Sticking to the Script: Constructions of Sonic Whiteness in Get Out and Sorry to Bother You
by Shannon Mooney
[page 131] Abstract: This article places Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) into conversation with Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) in order to explore how both films represent whiteness as a penetrative sonic force that can be both heard and recognized. I explore how these two films challenge the popular notion that whiteness, unlike Blackness, is an empty and neutral signifier; instead, these films present whiteness as a racial category that possesses distinct sonic registers. Through their engagements with neoslavery, minstrelsy, and racial passing, these films parody the ways that Blackness has become socially and culturally constructed as “sounding” a certain way, and instead depict whiteness as something that can be aurally recognized and imitated. Through probing at their constructions of sonic whiteness, both Get Out and Sorry to Bother You problematize how popular audiences have been trained to hear (as well as see) race and respond to a longer history of the racialization of sound.
Keywords: Blackness, minstrelsy, sound studies, ventriloquism, whiteness
In the opening credits to Jordan Peele’s film Get Out (2017), viewers watch from the passenger window of a car as the edge of a wooded landscape passes by. The minute-long sequence is set to Michael Abels’ original score titled “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” which the artist has described as a blend of “gospel horror” (San Gabino). The song’s distorted array of instrumentals paired with its lyrical chants contribute to the suspense of the film’s first scenes; after all, the credits follow a brief opening scene in which a Black man walking down a dark and desolate suburban street is suddenly assaulted and dragged into the trunk of a car by its anonymous, masked driver. The song’s Swahili title and corresponding lyrics loosely translate to “listen to the ancestors,” and Peele and Abels have said that the song functions as a warning to the [page 132] film’s protagonist, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya). Later in the film’s opening scenes, Chris travels with his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to her parents’ house in upstate New York and a similar wooded landscape passes by the window, suggesting that the opening credits are likely from Chris’s vantage point.
I want to suggest, though, that the operative word in the film’s title song is the command to listen. Through calling on the film’s protagonist to “listen to [his] ancestors,” “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” establishes that Get Out is recalling the long legacy of chattel slavery, and that listening, be it literal or figurative, is one way for Chris to reckon with this history. The song’s title reveals how careful listening can function as a survival strategy, what sound studies scholar Jennifer Lynn Stoever has referred to as “racialized listening,” or “listening . . . as a key way to obtain truths” (61). But the song’s title, especially when put into the context of a film that depicts the threat of white exploitation, suggests that whiteness and its inherent domination are forces that can be listened for and heard. The original score shows how, in the world of Get Out, listening for race and, more specifically, listening for whiteness become just as essential to survival as seeing.
This article places Get Out into conversation with Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) in order to examine how both films construct versions of sonic whiteness that become essential to the films’ protagonists’ survival in their respective white-centric worlds. In building off of the work of sound studies scholars who argue that sound, voice, and noise are socially and racially constructed, this article shows how these films challenge the way that whiteness has been constructed as a neutral and unremarkable force that does not possess distinct sonic registers and that cannot be heard. Through their engagements with neoslavery, minstrelsy, and racial passing, these films parody the ways that race, and more specifically, Blackness, have become sonically constructed as “sounding” a particular way, and depict whiteness as some-[page 133]thing that can be aurally recognized and imitated.
This article argues that Get Out and Sorry to Bother You are not so much invested in suggesting that whiteness always sounds like something specific as they are interested in exposing and problematizing how audiences have been trained to believe that Blackness “should” sound one way or another while leaving whiteness’s sonic registers unexamined or unnoticed. The area of sound studies has well established that as fears of racial passing and inter-racial marriage became more rampant, racial identity was considered something that could be aurally recognized. For example, Stoever argues that as “many whites began to question the dominance of sight in racial discourse in the 1950s . . . fears of being unable to reliably see ‘blackness’ in the ‘one drop rule’ society they had set up led white Southerners to construct essential racial difference beyond the visual” (39). In other words, as American anxieties about miscegenation and racial “mixing” proliferated, individuals searched for other means of identifying and classifying one’s racial identity. More specifically, as an Othered racial category, Blackness was believed to possess specific sounds, accents, and dialects, while whiteness remained a neutral and unexamined category, the presumed default way of speaking in American society.
The dissemination of cultural texts and performances was central to the project of constructing Blackness’s sonic registers while neglecting the critical examination of predominantly white accents and ways of speaking: film studies scholar Ryan Jay Friedman argues that Blackface minstrel performances established “the idea that ‘Black dialect’ acts as an index of an entire people’s cast of mind, [and] that an eccentric linguistic practice reflects African Americans’ essential cognitive (and therefore social) otherness” (85). Friedman shows how, in the transition from silent films to talkies, “Black screen representation was shaped by an abiding belief in a distinctive ‘Black’ vocality, possessed of a physical excess that ensured it would be both heard and seen” (85). Get Out and Sorry to Bother You resist and problematize [page 143] this historical belief: through their constructions of sonic whiteness, these films must be understood as responding to a longer history of the racialization of sound, particularly in films concerning Black representation. While a great deal of attention has been given to the racial representations in to Get Out and Sorry to Bother You, less has been said about how sound operates in both films. In my analysis, I don’t mean to suggest that the sonic and the visual are always inherently separate: indeed, in film especially, it’s necessary to consider how the auditory and the visual operate simultaneously and in tandem to construct meaning. My focus on the sonic, then, is to demonstrate how Get Out and Sorry to Bother You are invested in exposing how race is also constructed through sound, as it is through visual elements. As a myriad of literature and scholarship on racial passing make clear, the fact that race is thought to be interpreted through physical appearance is well-established; its construction through sonic elements is less so. Ultimately, this article explores how Get Out and Sorry to Bother You continue the project of examining and confronting the racial construction of sound, voice, and noise.
Representing Sonic Racialization in Get Out and Sorry to Bother You
Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out blends the genres of horror, satire, and the supernatural and pushes these generic conventions to their extreme to present commentaries on white liberal racial appropriation and the mass incarceration of Black men. The film follows protagonist Chris Washington, a New York City-based photographer, who agrees, albeit reluctantly, to travel with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage, to visit her family upstate. After experiencing a series of microaggressions and awkward interactions with Rose’s family and friends, Chris discovers that he is just one victim in a well-established con game: the Armitages have created a system that involves hypnotizing Black individuals and pla-[page 135]cing their bodies for “auction” so that white buyers can inhabit their bodies through an invasive brain transplant surgery called the Coagula Procedure. Black captives remain trapped in a subaltern “sunken place” so that they are fully conscious of their white captors’ actions but are rendered completely immobile and imprisoned.
Chris is eventually purchased by Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a blind art dealer and admirer of Chris’s photography, who explains to Chris that he wants him “for [his] eyes.” In other words, the art dealer wants to inhabit Chris’s body not only so that he can regain his eyesight but also so that he can live as a successful Black photographer. It’s important to note that, as viewers learn through a montage of Chris’s photography at the start of the film, his photos primarily feature Black subjects in urban environments. Inhabiting Chris’s body therefore will enable Jim to exploit and profit from art that centers Black experiences of which he has little firsthand knowledge. Jim’s desire to inhabit Chris’s body—as is true for all of the white inhabitants of Black bodies in the film—constitutes what Eric Lott has referred to as the “love and theft” that was inherent in nineteenth century American minstrel performances: it is reflective of the historic “cross-racial desire that coupled a nearly insupportable fascination and a self-protective derision with respect to black people and their cultural practices,” making “black face minstrelsy less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure” (6-7). Indeed, when Chris asks Jim “Why black people?” Jim responds that he “couldn’t give two shits about race” and that he merely wishes to possess Chris’s photography skills, allowing him to avoid confronting or acknowledging that his admiration of Chris’s photography includes the Black subjects and spaces that are integral to his art.
Get Out’s emphasis on eyesight, photography, and visual elements most immediately directed audience and reviewer attention toward that which is seen in the film. For instance, Lenika Cruz argues that Chris’s camera “simultaneously cre-[page 136]ates distance and closeness between Chris and his subjects; it’s a way to both observe and escape” (Cruz). Siddhant Adlakha and Ryan Poll similarly draw parallels between Jim Hudson’s visual impairment and his color-blind assertion that Chris’s racial identity is irrelevant to his desire to inhabit his body (Adlakha; Poll 85-86). While the emphasis on cameras and eyesight reveals how closely observing what Chris sees allows viewers to notice what is “off” about the environment of the Armitage estate, the attention given to the film’s visual elements tends to eclipse that which can be heard or listened to in Get Out, which is also central to Chris’s survival. Get Out is equally invested in making apparent that which can be heard by the film’s characters and its protagonist in particular. The sounds and utterances that Chris hears reveal how sound and noise become racialized, and they operate to challenge narratives that suggest or insist upon whiteness’s invisibility or inaudibility. Indeed, throughout Get Out, Chris is able to hear the whiteness that speaks through the Black captives’ bodies, indicating to him that their personalities or psyches are incohesive and incongruent with the bodies that they inhabit.
Sorry to Bother You similarly presents an exploration of the ways that race is constructed through sound. The film follows Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield, also in Get Out), who at the start of the film begins working for an Oakland-based telemarketing company called RegalView. The job is, for Cassius, a desperate attempt to earn a steady income so that he can afford an apartment and move out of his uncle’s garage. After a few unsuccessful sales calls, another Black co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover) teaches Cassius how to develop a “white voice,” which is represented through white actors’ voices dubbed over the Black actors’ lines. Like Get Out, then, Sorry to Bother You more overtly represents sonic whiteness as something that is detectable and, more specifically, is a behavior or demeanor that is easily performed and imitated by the film’s Black characters.
When previews for Sorry to Bother You were released, [page 137] observers referred to the film as the “next Get Out,” presumably due to both film’s explorations of contemporary, liberal racism and their respective directions by Black men (James; Phillips). But this focus on both films’ overarching commentary on racism flattens their more pointed shared critiques—like Get Out, Sorry to Bother You presents whiteness as a sonic force that can be adopted and ventriloquized by the film’s Black characters, thereby problematizing the ways that whiteness has been depicted as inaudible. Reading Get Out and Sorry to Bother You for both films’ constructions of sonic whiteness reveals how contemporary film is taking advantage of the form’s sonic qualities to expose how sound becomes racialized. Despite their differences in genre and social commentary, Get Out and Sorry to Bother You’s similarities offer ways of understanding the increasing attention being given to sonic racism in contemporary culture.
In Get Out, sonic whiteness is primarily constructed through the white characters who inhabit the film’s Black bodies, and through careful listening, Chris is able to discern that he has entered a dangerous environment. This article’s analysis follows sound studies scholar Matthew D. Morrison in defining “sound” as “any resonance (vibrations that are translated into audible or discernable frequencies) that is produced, manipulated, and/or interpreted by a body or an instrument” (15). In Get Out, it is most often voices, intonations, and noises that serve as auditory red flags for Chris. Although he is initially unable to articulate precisely what is strange about the other Black people whom he meets at the Armitage estate (among them: their groundskeeper Walter [Marcus Henderson], housekeeper Georgina [Betty Gabriel), and family friend Logan [Stanfield]), it is largely the emergence of what Stoever refers to as the “sonic color line” that signals to Chris that he should be wary of his surroundings. As Stoever describes, the sonic color line is “the process of racializing sound—how and why certain bodies are expected to produce, desire, and live amongst particular [page 138] sounds,” the product of which is the “hierarchical division sounded between ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’” (7). Ironically, despite its racially divisive tendencies, in Get Out, the emergence of the sonic color line, is, in part, what both distracts Chris from the true racial violence occurring at the Armitage estate, and aids in his survival.
Initially, Rose’s family displays a perverse fascination with Black bodies, language, and culture in order to strategically craft scenarios in which Rose can criticize her family and defend Chris. For example, Rose’s father Dean (Bradley Whitford) appropriates Black vernacular (which constitutes a crossing of the sonic color line) when speaking to Chris: “How long has this been going on, this . . . this thang?” he asks Chris about his relationship with Rose. Similarly, his strained and repetitive use of the phrase “my man” when addressing Chris functions to emphasize his whiteness and his fetishizing of Blackness. Much of the Armitages’ preoccupation of Black culture becomes apparent to Chris through what they say: for instance, as Rose predicts, Dean emphasizes to Chris that he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have, and at the dinner table, Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) asks Chris if he’s into MMA and if he ever “got into street fights” growing up. Combined, these verbal microaggressions, which psychologist Kevin Nadel defines as “the everyday, subtle, intentional—and oftentimes unintentional—interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups” (Limbomb), cause Chris to become suspicious of the Armitages. Given the film’s investment in sonic racism, it is significant that these interactions occur through verbal cues—after all, the Armitages’ appearances are relatively unremarkable and innocuous—as it signals to both Chris and the film’s audience that it is necessary to pay attention to and closely read spoken words. Midway through the film, it becomes apparent that the Armitages’ awkward performances of liberal racism were strategic methods of further allying Rose with Chris: her criticism of her father’s [page 139] appropriation and her brother’s behaviors elides the fact that she is, in actuality, a key player in her parents’ operation, functioning as the bait who lures her Black partners to her family’s estate so that they can then be imprisoned. Thus, the microaggressions that Chris experiences end up being some of the more innocuous acts of racial violence that he experiences in the film, and these interactions function as distractions from the Armitage’s more insidious form of enslavement.
Sorry to Bother You similarly presents a sonic preoccupation with Blackness. Cassius’s Blackness initially functions as a detriment, while his ability to perform sonic whiteness is integral to his success at work. When Cassius begins working at RegalView, he is unable to successfully perform a sales call: each time he places a call to a person’s home, his desk is shown falling through the ceiling of the potential customers’ living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms so that the two are face-to-face before they hang up after Cassius begins speaking. Through depicting Cassius interrupting people’s day-to-day activities by physically dropping into their homes, the film implies that Cassius’s voice is capable of conveying to customers his physical appearance, and, by extension, his Blackness. When Cassius meets Langston, the original “white voice” impersonator, Langston explains how to enact the white voice: “You know what I mean . . . I’m not talking about Will Smith white. That ain’t white, that’s just proper . . . It’s not really a white voice . . . it’s like what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” The film’s characters acknowledge that there is not anything inherently “white” about the white voice—instead, it’s a performance based on the observation of how whiteness has been socially constructed and imagined to look and sound. Cassius quickly learns how to codeswitch between his white voice and his normal voice (“I guess I’m a natural at it,” he says to his friends), and, using his white voice (white comedian David Cross) over the phone, he begins to make sales and quickly moves up in the company.
Sorry to Bother You also depicts how Cassius’s white voice [page 140] is tied up with larger forms of corruption and reveals the limits of a Black performance of whiteness in a predominantly white workplace. When he is eventually promoted to a “power caller,” he receives his own office on the building’s top floor where he is required to use his white voice at all times. As the film progresses, Cassius begins accidentally slipping into his white voice when not at work—at the bar with his friends, when in bed with his girlfriend. These instances reveal that Cassius is losing his mastery over the white voice: though it begins as a performance intended to help him succeed in his workplace (a survival strategy of sorts), Cassius’s white voice begins to infiltrate spaces and relationships where it is neither wanted nor welcome.
Cassius is ultimately expected to switch in and out of his white voice depending on his environment. Similar to Rose’s family expecting Chris to conform to certain versions of Blackness, Cassius is also expected to perform urban Blackness in particular ways and under particular circumstances, despite successfully embodying and projecting middle-class whiteness through his voice. While at a party hosted by Regal View CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), Cassius is manipulated into entertaining the entirely white party. After Cassius disappoints Steve and the other partygoers when he tells them that he doesn’t have any cool “Oakland gangster stories,” Steve pressures Cassius into entertaining the party in a different way: “You’re different, man. Make an impression. At least take off the white voice. And I know you can rap, right?” After informing Steve that he can listen to rap, but can’t actually rap himself, the party proceeds to chant “rap, rap, rap!” until Cassius concedes, and “raps” for the party by chanting “n***a shit” repeatedly, and in response the crowd grows excited and chants along. Inviting obvious comparisons to nineteenth century minstrel performances, Cassius’s “rap” session uncovers how his white voice is a performance whose effect is not to fully and convincingly project whiteness but rather to temporarily grant him access to white spaces. While Cassius’s white voice quells the anxieties of his [page 141] white customers, so too does his rap performance meet the desires of his fellow partygoers, who wish to categorize him as hip, urban, and cool—that is, as “Black”. Both acts constitute sonic performances in which Cassius must embody and project racialized voices that he does not fully occupy. Through depicting how racialization occurs through sound, Get Out and Sorry to Bother You depict the long-standing white preoccupation with sonic Blackness, while also representing sound’s potential to delineate racial categories.
Careful Listening as Survival Strategy
As films invested in sonic racism, both Get Out and Sorry to Bother You also emphasize the duality of listening, its potential to racialize sound and therefore reinforce racial hierarchies on the one hand, and the importance of listening as a tool for survival on the other. In Get Out, Chris’s ability to critically listen to the Black people whom he meets at the Armitage estate ultimately contributes to his survival. More specifically, it is the words and utterances produced by the Armitage’s Black staff and friends that are most disconcerting to Chris. It is not until the end of the film that Chris discovers that the Armitage’s groundskeeper, Walter, and housekeeper, Georgina, are bodies inhabited by Rose’s grandparents, the creators of the Coagula Procedure. These individuals’ manners of speaking initially strike Chris as odd: for instance, when he spots Walter chopping wood in the backyard, Chris attempts to strike up a conversation with him: “’Sup, man? They’re workin’ you good out here, huh?” Chris asks Walter. “Nothing I don’t want to be doing,” Walter responds with a grin, and refuses to engage in any conversation about his bosses. Instead, he redirects the conversation to Rose: in a slow, drawn-out drawl, Walter asks Chris, “[Rose] is lovely, isn’t she?” and adds, “One of a kind! Top of the line! A real doggone keeper!” Chris stares back at Walter, clearly perplexed by his language and way of speaking, which do not align with his appearance as an outdoor laborer. [page 142]
Similarly, in a later scene, Georgina apologizes to Chris after “accidentally” unplugging his phone from its charger, and a series of miscommunications follows:
CHRIS: It’s fine. I wasn’t trying to snitch.
CHRIS: Rat you out
Georgina’s lack of familiarity of the phrase “snitch” is another instance wherein Chris is unable to successfully communicate with the other Black characters in the film. Her use of a passé phrase, “tattletale,” in lieu of “snitch” further emphasizes the linguistic differences between her and Chris. These scenes work not to necessarily erase these individuals’ Blackness but instead to highlight the whiteness (and the white people) that speak through their appropriated Black bodies. The conversation between Chris and Georgina leads to one of the film’s more memorable sonic moments: after Chris tells Georgina that he gets nervous around so many white people, Georgina’s body appears to short-circuit as she gasps for air and tears roll down her face while she smiles and chuckles: “Oh! No. No. No. No, no, no, no,” she repeats in quick succession. In retrospect, this scene is revealed to be a moment in which the Black captive body and the white inhabitant are engaged in a neurological tug-of-war: while Georgina’s words tell Chris that she is not, like him, uncomfortable around white people, her facial expressions suggest otherwise. It would seem, then, that in this instance, the Black captive still maintains some control over her body while the white captor is the one communicating with Chris. This is one instance in which it becomes necessary to interpret the film’s audiovisual elements as working in tandem to produce deeper meaning: while Georgina’s body language can be interpreted as that of a Black woman in pain, her words, similar to Walter’s, belong to an older white person.
Finally, at the Armitage’s party (later revealed to be an auction for Chris’s body), Chris similarly attempts to connect with the only other Black guest, a young man named Logan [page 143] King who is in a relationship with an older white woman: “Good to see another brother out here,” Chris says as he pats Logan on the back. “Hi. Yes. Of course it is,” Logan replies, his response formal and strained compared to Chris’s greeting. Later, when Chris attempts to take a photo of Logan, his camera’s flash triggers a reaction in Logan (or rather, in Andre, later revealed to be the Black captive): “Get out!” he screams at Chris, “Get out! Get outta here! Get the fuck outta here!” The reaction triggered by Chris’s camera flash can be understood as a sonic rupture, in which Andre is able to speak past his white captor and be heard by the people surrounding him, most notably, Chris. In other words, it is one of the few moments in the film in which two Black individuals are able to hear and be understood by one another: later, Chris tells Rose “When he came at me, it felt like I knew him . . . I don’t know Logan. I knew the guy that came at me.” Though Chris does not fully understand why Logan instructs him to “get out,” the incident causes Chris to become increasingly skeptical of his surroundings and tell Rose that he wants to leave.
Chris’s observation—that something is “off” based on the way that the Black individuals whom he encounters speak—challenges the narrative that Blackness can be seen and heard while whiteness remains inaudible. As Stoever argues:
The inaudibility of whiteness stems from its considerably wider palette of representation and the belief that white representations stand in for “people” in general rather than “white people” in particular. The inaudibility of whiteness does not mean it has no sonic markers, but rather that Americans are socialized to perceive them as the keynote of American identity. (12)
Moments in which the Black captives in Get Out produce sounds, words, and phrases that are incongruent with their appearance suggest that whiteness can be heard and does, in fact, possess particular sonic characteristics. Chris’s inability to communicate effectively and comfortably with the film’s Black captives speaks to the emergence of the sonic color line [page 144] and, more specifically, the sonic whiteness, which create a barrier between Chris and the other Black characters in the film. Listening to their strained speech and old-fashioned language, Chris is able to unwittingly hear the whiteness projected through these characters’ unconvincing performances of Blackness.
Get Out therefore represents how careful listening remains an important survival skill, particularly for Black individuals subject to white hegemonic violence. As is often the case in horror films, Chris, as a protagonist, is positioned as a careful observer who must remain attentive to surrounding sounds to parse out whom he can and cannot trust. The same becomes true for Chris’s best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howard), who ultimately comes to his rescue. After Chris has been taken captive by the Armitage family, Rod speaks to Rose on the phone and is able to deduce that she is lying from the tone of her voice. Rod places Rose on hold to record their conversation, but once he resumes the call, Rose begins to accuse Rod of hitting on her. “Whenever we’d go out I remember you looking at me . . . I know you think about fucking me, Rod” Rose tells him, and Rod eventually hangs up the phone in frustration. In this instance, Rose plays into the trope of the victimized white woman who is threatened by the hypersexual, aggressive Black man. As historian Martha Hodes has shown, anxiety about sexual relations between white women and Black men has its roots in the post-bellum South: after the Civil War, “whites’ ideas about the dangers of black male sexuality merge with their fears of political and economic independence for African-American men to produce a deadly combination” (19). Once it becomes clear that Rod is catching on to the fact that she is hiding something, Rose plays into the trope of the white damsel in need of protection from the sexually violent Black man.
This scene produces layers of meaning: for one, it highlights the inadequacy and inconsistency of digital recording technologies in capturing racial violence. While Rod believes that recording Rose will serve as evidence of her guilt or [page 145] culpability, she is able to manipulate their conversation so that those with whom he might share it (he tells Rose that he has been in contact with the police) will likely believe the white woman’s narrative over the Black man’s, so long as her performance aligns with preconceived notions of white femininity in relation to Black masculinity. However, Rod’s position as a careful listener is ultimately what enables him to eventually save Chris. While the recording device is not able to effectively capture the dubiousness of Rose’s story or the artificiality in her voice, Rod relies on his sonic intuition that Chris is in danger. By alluding to the unreliability of digital recording technology and voice recognition software, which can be inaccurate and have often failed to recognize non-white accents and dialects, Get Out instead insists on the legitimacy and dependability of its Black characters’ careful listening and intuition.
Sorry to Bother You also presents the importance of listening as a means of survival; after all, Cassius’s imitation of white voice is ultimately dependent on his ability to previously listen to the way that whiteness sounds, particularly in a corporate workplace. But the film also suggests that, through performing an artificial white voice, Cassius fails to critically listen to his surroundings and the people with whom he interacts. After all, Cassius’s use of his white voice within his Black community ultimately constitutes a breakdown in communication due to his lack of attunement to his surroundings. Sorry to Bother You’s “white voice” ultimately constitutes a form of ventriloquism that not only challenges the ways that whiteness has been constructed as inaudible and unremarkable but also underscores the necessity of critical listening. While Cassius’s projection of his white voice can be thought of in a myriad of ways—a reversal of Blackface minstrelsy, as previously mentioned—thinking of it as a form of ventriloquism is necessary for understanding the performance’s connections to artificiality and listening. Ventriloquism can be defined as the act of “using one’s voice to create an effect such that the sound seems to come from somewhere [page 146] else, a body part other than the speaker’s mouth or a different person or object” (Zheng). Similarly, ventriloquism “suggests an unoriginality that can, and that must, be traced back to a discrete body and distinct point of origin” (Kessler). If, within an act of ventriloquism, “sound seems to come from somewhere else” and “must be traced back to a discrete body,” then Cassius’s performance of the white voice is an act of ventriloquism. For both his friends and the film’s audience, Cassius’s white voice is so distorted and distinct from his own that it seems to emanate from someone else’s body entirely, and contributes to his girlfriend and friends feeling that he is not fully present in his interactions with them. It is important, too, that for the film’s audience, the voice Cassius ventriloquizes is recognizably David Cross’s—it does, in fact, conjure a racially distinct other. And it is no surprise that Cassius’s white voice almost begins to develop a mind of its own—like the ventriloquist’s routine of pretending to be surprised at their dummy’s words—as his white voice begins to emerge in spaces where it is not wanted nor welcome.
But Cassius’s performance also reveals how this form of ventriloquism and his conformity whiteness necessitate a distance between his interiority and his communications with the people whom he encounters at work. What perhaps speaks most clearly to RegalView’s promotion of forms of ventriloquism is the company’s motto that is repeated throughout the film: “Stick To The Script,” or S.T.T.S. for short. When Cassius first interviews at RegalView, he is hired despite not having any prior telemarketing experience because, as his manager emphasizes, he “has initiative . . . and can read” and therefore can easily “stick to the script” provided to all RegalView telemarketers. In other words, Cassius’s personality and critical thinking (or listening) skills are irrelevant, as he will merely be reading from the script passed down by his superiors. However, when viewers are finally given a glimpse of “the script,” it is revealed to be remarkably vague and unhelpful, not quite a script but instead a set of general guidelines, steps such as “Introduce [page 147] yourself. Be their friend” and “Build a bridge. Connect with them” that do not provide tangible examples or tools for accomplishing the listed goals. Sorry to Bother You’s “stick to the script” mantra calls attention to how various “scripts”—be it guidelines for succeeding in a workplace or written legislation—are often either invisible or unwritten or are crafted by and for the white managerial class. After all, Cassius tries to “stick to the script,” but it is not until he begins reading the script in his white voice that he makes a sale.
RegalView’s “stick to the script” motto also recalls a longer history of Black Americans being forced to conform to predetermined rules and regulations and finding space for resistance within these rules. After all, ventriloquism has subversive potential: as Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson argue, “ventriloquism, for all its associations with archaism and mysticism in certain historical contexts, is also depicted as a technology and technique of deception, statecraft, and power.” Kessler elaborates: ventriloquism “masks the origin of its own workings. It signals the veiling and subsequent exposure of a powerful apparatus. This apparatus is usually vocal in nature, the voice’s historical connections to power being well documented.” Cassius’s ability to successfully ventriloquize sonic whiteness in order to make sales calls not only unearths the inherent privilege and advantage experienced by white telemarketers (especially when compared to those with non-white sounding accents or dialects) but also can be understood as an act of resistance that engages trickery and deception to reap the financial benefits of whiteness. The “white voice” presented in Sorry to Bother You therefore has nuanced implications: on the one hand, it enables Cassius to deceive the racially biased potential customers on the other end of the phone, but on the other hand, as he is promoted, he becomes complicit in RegalView’s exploitation of its workers.
Finally, Sorry to Bother You underscores its investment in auditory and sonic elements through the attention that the [page 148] film draws to ears and listening practices. Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a performance artist distinguished by her bold sense of style, most notably the oversized statement earrings that she often wears. For example, one pair reads “Tell Homeland Security” on one earring and “We Are the Bomb” on the other; another pair reads “KILL KILL KILL” and “MURDER MURDER MURDER.” The earrings’ arrangement requires viewers to read Detroit’s face from ear to ear, quite literally reading her body for deeper meaning. In many ways, Detroit’s earrings both emphasize what is unsaid and speak for those who are unheard: another notable pair, for example, is a set of miniature gold statues depicting a man strapped to an electric chair.
As the film’s moral compass who discourages Cassius from selling out to his company, Detroit not only embodies alternative (and more just) ways of laboring and of living but also functions to reveal alternative modes of listening and of being heard. Detroit’s name, after all, invites comparisons to her namesake city, known for its Black music (“You sidestep more than the fucking Temptations,” Detroit tells Cassius during an argument, referring to the Detroit-based Motown group). Throughout the film, Detroit expresses herself less through what she says and more through the non-verbal, specifically through her statement outfits and her artwork. In a conversation between Cassius and Detroit, Cassius explains that he didn’t come to see her at her art gallery because she told him not to come, to which Detroit responds: “Baby, that’s what I said. But don’t listen to what I say. Listen to what I want.” Though potentially to be read as misleading or evasive, Detroit’s response, like her role throughout the film, emphasizes the importance of listening—both for one’s words and also for imbedded meaning. After all, one of the questions that Sorry to Bother You is invested in exploring is whether speaking something or speaking a certain way (in a “white voice,” for instance) is always reflective of one’s internal beliefs. As Cassius’s white voice continues to unintentionally emerge at inopportune moments, the film seems to be [page 149] questioning whether it is possible for him to inhabit both his Black persona and his white persona. While for Cassius, the perceived need to speak in a white voice (and more importantly, to be heard by those who otherwise would disregard or devalue him) makes him complicit in his company’s corruption, Detroit’s character embodies and offers alternative means of speaking and making oneself heard. While Cassius relies on racialized ventriloquism to succeed in his workplace, Detroit offers a way out of this binary. Ultimately, while Cassius’s white voice suggests the necessity of embodying and adopting versions of sonic whiteness, Detroit offers modes of creative and political expression that are grounded in Black performance and art.
Get Out similarly represents the complexities of critical listening. While throughout much of the film, Chris’s ability to pick up on the white bodies that speak through the Black captives’ bodies enables him to remain alert, when the film reaches its climax, it becomes clear that Chris’s ability to hear certain forms of sonic whiteness is working to his disadvantage. After it is revealed to Chris that he is going to be forced to undergo the Coagula Procedure, the film makes clear the inner workings of the Armitages’ hypnosis and imprisonment of their captives: the system does not rely on a visual focal point, as Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener) had previously suggested. Instead, the victims enter a state of hypnosis after hearing the sound of Missy tapping a silver spoon against a China teacup. Upon being captured, Chris realizes that hearing this sound—one that clearly symbolizes white wealth—has caused him to fall unconscious and become another victim of the Armitages.
It is at this point that Get Out presents one of its most explicit metaphors, one that is inextricable from the realm of the auditory. Strapped to a leather chair, Chris is able to dig his nails into the armchair’s cushions and pull out small pieces of the cushion, which look like cotton. Chris uses the pieces as makeshift earplugs, effectively blocking out the sound of the spoon against the teacup and allowing for his [page 150] escape. Ironically, then, Chris’s escape from this form of neo-slavery requires him to revert, albeit only symbolically, to an antiquated form of slave labor: picking cotton. In the most obvious sense, the act of stuffing his ears with the metaphorical cotton alludes to the slave system’s lasting impact of sonic trauma on Black Americans (for instance, Frederick Douglass’s memory of the screams of his Aunt Hester as she is beaten, or Harriet Jacobs’s description of her master whispering dirty words in her ear). Indeed, representing the sound of the teacup as a penetrative and violent sonic force that must be blocked out with material symbolic of Southern slave systems recalls other ways in which sound has been used to traumatize, oppress, and enact violence, particularly under American chattel slavery. And yet, I want to propose that this moment also represents the reversal of racial power dynamics and of the sonic color line. While cotton was once an economic tool controlled by Southern plantation owners, here Chris symbolically claims the material for his own purposes and weaponizes it so that he can escape (and also kill) his white captors. In this instance, the film represents whiteness as a penetrative sonic force that is both heard by and enacts violence upon Black bodies. Chris’s ability to “block out” these sounds reveals his adoption of a type of strategic and selective listening necessary for survival.
In a world in which white psyches inhabit Black bodies, Get Out represents whiteness as something that can be aurally recognized and identified. Despite the fact that the white inhabitants in the film seemingly “pass” for Black, Chris is still able to pick up on the incongruity between their appearances and their speech patterns. In presenting this dynamic, the film suggests that, despite preconceived understandings of whiteness as invisible or neutral, whiteness does in fact possess specific sonic registers. And in presenting the white inhabitants’ speech as strained, awkward, and most importantly, humorous, Get Out parodies the way that Blackness has been depicted as “sounding” a certain way. In doing so, the film reverses the power dynamics inherent in white [page 151] Blackface minstrel performances and instead presents sonic whiteness as something that can be appropriated, imitated, and mocked. As a result, Get Out simultaneously represents sound’s ability to enforce racial hierarchies and cause bodily harm while also depicting how race is constructed through sound.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You are engaged in similar projects through their constructions of what I refer to as sonic whiteness—or the way that whiteness emerges as an entity with distinct sonic qualities and characteristics. These films challenge the way that, through stereotypical performances of a “Black voice,” white performers and actors have established the idea that Blackness, unlike whiteness, can be sonically recognized and vocalized. Instead, Get Out and Sorry to Bother You satirize whiteness as a sonic force that is identified through its awkward and strained pronunciations and cadence. In doing so, they reveal how audiences have been conditioned to anticipate hearing certain racial identities while whiteness is presumed to be sonically neutral. Similarly, these films represent the duality of listening as it pertains to race: listening as a means of observation as well as listening’s potential to construct racial categories. It’s important that these two films depict how racism occurs through sonic forces, as it suggests that race is constructed not only through what is seen but also through what is heard: race is often thought of as a visual construction, but these films depict how racial hegemony infiltrates other realms as well.
Understanding how racialization occurs through sound is essential for the contemporary political and historical moment, when sonic elements continue to be imbued with racial meaning in ways that are harmful and contribute to systemic violence. Examining the performances of sonic whiteness in Get Out and Sorry to Bother You complicates who is able to “successfully” perform whiteness, particularly as these performances pertain to language and speech. In Sorry to Bother [page 152] You, for example, though Cassius is able to emulate whiteness through his voice, this fails to shield him from the exploitation that he experiences within his corporation. This is reflective of the reality that Black Americans face in performing whiteness in the workplace and in the face of discriminatory legal systems. In reflecting on code switching, for instance, April Baker-Bell analyzes how the use of White Mainstream English by Black male victims of police brutality (Eric Garner’s “I cannot breathe” is one example) failed to protect them from systemic violence. As Baker-Bell asserts, performances of sonic or linguistic whiteness “cannot protect Black people from losing their lives” (31). It is therefore necessary to interrogate the ways that sonic racism contributes to systemic violence and injustice, and to understand the limitations of and issues inherent in sonically performing whiteness. Ultimately, Get Out and Sorry to Bother You are two important cultural artifacts useful for understanding contemporary manifestations of sonic racism.
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For the 2022-23 academic year, Shannon Mooney is a Visiting Lecturer at Mount Holyoke College, where she teaches twentieth and twenty-first century American literature. Mooney received her Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she also served as a Writing Center Assistant Director. Her current book project examines the emergence of literary and popular texts set in the state of New Jersey at the turn of the twenty-first century.
MLA citation (print):
Mooney, Shannon. "Sticking to the Script: Constructions of Sonic Whiteness in Get Out and Sorry to Bother You." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, 2022, pp. 131-154.