Structurally, multimedia texts involve eavesdropping, as their viewer is also an active and engaged listener, hearing speech and sometimes thoughts represented as private inasmuch as the characters with whom they are aligned generally seem unaware of the presence of auditors (and could not be aware of the theater’s auditors, of course). Just as cinema provides a point of view for the spectator, which has been extensively theorized, so too it provides a point of hearing, a subject of increasing interest to film and media theorists in the last quarter century. In doing so, films orchestrate the placement of sound in the diegesis or world on screen and the theater or other listening space of the spectator. There may be little congruence between point of view and point of audition: eavesdropping is often facilitated through close up sound matched or synced to a much more distant source onscreen, and audiences may be privy to both sides of a telephone conversation even if the camera does not crosscut between the characters talking with one another.

Classically, sound tracks (dialogue, noise, and music) have been mixed so as to privilege human speech as the medium for conveying narrative information, including character motivation; thus, a noisy environment is partially muted so that the auditor does not miss key dialogue. However, the non-diegetic music in some television shows and films of the last ten years sometimes dominates and overwhelms the dialogue track, suggesting a different conception of the contributions of music and dialogue—and, arguably, narrative–to the media experience even of narrative multimedia, which at times resemble music videos. While films typically construct a third person point of audition, so that the auditor (over)hears more than any one character, enabling an effect of omniscience recalling the “dominant specularity” film theorists have ascribed to classic realism and its (re)production of bourgeois subjectivity, films can deploy aural masking or distorting techniques and other signs of a more limited and character-identified point of audition, sometimes signaled by visual signs of a subjective camera, although such sound may also be anchored to a character simply through close-ups of him or her that alternate with views of the source of what is heard (or unexpectedly muted).

Just as dominant specularity has been theorized as empowering the viewer, so too has its auditory analogue, and Mary Ann Doane and Kaja Silverman have developed a feminist analysis of sound in cinema that in many respects echoes Laura Mulvey’s analysis of the image track, showing how women’s voices and ears are as narratively disempowered as their gazes in classic Hollywood cinema. As Silverman explains it, the eavesdropper is like a voyeur, maintaining an authoritative distance and difference from those to whom he listens unbeknownst to them, and the mic is as gendered as the camera in the relay of listening Hollywood cinema constructs, as the film auditor eavesdrops on a female character along with the male protagonist. Women’s voices too participate in a gendered dynamic that is disempowering. Silverman and Chion both argue that horror narratives strive to make women characters scream, reducing their speech to nonsense that confirms their inability to master the diegetic world through which they move. Doane has shown that the authoritative voice-over of classic documentary is typically male because a feminine voice is heard as embodied and therefore partial—biased and limited in its perspective, rather than knowledgeable. Thus we can speak of sadistic eavesdropping as we do sadistic voyeurism, and the scream is perhaps the exemplary instance of an “aural exhibitionism” through which women participate in what for Mulvey is perverse patriarchal desire, as they do when they dress and display themselves for a fetishistic “male gaze.”

While theorists might have extended and developed this reasoning to argue for racist, imperialist, and/or bourgeois relays of listening, for the most part, they have not done so, no doubt because at about the same time as theories of a patriarchal sound track were developing, Mulvey’s work was coming under fire as “universalizing,” insufficiently attentive to differences between men, between women, and between film genres, all of which impact character relations and cinematic reception; from a somewhat different, more psychoanalytic and less sociological perspective, other theorists were arguing that fantasies, including those on offer in cinema, have multiple enunciations, enabling cross-identifications that complicate Mulvey’s assumptions about the reproduction of patriarchal subjectivities through the relay of gazes.

UC Humanities Network Logo
UC Humanities Research Institute
UCLA Center for Digital Humanities