Look, I know that I’m probably late to the party. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that we live in an overwhelmingly visual world. TV, cinema, advertisements, newspapers, books and even massive billboards have clouded my headspace for years. FM radio was relegated to car rides after my parents’ generation, or maybe #only90skidswillknow to listen to radio jockeys’ hyper-modulating voices without acute second-hand embarrassment. *Cringe*. It took me three semesters of college to realise how saturated I was with visual stimuli. My music playlist was getting old, and had inescapable associations to past selves I was trying to forget. It took a lot to truly be invested in a new TV show. And that’s when I turned to podcasts.
Of course, I’d briefly listened to feminist podcasts like Behenchara Diaries, Backtalk and Chuski Pop before. I never dared to miss the weekly Facebook Live show called Feminist Snack Break (not technically a podcast but I’ll count it, thank you very much), and so had an inkling that something cool’s going on down there in the podcast world. Now, my transition was deliberate. A Facebook post and many Bitch Media listicles later, what I hit was nothing short of a goldmine.
I don’t mean to exaggerate despite my inner pop culture snob: it’s only been about three months and a handful of shows. I’m binge-listening to at least two shows at a given time-period. These shows are decidedly those hosted by women: white women, South Asian women, American Muslim women, Latinx women, Asian women.
“Look. Listen. Look and Listen.” It’s not easy to listen to these things. I can’t just pick up anything; I’m very picky. It doesn’t come naturally to me. In fact, I haven’t come across anyone who’s said, “Oh yeah! I can pay attention to every word.” It seems to me that it runs against a culture that’s only talking, never listening.
But these women? I can’t get enough of them.
I’ve tried dude podcasts, podcasts with some dudes… the whole thing. Some of them are great: they’re sensitive, they’re about cats, super political, informative, and I love a good listen, once in a while. However, the specific type of podcasts that is loosely structured, full of banter, extremely funny and giggly, make me “nuts-o”. I’ve started picking up words and mannerisms. They make me think, laugh, learn and engage with problematic faves. My head has begun to sound like them. I’ve come to believe that this specific medium easily lends itself to the female perspective(s). Women and podcasts were made for each other, and here’s why:
The hosts talk to each other, over(lap) each other, slip into each other’s monologues, sometimes start to sound like the same person, add to each other’s points, play along with each other’s jokes, and at no point does this lively exchange become tedious to follow. There’s a certain exhaustion women try to escape, that comes from being trapped in conversations with men, or in extremely masculine spaces (which, let’s be honest, is… everywhere). Picture any standard conversation about feminism. There’s a massive pressure to be non-personal, to pander to the masculine/male, logical “default”. In order to even be heard, one must be expertly articulate, argumentative, crystal clear, dominating, either interrupting or resisting interruptions, an follow a perfect, linear premise-conclusion form.
I’ve often seen dudebros incorrectly deploy terms from philosophy and logic in order to tone police women, victimise themselves, minimise lived experience, and in a word, oppress. It’s also a larger structure we’re up against: a tradition that says women aren’t funny, that women’s voices are always “too” something, that sets up an unjustified distinction between emotion and reason, and that claims women need to hold their shit perfectly together while dealing with their oppressions. It makes us desperate: where is the room to push for and reimagine alternate paradigms to comfortably tell our stories? What are the narratives and logical structures that we can create? Where can our voices go to not be hijacked by the status quo?
Without the pressure to move causally from one statement to the next, hosts can make a point, have a next sentence be totally unrelated, can digress for a whole 10 minutes, transition into gibberish, and have mutual licenses for interruption and apologies without exercising any significant power or privilege over the other person.
Sure, part of this is standard improv and so many male hosts are hilarious, talented and ingenious at it. But it’s not so much about who’s talking as much as it is about how. If intellectual, media and other discourse spaces are embedded with misogyny, and have a long history of male domination and perpetuation of masculine/masculinist impulses, this form itself becomes subversive.
On one of the episodes of My Favorite Murder, a true crime comedy podcast usually with fun anecdotes in the first half and murder stories in the second, co-host Karen Kilgariff recounts a review by a dude who claimed to like the murder-stuff, but had a unique issue with what he called “female ramblings”. Karen replies on the show, “I could not stop laughing… what the fuck else if not female ramblings is on this fucking podcast?!” It reminds me of reading Hélène Cixous last semester, on the phallocentrism of expression. She urges women to write from within the system, and “to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get.” Cixous’s claims are, of course, guided by the specific revolutionary potential of writing, but perhaps one could think about her characterisation of feminine “explosion” in relation to podcasts.
Every conversation in a non-scripted podcast necessarily unfolds in multiple directions i.e. non-linearly. It’s a constellation of thought and engagement. There’s a very kitty party style liberation to it. Unlike listening to lectures, debating, or writing short academic papers — which are other things I do with my life a lot, podcasting doesn’t need to employ thesis statements that go on to accomplish one claim after another to build an argument. Instead, usually, they have a nucleus of intent, around which an hour unfolds. It requires the listener to listen between the lines. Correlations, causations, accusation, irony, sarcasm, familiarising– all become doubly playful. What’s actually said, the order it’s said in, and what seems to be implied can be quite misleading. It becomes possible– for instance, to simultaneously talk about women’s fear of being murdered and make jokes about serial-killer Ted Bundy (who raped and murdered many women in the 70s). It becomes possible to flirt with the borders of what’s appropriate, without being politically incorrect, violent or offensive. (Although women– especially white women fuck up quite a bit, and everyone needs to be called out.) It becomes possible to learn from mistakes without defending your privileged ego: “Every film has a blindspot, because every person has a blindspot,” one of the hosts on The Bechdel Cast once said. It becomes possible to be irreverent and still not minimise important issues. Simultaneous nuance and accountability– something men constantly assert that feminists cannot accomplish– is effortless.
This is at the heart of resisting masculine hegemonies in how we think, talk and listen. It’s also a great challenge to pop culture itself– here you find women lifting each other up, refusing each other’s unnecessary apologies, having empathy, and even being jarringly assertive, rude or badass when required. Here you find women snorting and grunting while laughing, which, I swear to God, I have never heard on any media. Never!
When The New York Times published a deplorable profile on a Nazi sympathiser, Dahlia Grossman-Heinze and Amy Lam made insanely relatable dying whale noises, and yell-talked throughout the episode without once faltering in their strong beliefs, arguments and oppositions. Caitlin and Jamie have soothing tones and soft laughter; they make me feel sleepy, entertained and mansplaining-free. Girls at Dhabas make me long for Pakistan and its feminist friendships. Stray episodes of other shows keep me humble and patient.
I live in a hostel at college. The academic pressure is high, and each semester is a greater test to one’s balance and well-being than the last. Bureaucratic processes, privilege and capitalism all blend into each other here. My roommate goes home almost every weekend, and I have the room to myself. Family is a fraught experience. Rifts in my friendships ripple out onto my self-esteem. They unsettle me, topple me over. There are moments of isolation, there are nights of crying. Growing up and running 20 needs so much shape-shifting. These women keep me company. They are my friends. We all fight the good fight together. It reminds me of a meme that could not be more accurate:
It’s also the listeners. The Facebook groups that accompany these podcasts– one of which I co-created recently, make me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself. Some would dismiss that as armchair activism, but it forges solidarities miles apart. A certainly more reliable way to find friends, given that anything else puts me at unfiltered risk of encountering an alt-right moron or a misogynist. Folks of all genders on these groups raise money for NGOs, push forth ways to take action, and share work experiences. They talk about their difficult lives/traumas/anxieties and how the podcasts help them cope, and at the simplest, come together every week. They post pictures and articles of their dearest obsessions. They find quotes, sayings and profound lessons from these episodes and turn them into gorgeous lettering, art, T-shirts and other merchandise. And they buy each other’s creations. They receive their fellow-listeners’ tragic stories in respect, silence and encouraging comments. They stand up and #resist, and call out shitty men (and women). They pay attention to how I feel in a conversation, and reach out politely to clarify, admit, or disagree. I crave these constructive environments.
These are the reasons why when I listen to a dude’s voice on a podcast, it’s a frazzled experience. Another podcast-savvy female friend has echoed this sentiment; in fact, originally made me locate my vague discomfort. Dudes exist on every other fucken’ stage anyway, what a pleasure to feel like a man is out-of-place somewhere. I’ve found fun podcasts hosted by asexual women, black women, and those with delicious Indian accents that I rarely hear represented. We should be giving more of our time and ears to them. It’s important to acknowledge the privilege that accompanies access to these podcasts — both to listen and to make them, but I also believe that they are only dawning upon us. Watch out. A violent takeover is coming, and I’m here for it. I’m gonna go get my ice cream, and hope I never run out.