’t have more than a suggestion of a possible answer; that will come through a reading, of all things, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But first, I want to spend some time with Bradley’s analysis, because it clearly frames the relationship between sonic and affective “ratchet”.

As Bradely defines it, “[sonic] ratchetness is a means of navigating sliding representations of respectability within American popular culture”–it is a historically-specific (i.e., contemporary, US-based, frequently southern) method of both defying and subverting controlling images of “respectable” black women. Ratchet is a way of stylizing one’s performances of classed, gendered, body-sized, skin-toned, sexualized, abilized excesses of all-too-narrow norms of respectability.

What I find particularly valuable and productive about Bradley’s concept of “sonic ratchet” is that it treats sound (listening, hearing, sound production and transmission) as the primary conduit for affective ratchet. Consider, for example, how Bradley moves from affect–trauma, grief, hyper-respectability-vs-ratchet tension–to listening:

Jeantel’s ratchetness, then, is a tragicomedic site of cultural and gendered trauma accessible to the national public. Her personal loss of a close friend is overshadowed by her performance of that grief in a space of hyper-respectability. Her emotionally charged question “are you listening?” jolted not only West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for? (Bradley)

We’re listening not only for her voice, but for her affective demeanor, the (dis)respectable quality of her performance of black femininity. We are listening for and to “her two-fold performance of ratchetness – sonic and cultural, imposed and embodied” (Bradley). Sonic affect and corporeal/haptic affect feed back into and amplify one another; they’re not perceived as separate, but as mutually reinforcing.

There are performative dimensions of her testimony not available in a written transcript, or even in an audio-only broadcast–her embodied delivery, the way a specific body produced specific sounds, etc. These vocally and physically performative dimensions influence what we hear and how we hear it.

The broadcast of Jeantel’s testimony transmitted not just her words, but also a whole lotta racialized affect. In the US, broadcast media has always transmitted racialized affect. For example, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has done some excellent work on race, sound, and radio. John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray is also about the audiovisual broadcast of racialized affect (someday I’ll write a full post about that…).

Because broadcast media is temporal, because it unfolds as a process, it can convey affects, which are also temporal and processual, in a way that written discourse cannot. Writing’s inability to convey affect is one of the main claims in Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages: “the successive impression made by discourse, striking with cumulative impact, succeeds in arousing in you a different emotion than does the presence of the object itself which you take in all at one glance” (Rousseau EOL 250). Like a piece of music, affect is something you have to undergo and experience; it is, to use Rousseau’s term, a “passion” (which, in French, carries stronger connotations of suffering through or undergoing something than it does in English).  Time-based, “4D” media–like music, or radio, or television–are more effective at transmitting affect than 2D and 3D media are.

So, the best way to spread the ratchet-y accent of Jeantel’s sonic/affective performance is through audiovisual broadcast. It allows for her sonic ratchet to make “successive impression” and to “strike with cumulative impact,” thus arousing in us, the presumably “respectable” audience, the greatest level of disgust, disidentification, and antipathy.

What is at stake in this transmission? Why is it important that we the audience respond with vehement disgust?

Bradley also nails this point: Zimmerman’s defense team is trying to get the audience to cathect or transfer all their negative responses to Jeantel onto Tayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s victim. They want us to transmit or broadcast Jeantel’s ratchet onto Martin. As Bradley explains,

it is Jeantel’s sonic delivery that most threatens Martin’s perceived and scripted middle class respectability. Jeantel’s use of so-called “broken” English has overwhelmingly been heard by what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman calls America’s dominant “listening ear” in“Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in Blackboard Jungle” as a marker of her working class background – not her trilingual background – and thus, it sonically aligns Martin with the black working class and voids prospects of him being considered a victim of violence rather than its perpetrator. Don West’s treatment of Jeantel on the witness stand attempted to impose a parallel between Jeantel’s alleged “illiteracy” and Martin’s criminality. The “crime” of illiteracy within the courtroom and supposed “crime” of Martin beating Zimmerman into shooting him co-exist within a policed space of (white) respectability that black bodies are frequently forced to adhere.

The broadcast of Jeantel’s testimony transmits her sonic ratchet to audiences who judge her deficient, disgusting, and unruly. The defense hopes we then transmit our affective responses to Jeantel further, on to Marten. Jeantel is indeed on trial, as ersatz Martin.

This is another instance in which a woman’s body is made to “sound” specific ways in front of/in addressing the state. As Ashon Crawley argues at Crunk Feminist Collective, “

The negative reactions to Jeantel’s body, skin color, speech, education, are fundamentally about citizenship, about belonging and displacement. What if the jokes about Rachel Jeantel rehearse a more general and nonspecific feeling of displacement from the bounds – or brush up against the limits – of the concept of citizenship? Not even simply being a witness could protect from cross examinations that sought nothing other than to dehumanize. There was no respect for Jeantel’s personhood on that stand, no desire to get to the heart or truth of any matter.

Stripping Jeantel of her citizenship was a way to strip Martin of his; as a non-citizen, then, he was not deserving of the protections of the state. Dehumanized, his execution wouldn’t be murder murder. And this de-citizening (I’m thinking about Natalie Cisneros’s concept of “backwards de-citizening”) is accomplished sonically.

So, these are three recent incidents in which sound, women’s political speech/citizenship, and women’s bodies are all drawn together into related but distinct events. There’s a lot more theorizing that could be done to draw out these relationships–and if you have any ideas there, please PLEASE let’s talk about them in the comments! The only conclusion-type thing I can posit now is that there’s something up with sound, bodies/affect, and patriarchy, and we need to figure that shit out before it does too much damage.