Listen to What the Man says
- In one Ear, and it stays Inside
- Morning‘s at Seven
- Blue Tracks
- Red Cat
- An Outlook
On September 1, Germany‘s national football team played a very important World Cup qualifying match in Iceland, the Germans won 2-0, which wasn‘t to be expected 100 %, since at their last meeting in October 2017 in Germany, Iceland‘s team won 3:2. When I returned from shooting a film in the evening, obviously not having been able to watch the match on German public TV ZDF, I turned on the radio to find out about the result. Without luck, since Deutschlandfunk Kultur, a public radio station, only talked about the men‘s football league on their news quite extensively. But not a word about the international match. They weren‘t the only ones to ignore Iceland vs. Germany though.
In one Ear, and it stays Inside
Again and again we hear less from women, i.e. ABOUT women, but we also hear from women, i.e. THROUGH women. This enforces the male principle as the norm, the male voice as the relevant, important one. And if worse comes to worst, stereotypes re enforced about what women and men can and can not do, what they are interested in and not interested in, depending on who talks about what.
Some years ago I recounted the situation where a director wanted me as the off-voice for his film about beavers, for children (Happy Birthday, Sesame Street), but “unfortunately someone at the ZDF (that is the german TV broadcasting company that would show the film) said that since this film would also include some scientific information (after all, we are talking about animals) it would not be so convincing and appropiate for children if it were presented by a female voice. The director did not agree and I of course even less, but that was just too bad, as the ZDF-person could decide.“
Another text that is five years old now is this one: ‘Tis Early Practice Only… in which I wrote about a radio report for children called ARRESTED BY THE POLICE – WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? (written by Corinna Thaon), that was broadcast on public radio Deutschlandradio Kultur in November 2013:
It was a very well done programme, some children and a lawyer explained terms like trial, punishment and defence from their points of view and a trial was reenacted. So far so good – were it not for the fact that there were ONLY ONLY ONLY men appearing in the trial. A male lawyer, a male prosecutor, a mal judge and even a male clerk are mentioned. The trial is reenacted by an actor (Stefan Kaminski) who speaks all the parts: the accused, the solicitor, the procecutor, the lawyer and a witness.
The host of the show – Ulrike Jährling – said at the end: “now this was a just and fair discovery day today„, but it wasn’t really just and fair genderwise, and it is not in the least depicting the reality of the German judical system, which is not a „men only“ world.
Morning’s at Seven
The other day I happened to tune into another radio show for children on public Deutschlandradio Kultur (now called Deutschlandfunk Kultur). Every Sunday at 7.30 a.m., thirty minute stories for children are read, under the heading “Kakadu für Frühaufsteher / Cockatoo for Early Birds“. The story I listened to was called BERTIE AND THE STORY WITH TARANTULA (author Mara Schindler, produced by Deutschlandradio Kultur 2012), and apart from Bertie, who turned out to be a girl, we hear of Bertie‘s mum, of Frau Meyer from the chip shop and the dog Tarantula. The story was read by Max von Pufendorf.
Why by a man?
This was not the first time in 2018, that a story from a female author was not read by a woman, and neither was it the only time that a story with a female protagonist was read by a man. Of course, the stories are not about gender, they are about children. So really it shouldn‘t matter if it is a boy or a girl in the centre, and a female or male voice reading it? But then again, if it doesn‘t matter, why do they use voice actors so much more often?
For all 31 stories broadcast from January to August 2018 (of which only 5 were first transmissions) the gender of the protagonists was roughly 50:50, the majority of stories were written by women. But they were read by nearly twice as many voice actors than actresses. A total of five stories by Mara Schindler were broadcast, all had a girl in the centre. Twice the director hired a woman to read, three times a man. Anna-Luise Böhm‘s five stories centred around three girls and two boys, four times they were read by men. The male author with the most stories, Hans Zimmer, had three male protagonists and three males reading. Max von Pufendorf is the voice we hear most often (6 times), he only read stories from female authors Apart from Anna-Magdalena Fitzi (2) every female reader was only heard once.
So if it doesn‘t matter who reads the stories, why do we get such a gender imbalance, again? And we are talking about something – stories for children – where there is a clear majority of female authors! It is four times more likely for a man to read the text of a woman than the other way around. Coincidence? Or is this really a minor point when they put together the stories for the programmes (as I said, there were lots of repeats), because it‘s the stories that matter. Yes, granted. So maybe the producers should start being a bit more conscious of the Who Reads-gender issue, when they decide to hire a voice.
Last month, the European Championships 2018 were held in Glasgow and Berlin, the Berlin part of the event (Aug 7 to 12) were the European Athletics Championships, and they started promoting it more than a year ago. Someday in spring they presented a video clip about the Blue Tracks, the tartan running tracks of Berlin‘s Olympic Stadion, that started ages ago as a red cinder track. In the video we hear:
You ask me who I am? Allow me to introduce myself. I am Berlin‘s tartan running tracks. My ellipse has been enclosing the centre of the stadiom for over 80 years. I breathe the spirit of Marathon. I have witnessed victories and defeats, triumphs and disappointments. I know the shed tears. Those of relief. And those of bitternes. I have heard the jeering of the captivated crouds and felt their enthusiasm. I have witnessed personal bests and records. Of people surpassing themselves. And of people whose names have swept the world.
My story is one of change. Of metamorphosis through the years and decades. A story of technical leaps and revolutionary desings. I started as a simple cinder track. I survived a dictorship and finally I blossomed, into a temple of sports, into an icon, into a legend. Since 2004 I have adopted my unique colour “Herthablau“ (= the blue of Berlin football club Hertha BSC, SchspIN). And this is how I am known now, as “The Blue Tracks“, as the showpiece and backbone of athletics in Berlin, in Germany and in Europe.
And who is voicing her, the blue tracks (in German: die Blaue Bahn, f.)? A man, Charles Rettinghaus. From what I hear there was no intention behind this, it just happened, because ‘the speaker happened to be available‘ and ‘he did an excellent job‘. Well, I would have done as well. Or another experienced female speaker.
Naturally, the Blue Tracks (again: in German Bahn is a female word) does not have to be voiced by a woman. But they could be, and that would be consistent.
If I remember this correctly, this happened when I was in 7th or 8th grade of grammar school, so 13 or 14 years old. We studied the narration THE RED CAT by Luise Rinser. This story was first published in 1956, it is set in post-war Germany, a four-person family, a mother with her three children, living in great poverty. One day, a red cat appears, and the family starts feeding it. The oldest child (13), who is telling this story, opposes this since they don‘t have enough food for the family, und one day even throws a rock at the cat. We also learn that the oldest child tries to pick up coals that have dropped from a coal wagon and is being chased away by other, older children who want to do the same. In the beginning the cat is very skinny, in the end well-nourished, nigh on fat, and it lives with the poor, hungry family. The oldest child suggests slaughtering her, all the other resent this of course, to them the cat is a member of the family, not just another hungry mouth to feed. Finally, the oldest child beats the cat to death and tells the family that it probably ran away. The mother suspects what really happened but does not say a word.
Roughly that’s the story. Maybe you noticed that I kept writing “oldest child“, this is because the text does not reveal whether it‘s a boy or a girl.
Which is quite exciting (60 years before NEROPA!).
When we talked about this story in school I had assumed that the oldest child was a girl. I can‘t really say why I did. Maybe because the story is written from an “I“ point of view, and as I read these “I did, I saw“-sentences, I identified with the child, so she became a girl. I wasn‘t the only one who read it like that, and we had a lively discussion in class. For our German teacher (a woman) the child was a boy without any doubt (!), and she categorically opposed any other views, the coal wagon episode would be something that a girl would never do and so on (not to mention the quite brutal killing of the cat, but I don‘t remember if that was given as an argument back then). Some of us argued against this and someone said – don‘t remember if it was a boy or a girl – that the story was written in the first person, and the author is called Luise, so there you have it, the child is a girl. This ended the discussion with our teacher simply saying that it was totally wrong to read the story like that.
This is how I remember it anyway.
It‘s a shame really that the teacher was so rigid because I think the fact that the issue is not solved in the story, something which would have been very heasy, could have served as a brillant opening for a lesson. On possibly toppled gender roles in post-war times, on literary conceptions, narrative perspectives and so on.
How does this story fit in with the other examples? Let‘s assume that they want to produce a reading of THE RED CAT as a radio play, who would it be done? Have a man read it, turning the oldest child definitely into a boy, even though the author deliberately leaves this open? Or should they let a child read the story, a young enough child for the voice to reveal the gender? Or have the story read by a man and a woman?
Coming back to the story of Bertie and the dog Tarantula. To me, Bertie was a boy‘s name, and the fact that the story was read by a male voice added to this impression – until at one point the text revealed that I was wrong. The Blue Tracks, voiced by a man, become a male chronist, turning the history of athletics a bit into a men‘s affair. Possibly a voice does not only affect our hearing but also our thinking.
Does it make a difference whether we hear a woman or a man?
Today I described some random observations, I did not choose and analyse systematic groups (the 31 stories for children are a useful sample of course). It could be pure coincidence that I only found male dominated examples.
So if you know contrary cases, where women spoke male parts or read texts by male authors on the radio, or read stories about men or as men, do write them in the comments section or send me an email. Merci!
And since I don‘t want to just describe things here‘s a constructive proposal:
If you are planning a production – a feature for the radio, the recording of a reading for children, an audio book or the over-voice for a video clip, and especially if you haven‘t decided yet whether to use a male or a female voice: hire a woman. You can‘t really go wrong there, because there are a lot of good professionale female speakers about. And also, apparently if does not seam to matter much if a text is read by a man or a woman? We have been hearing so many recorded male voices all our lives, so a few or a lot more female voices can‘t be all that wrong, can they.
Moreover, the more common it gets to hear women, in children‘s programmes, in features on scientific or technical topics, in sports, the less frequent we need to ask But can a woman really do this? (and by that I am not talking about using a microphone).