Monday, July 4, 2011

Bad Female Academic: I'm Loud (and not Funny)

Have you seen or heard about one of the sitcoms on NBC, coming this fall? It's called Whitney, and while it's a show about "relationships" (shudder), the title character is described as "loud and/or obnoxious." The boyfriend, of course, endures and seems to love her in spite of, not because of, this particular character flaw. 

Loud women are a difficult breed. As Rosanne Barr (probably the loudest of the pack) recently opined that for all of her attempts to receive proper recognition and respect on her show, she was labeled a bitch, a diva, and crazy. Loud women are either obnoxiously outrageous side-kick (think Karen, from Will and Grace) or promiscuous (think Samantha, from Sex and the City). When a woman speaks out, it is "obviously" a result of some other "character flaw." Could it be that the "character flaw" is a result of the message that it isn't ok for a woman to be loud?

Often women who are loud turn to comedy to use their voice, but in my mind also that comedy softens it. The message is softened to a certain extent when the loud woman becomes the butt of the joke. Rosanne avoided this; her humor was dark and so grounded in reality, she wasn't the joke, the rest of us were. But often being "the funny one" (and thus taken less seriously) is a way for women to deal with the label "loud."

(Note that this isn't a criticism against those women who do succeed in comedy, a notoriously male and chauvinistic profession. I'm just observing that being loud is softened by also being funny. Now satire, on the other hand...But note there are very few female satirists, too.)

I've always been loud. My voice carries, as they say. When I first started teaching, one of the criticisms I received was that I didn't need to yell (I wasn't yelling). You can hear my laugh from a mile away (almost literally, depending on the acoustics). But just because I'm loud, volume-wise, doesn't mean that I've always used my voice to speak up and speak out. 

I do not get intimidated easily. I speak up for what I believe in, and while I am open, I have the courage of my convictions. I walk into my classroom like I own the room. My class is not a joke. I do believe that you have to earn your students' respect, but I carry myself like I deserve that respect from the first moment they meet me. I speak up in meetings, I speak out, and I make sure that I am not talked over or ignored. 

This, of course, is problematic when you're a Female Academic; we're supposed to be seen and not heard, apparently. I have had numerous people passive-aggressively suggest that I am too loud when I teach. I can't imagine them saying something like that to a male professor. I've had others gently suggest that I keep quiet or keep my head down, for my own good, like I need to be protected from myself. I've stuck my foot in my mouth on more than one occasion, but I also know that it's a risk I'm willing to take in order to make sure that I'm heard. 

And to show that I'm not a joke. 


  1. I can certainly identify with this. It's all part of the conflict produced when women violate gender norms, including the entrenched idea that we're supposed to be "mild and meek", and that we should be leaving serious intellectual discussion to the men (check out a Harry Enfield satire that shows this brilliantly:

    I really like using humour in the classroom (here is my blog post about it:, and I think this is something women aren't encouraged to do, partly because we need to ensure that we're taken seriously, and humour isn't going to help with that.

  2. I'm loud, too. And I have often thought the same thing about people commenting on it. Like I'm taking up too much space or something.

    Like you I also walk into a classroom like I've already got the respect of the students. And I have been known not to use a microphone in a large room.

    One thing I've noticed is that when you assertively put a position in a meeting or something a lot of people interpret that is something non-negotiable. I am often open to discussion and changing my mind. But because I don't hedge my contribution with lots of stuff that would make people not take it seriously, it gets interpreted in another way.

    People have said they are scared of me, for example. Another odd twist. Perhaps either you are "meek and mild" or you are a "callous bitch". I'm neither but there doesn't seem to be a cultural category for me.

    (And I once got asked in a job interview if men were intimidated to take my classes.)

  3. It seems like you're conflating loudness and assertiveness/aggressiveness. I must say that Samantha's voice never struck me as loud. Her actions were bold, but that's something entirely different.

  4. I agree with aesthetic, since I relate to your post, but I also agree with anonymous: not all loud women are assertive, and not all assertive women are loud.

    But anonymous misses your point: loudness in women is also a class/geographic/ethnic issue. I say this as a working class Italian American who moved to the Pacific Northwest where I was suddently perceived as "loud"---in NY, however, I was constantly told to speak up. Yet, even when told to speak up, I was praised or criticized (depending on the context) for assertiveness.

    Several of my women colleagues have loud voices (and not all are naturally assertive), and they, too, have been criticized during teaching evaluation for "yelling"...something that didn't happen to similar women colleagues in NY.

    In your case, do you think geography plays a part in people's perceptions/reactions to your "Loudness"?

  5. @anonymous: I am purposefully conflating loud with assertive, as it is often conflated. Bold, brassy, forward, bossy, pushy; all often are called "loud" when it comes to women.

    @Stacey: There might be something to that. And not just based on geography, but perhaps also culture. One of the few times I've been really intimidated is when I used to go to large French Catholic family gathering back home in Quebec. These affairs were loud and boisterous affairs. And, yes, they weren't "assertive," but still intimidating. I was seen as a shrinking violet. :-)

    Often these posts are over-simplifications for the purpose of just this: stimulating debate on the issue of gender stereotypes in general and higher education in particular. Thank you everyone!

  6. Have you ever read The Unruly Woman? Great book about women, social order, and comedy. It talks a lot about Roseanne Barr...and basically, it doesn't matter if you're funny, because if you're loud/assertive/anything you're still scary. And yeah, you can't win; check out this blog on women being told to smile more, ha.

    Also, I just have to say I don't think Whitney Cummings is very funny. Nothing about gender, her craft just isn't there yet. I would say, however, that the right kind of funny can get you far -- Elena Kagan is still my idol!

    Anyway, I say just be however you are. No point wasting energy trying not to!


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