Four teen girls behind me on the bus are discussing how they’d like to die. Usually, on my commute, I’d be partaking of a true crime podcast, in which hosts tell stories of women whose agency has been stolen for all time. These chicks, though, speak with total conviction when agreeing that, if they absolutely had to die, crashing a red Lamborghini would be the primo way to go. Millennial Thelma and Louise, you make my heart soar. I keep listening—it’s hard to not to—and reliving that adolescent capacity to be aspirational, cynical and palpably earnest, all at once. When you’re dying to be heard, and no one’s listening. Of all the conversations I’ve overheard in my life, this is fast becoming a favourite.
The woman next to me is less enthused. She huffs and puffs, shooting glares over her shoulder à la Hyacinth Bucket (perhaps forgetting that women of her vintage used to wet their knickers over teen tragedy songs in the sixties). I listen to her tongue cluck, trying to pinpoint her main complaint. Hold the phone—I don’t actually care. I’m way more intrigued by the teenagers’ intentions. What, if anything, do they want us to hear? How do they want us to feel? Do they know that my thirty specific years on Earth will conclusively shape our brief auditory affair? Ding! Someone down the front requests the next stop. A seat frees up, the Boomer woman moves away. I’m tempted to turn and see whether the young women are wearing public or private school uniforms; it feels important to the story, but they’ll know I’m eavesdropping... Is that such a bad thing?
There are sundry forms of seeing and being seen. Are there as many ways to hear and be heard?
Gazing is a visible act. It’s a verb that has sired a noun, a Thing word, from itself. Listening is less self-evident. In some cases, like the Boomer on my bus, it’s blatant. But for the most part—fifty-five per cent, or so it’s said—human communication hinges on body language. When we consider concepts like active listening, we picture its visual cues like eye-contact, nodding, open posture, a tilted head lending a literal ear. The aural exchange itself is invisible. It hasn’t earned a noun.
In 1973, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote her missive ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, detailing how “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” Since then, critics ranging from Judith Butler to Jill Soloway have mulled over the feminine and female gazes. The concept of a gendered gaze intersects with other critical lenses; E. Ann Kaplan’s ‘imperial gaze’ shows how the media centres white westerners as subjects, while bell hooks’ ‘oppositional gaze’ is a space where women of colour respond to the “white supremacist capitalist imperialist dominating ‘gaze’” of pop culture.
There’s no equivalent theory for auditory texts, as far as I can find. This seems like a critical chasm, particularly given the current podcast renaissance. I’d like to craft a formal response, but I don’t know what to call it. ‘The Female Hear’? ‘The Female Ear’? The English language has plenty of words to describe watching (looking, observing, peeping, spying, gazing) and speaking (saying, talking, uttering, whispering, shouting). But for listening (hearing... eavesdropping?)—not so much.
Without the visual element native to film, what is the scope of poddo critique? Particularly the conversational ‘talking-head’ type—think: the interviewer/guest style of The Longform Podcast, or the DIY banter sessions of My Favorite Murder. How do the biases of patriarchal, heteronormative, white-dominant society shape the ways in which we (passively) hear and (actively) listen to such stories? Where do these prejudices manifest in real life?
Mulvey’s ‘gaze’ unpacks cinema’s inherent voyeurism. It is shaped by Freudian notions of ‘scopophilia’—erotic pleasure derived from looking—which doesn’t directly apply to podcasting. She notes that the “conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.” That was in 1973, when physically schlepping to a cinema was more or less the only way to watch a mainstream movie. Even now, I’m disconcerted by the communal experience of cinema-going. In a reasonably packed Nymphomaniac screening in 2013, I felt preoccupied by the inescapable fact that we were all there to watch made-up people fuck for four hours. The male gaze was alive and well and going to town on a choc-top next to my ear.
Listening to podcasts is comparatively intimate. Tune in when and wherever your smartphone (or, decreasingly, computer) will go. According to the 2018 Edison Research report Podcast Consumer, most listeners hit play at home and/or in the car—closed environments that foster seclusion from the outer world. Similarly, many talking-head podcasts are recorded in the host’s home, increasing their comfort, creating a more genial experience. Whether you’re on the bus or lying in bed, earbuds can send Ira Glass, Phoebe Judge, Marc Maron direct to your cochleae. The podcast listening experience is rarely voyeuristic. Unlike cinema’s “hermetically sealed world... indifferent to the presence of the audience,” as Mulvey sees it, a podcast host speaks directly to, for you. You’re no eavesdropper; your presence is integral. And you’re such a good listener.
In his book Listening Effectively, author and motivational speaker Dr John A. Kline outlines five listening styles. Together, they create the perfect aural storm for podcast critique:
Informative: listening to understand, like during lectures or when receiving instructions.
- Relationship: to help or support someone, to nurture an interpersonal bond.▪Appreciative: listening for enjoyment, i.e. to music, storytelling and other aural forms.
- Discriminative: attuning to changes in speed, volume, pitch, tone and emphasis.
- Critical: leverages careful judgement of a speaker’s expertise and integrity.
The pillars of critical listening, outlined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and adopted here by Kline, are ethos (meaning speaker credibility), logos (logical arguments), and pathos (psychological appeal—in a word, ‘taste’). The intimacy of podcasts opens the floodgates for appreciative listening: an approach wherein your personal palate takes over. While all arts criticism is born on a spectrum of subjective enjoyment, when it comes to podcasts, taste seems to play an unusually prominent role.
Too much liberal splaining ★★
All these credits are not really nec
—user rogblack0466 on Serial, 20 May 2018.
Short first episode ★
The first episode is really short and he talks about fixing clocks.
—user Soothius on S-Town, 15 March 2017.
misleading title ★
i thought this was a podcast about the web series lucky country :(
—user Serah’s Apple on The Lucky Country, 12 September 2017
Without the aesthetic elements of film—cinematography, production design, the actors’ corporeal form—podcasts have an edge in a culture of screen-fatigue. This is especially true of shows with layered soundscapes, like Death in Ice Valley or The Kitchen Sisters Present..., which combine narration, dialogue, music and sound effects with meticulous reportage. Looking at the short history of formal podcast discourse, journalistic series are also more likely to receive thoughtful critique than their conversational counterparts. The New Yorker publishes a regular online column, ‘Podcast Dept.’, by staff writer Sarah Larson. Across her first year critiquing the form, Larson covered thirty podcasts, with a definite inclination toward journalistic niches: reportage (S-Town), personal (Heavyweight), biographical (Mogul), investigative (In the Dark) and essayistic (Nocturne). Only three of Larson’s picks—Today, Explained, In Our Time and The Nod—vaguely follow a talking-head format. Larson calls these ‘chat-ideas’ shows. Like TV talk shows, these podcasts are often considered vain, vapid, disposable—more filler than killer. Certainly, thousands of examples are. The form still serves a purpose. It magnetises its audience with insight, information, vicarious dialogue, and lolz; its popularity alone warrants informed critical response.
In the absence of journalistic craft, ‘two girls, one mic’ shows rely largely on perceptions of the hosts’ speaker credibility (ethos). As such, a listener’s unconscious biases around gender, ethnicity, age and so on will unavoidably influence their critical opinion. I often catch myself critiquing hosts’ personality traits (or my projections thereof), especially when I feel like their values aren’t aligned with mine.
There’s a show I listen to every week, even though I hate the hosts with the fire of a thousand suns. I shouldn’t say I ‘hate’ the hosts. I’ve never met these two chicks, who drink wine and milkshakes, then attempt to read aloud some true crime and paranormal stories they’ve printed off the internet. They’re frustratingly unaware of events, customs, language and history beyond the limits of their own experience—for context, they’re white twenty-somethings raised in the Midwest, now living in LA. What’s more, they revel in their witlessness, flaunting the worst stereotypes of young, white, privileged, oblivious women. Their nonsense triggers the self-loathing teen inside me whose hackles raise at the timbre of certain voices. When they shout over each other—or commit the cardinal comedic sin of saying ‘no’ during improv—I wince. Do they want their listeners to think they’re dumb? Insensitive? Totally unmotivated to improve their craft?
Regardless, I keep streaming this show every Sunday, such is the peculiar glee of (private) hate-listening. One thing that unites me and the Boomer on my bus, I suspect, is a desire to indulge the perverse idea that we’re smarter, funnier and generally ‘better’—a viciously subjective concept—than folks essentially just having some fun. Difference is: I listen for a living. So naturally, the moments I hate-love the most are when the alpha host gets petulant about ~critics~ giving them negative reviews on iTunes. Every time she mentions this, I fight the urge to leave one myself. The grown-up in me knows I have nothing constructive to offer beyond a review of their value as humans. Lost for words, I log off.
This is an excerpt of a piece that was originally published in The Lifted Brow #41. To read the full version and find many other brilliant works of writing and art, get your copy here!
Aimee Knight is a writer and critic living on Kaurna yerta. She’s the Small Screens editor at The Big Issue and the incoming pop culture columnist for The Lifted Brow. Her work appears in Little White Lies, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin and more.
Pete Warden is an artist living and working in Victoria, Australia.