No one wants to sit next to a loud woman. I know this because someone recently moved the placement card on a dinner table to get away from me. That label – “loud woman” – has never been a compliment, even though some of us may wear it as a badge of honour. Picture a loud woman and she is in Technicolor, with the sound turned up past 11, looking like she is stuck in the 80s: big hair, massive gob, voice like a foghorn, part witch, part harridan, part pub landlady. You definitely don’t want to sit next to her when she has a drink inside her.
So, what are we supposed to do with the idea of loud women in our postfeminist age? Where have they all gone? Theresa May seems to maintain her fragile power by being the opposite of loud. Angela Merkel built a 30-year career on being as unnoticeable as possible. The response to Germaine Greer in recent years can be summed up as: “Shut up.” Is it no longer acceptable to be a woman and a noisy, loquacious pain in the arse? After all, the women we now think of as loud usually communicate through performance as larger-than-life versions of themselves: Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga.
In everyday life, there is still something uncomfortable for a woman about being called loud, because the implication is that a) you don’t care about the people around you (otherwise, why are you making them feel uncomfortable?) and b) you don’t care what other people think about you. To allow yourself to be loud as a woman is to be borderline psychopathic – to switch off your empathy and your emotional intelligence – to love the sound of your own voice, to take up too much space. That is the theory, at least. (“Who do you think you are? Beyoncé?”)
At the recent People’s Vote march in London, at least half of the speakers were women
The reality, of course, is that the expression: “He is a loud man,” does not exist. Certainly, I have never heard anyone say it. A man may occasionally speak loudly. Traditionally, though, loud is a thing that certain women are, rather than something they do. Loud is a word we attach exclusively to women, often alongside the word “lairy”. Loud is a code that says to women: “Please stop doing that.” This, in turn, has often been a signal for women to turn around and say – almost childishly, but quite understandably: “I’ll take up all the space I want, thanks.”
What a loud woman looks like, though, has changed hugely in the past two decades. With Michelle Obama publishing her autobiography, Becoming, next week, it is clear that a new generation of women wants to redefine the term. As the former first lady puts it: “I admit it: I am louder than the average human being and I have no fear of speaking my mind. These traits don’t come from the color of my skin, but from an unwavering belief in my own intelligence.” If you ask women whom they would most like to be as a public speaker, many will say Obama. Her speaking style – controlled passion, warm authority, approachable charisma – is extremely attractive. She is the new kind of loud: the volume is calculated and in tune with the audience.
Thanks to digital platforms and social media, there has been a huge shift in the past 20 years in how women communicate and build a platform. Many of the women in the Top 10 chart of most popular TED speakers cannot be defined as loud, although their reach is extraordinary and they have built lucrative careers off the back of it. (To enter this chart, you need a minimum of about 10m views for a speech, so it is a fairly accurate measure of impact.) Brene Brown, a research professor who specializes in social work; Susan Cain, an author; Susan David, a psychologist; Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love; and Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, have all featured on this list. They are all speakers who embody the opposite of the fire-and-brimstone public-speaking presence of someone such as Margaret Thatcher. Often their message is about how to have your quiet voice heard in a noisy world.
Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that many women we may think of as stereotypically loud are secretly quiet. Take Barbra Streisand, currently punting a new album at the age of 76. She had appalling stage fright for years and would only sing live at charity gigs. Adele? She is the richest UK celebrity aged 30 or under and an extraordinary performer. But she has been so nervous in the past that she has vomited into the front row; as a result, she strictly controls her exposure to the stage. There are many recent examples of high-profile women who have decided to change things not by shouting the loudest or by drawing attention to themselves, but by starting initiatives that promote other women: take Reese Witherspoon’s multimedia brand, Hello Sunshine, Jameela Jamil’s “I Weigh” campaign (encouraging people to “weigh” their life achievements) and Sharon Horgan’s production company, Merman.
At the recent People’s Vote march in London, at least half of the speakers were women, many of them under 30. They were all impressively accomplished orators, able to play to a crowd of thousands and to the camera at the same time (they were being filmed, so that the video could be relayed). Watching them and soaking up their confidence, it occurred to me that what was impressive was that none of them could be dismissed as loud women. Yet their impact, no matter what your politics, was striking.
The difference in their styles, particularly among the younger women, was noticeable. A few held forth almost like spoken-word poets, in the style of Hollie McNish or Kate Tempest, allowing themselves to sound creative and passionate. One – an NHS doctor – spoke with quiet, dignified anger. Another was an old-school union speaker, addressing the crowd exactly as a leader of the NUS would have done in the 70s, complete with Citizen Smith intonation. Their styles were as varied as those of the male speakers. This variation and experimentation among female leaders is something we are only starting to see.
Just as the past few years have seen a rise in the body-positive movement and an understanding of the expression “fat-shaming” and the extent to which those ideas have been internalized, I wonder if the “loud shaming” of women is finally being recognized. Samuel Johnson’s horrible quote about women and public performance is more than a century old: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” When I was a child in the 70s, it was common for me to be told to be quiet and stop showing off – at home, at school, by adults of all kinds. It was not until I was much older that I realized I was not being loud or showing off – I was just talking. This is not necessarily a woman thing; it is only in the past few decades that children have been allowed to be as noisy as they want. Anecdotally, many women will say that they learned from an early age that being loud – whatever this means – was not welcome behavior.
“Whatever this means” is important. Because I think we are redefining what it means to be loud. We are starting to understand that you are not obliged to be loud just because someone has told you not to be. My grandmother was a great role model for me when I was growing up. She could be loud. She ran a corner shop with a rod of iron, spoke her mind, laughed raucously, and did not suffer fools gladly. But she also agreed with the old saying: “Empty vessels make the most sound.” Modern feminism has to hit a happy medium between these extremes. Don’t make noise for the sake of it, but don’t shut up either. There is a lot of experimentation to be done in the space between those options. As for the person avoiding me at dinner? Maybe I was just wearing too much perfume.