About Tone

My human shell is small and of a woman of color. My melanin has much baggage with it but one of the most painful pieces of baggage that I have been given is one of “the angry black woman”. The Angry Black Woman is a trope nearly as old as time. We’ve all encountered her. She’s usually large, has short hair and can hit you with a pot of grits from one hundred paces. For examples, see literally most Tyler Perry movies or many 90s sitcoms written by men (black men are not immune to this trope, in fact, they may be the worst perpetrators of this as the “crazy black girl” is a real form of sexism in the African-American community). The Angry Black Woman could be its own blog post but because of that trope, because of that stereotype I am very aware of tone and am very aware of my tone.

Which brings us to today’s topic. Tone policing, speech and and how one can properly express indignation.

It was actually Amber that got me thinking about tone. She is a proud member of a local African-American community group and her discussions about our shared history, our legacy of mistreatment and our slow but steady rise to semi-equality are insightful and brilliant. Remember a few years ago when I mentioned that now, just now, I became a somewhat angry black person over the history of mistreatment and the cruel legacy of racism and slavery. But my anger is tempered mostly. Because I am at the stage with casual racism, casual misogyny, casual transphobia and casual homophobia and just the regular versions of all of those things that my response to such is just a deep and beleaguered sigh.

I am tired. I am so tired of this. I have endured such things now for nearly 30 years. And I am tired. I am tired of being explained my history by mostly white people who are wrong. I’m tired of people saying they are an ally but and I am tired so so tired of people talking over me or talking for me.

But I am a well-trained Southern prince. I am not to speak out of turn. I am not to raise my voice and I am not to be too firm on anything. It’s unbecoming. It’s unladylike. I’ll never get married if I keep saying such hot button things like “Women are people.”

The training is hard to rewrite and thus, my tone is mixed between shrieking harpy and somewhat passive-aggressive pageant contestant.  I was trained to avoid religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin in public speech. And whenever I have been more openly political and aggressive with expressing my own views (if you’ve ever seen one of my panel videos, you know what I mean) I find that my tone is oftentimes sharp, pointed and somewhat irked that I even have to “defend” statements that to me and those I surround myself with willingly are not controversial, brave or a surprise. And that’s difficult to manage as a panelist, podcaster, and person. I have to be able to explain why my family’s history only goes back so far. I have to be able to explain why my hair is relaxed or why my human name is so white sounding. I have to be able to explain those things because explaining them helps people understand the complicated legacy of slavery, racism and white hegemony that rests on mine and the shoulders over every person of color in this nation, nay, the world.  

I am a communicator by trade be it both in my professional life and my panelist life and that means I am aware of how people listen. And I can promise you this: no one responds well to a shrieking harpy. It shuts people down. And while my indignation is valid, yelling, being pointed or being terse is no way to further a narrative.

But here is where Amber steps in. She seems no need to police tone. When she is terse or irked, she expresses so. And she passionately defends others who can be terse or aggressive with their tones. A showing of a local black-centric documentary brought up this conversation. I was hung up on a use of a word and Amber finally pressed me on why that bothered me. I said because it has the potential to make things sounds more intense than they were and Amber in the way only really she can said: “So?”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. Because I was taught to be measured, I expected this film to be measured and when it wasn’t, it angered me. Why couldn’t they just sit quietly and let civil rights infractions happen? Why didn’t they have my training? Why didn’t they have to deal with what I do?

And here is where I’ll pause to say there’s a fair amount of misogyny in that answer. My human shell is female and thus me being opinionated, blunt, educated and vocal is oftentimes framed entirely differently than if it were a man in my shoes. A man who confidently speaks over women, interrupts them, confidently spews the wrong thing is a smart, brave and driven man. A woman who does even one or more of these things is a shrill harpy and she’ll die alone because no man wants a woman with opinions, merely a set of ovaries and some bangs.

The reasons behind this are rooted in the patriarchal nature of Western culture and that’s a battle I cannot fight on my own.

So because of that double standard, I am hyper-aware of my tone while simultaneously being my most tired of having to police my tone. If someone is wrong, you should be able to say so respectfully. But challenging the status quo is how change happens. We would never have achieved freedom, emancipation, suffrage or the close grasp at equality we have now if people did not challenge the narrative. And sometimes that means not being nice. Pageant answers can only get you so far. Sometimes to really be an agent of change: one has to throw tone out the window.


Tone and Diction in The Scarlet Letter

Chapter 2 of the Scarlet Letter written by Nathaniel Hawthorne uses deep imagery and strong diction to set the tone for this chapter and subsequent chapters in the work. The setting of a prison yard in Puritan Boston is established quickly in the beginning of the chapter and the almost content eagerness the crowd in the prison yard had awaiting the execution “The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago was occupied by a pretty large number of inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door.” (Hawthorne 54). Strong, solid images of a prison yard are created from the simple phrase “iron-clamped oaken door.” (54) Hester Prynne, the woman standing accused is made a public spectacle and as Prynne “stood fully revealed before the crowd” ( 57) such diction is a strong indication for the humiliation and vulnerability facing all people who stood before a group of their peers before a public execution.

The diction used to describe the scarlet letter itself is artful and powerful, indicating the power the letter had in affecting how the public viewed Hester Prynne “It was so artistically done, with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy that it had all the effect of a last fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore…” (57). The scarlet letter itself was a fabled mark of Cain to Hester Prynne marking her sin and crime of adultery and the letter branding her unto death as an adulterer.

The last paragraph of chapter 2, Hester Prynne realizes the gravity of her situation after reminiscing on her childhood and past up until her arrival in Boston. “Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the same were real. Yes!-these were her realities-all else had, vanished.” (62) The quickness of the meter and the direct pauses create a sense of dread and urgency.

In conclusion the tone, diction and imagery in the second chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter create a tone and setting of dread, misfortune and mounting regret through the use of solid imagery and diction help set the mood for this chapter and the remainder of the novel. Such methods have been used by authors for centuries to set stronger and more concrete settings and tones. The Scarlet Letter is filled with robust images and foreboding language to help set the overall mood of suspicion, regret and intolerance in Puritan Boston.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, and Ross C. Murfin. The Scarlet Letter: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Boston, Mass. [u.a.: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.

Tonal Dissonance and You

“Don't look at me in that tone of voice.” Dorothy Parker.png

I’m of the very proud and polarizing Disney generation. The renaissance of Disney films were ones I saw in theaters, owned at home and could recite as a child (Hell, still can for most of them) and while many did not age well for me, I’ve found that several actually mean even more to me now as an adult than they ever did when I was a bright, strange child. A common complaint that film critics now have of those 90s era Disney movies is that they have a “tone” problem.

That’s a bit reductive, isn’t it?

Just blanketly saying something has a tone problem doesn’t explain why, how or what to do about it and makes the reviewer (often one of the Youtube variety) seem like an expert without necessarily being an expert. So let’s talk about tone, tonal dissonance, Disney movies and what it means to really have a tone problem.

I come at this from two angles: one of them being a comic book fan and the other being an anime fan. Tonal dissonance is abundant in both of those genres. FLCL naturally flows between nihilistic angst and bright rock music. Cowboy Bebop can in one scene talk about the existential misery of being alive and knowing you will one day die alone and pair it with a corgi high on mushrooms. Neither of those undercut the pathos or emotion of the prior scene but because of genre and style, we accept that the tone can abruptly change. Comic books also often change the tone on a dime from serious death scenes cut in between the normal pageantry of daily life for the rest of the citizens of a named non-descript city.

Now, I won’t defend all Disney movies of this era. Some do have a serious tone problem (Lookin’ at you, Hercules.). But many are firstly a product of their time (the 90s) and they were also fundamentally a children’s movie. Instead of simply writing some of these movies off as having tone problems, perhaps it’s better to admit some of the daring steps they made despite being a kid’s movie.

Let’s take my favorite Disney movie: The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an example.

This movie…it’s a doozy. It does have some serious tone issues in the form of three obnoxious dated no longer relevant celebrity voiced gargoyles. But the rest of the film, the rest of this wonderfully animated and voice acted and paced movie is just a brilliant example of what this movie could have been. Hunchback is a dark movie for a Disney film. The main character is deformed, the main antagonist is the literal embodiment of people’s fear of the Catholic church and Catholic guilt in general. It created in Esmeralda one of the most active agents of her own free will Disney will make until the post-renaissance and later characters like Elsa and Moana.  The music could easily be its own blog post featuring some of my favorite songs in all of Disney discography.  And the animation was some of the best of its era.

But that tone problem. Those gargoyles. The Goofy yell in the middle of a literal siege in the thrilling climax of the movie. All of it for some is just too much and it makes it difficult to see that underneath all of that is a movie that is fundamentally different from others of its kind. Think about it, it’s adapted from a novel that is by far not safe for children. And while the movie takes plenty of liberties from the novel, I think it actually does a few things better than the novel. The movie paints Frollo as almost a sympathetic man, truly just one haunted by his repressed sexuality and the immense pressure under him and the threat of eternal damnation. As someone who was raised Roman Catholic, I can vouch that the Hellfire sequence is the literal manifestation of Catholic guilt. Esmeralda’s scene in the cathedral to the tune of God Help the Outcast is one of the most famous Disney songs around. But for the chances the movie tried to take, some things had to remain the same. This is a Disney picture, after all. It has to have an animal sidekick of some kind. The good normal looking heteronormative person has to fall in love with the princess/gypsy dancer. It has to have an uncomplicated unilaterally happy ending. That’s how Disney’s made their money for decade and a story about a church official and his…wants aren’t gonna stop the Disney cash cow from doing what it does best.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind this was the 90s. It was a different time. Everything was strange when it came to tone. A normal 90s kid like me juggled between the dark oppression of Batman the Animated Series to the fun camp of Looney Toons. As children, we didn’t mind the tonal issues. We laughed at the fart jokes, singing animals and stupid side plots. They’re insufferable now that many of us are adults with educations and have now read more than one book. But if you held most things to that standard, they’d simply fall apart. Now, I’m one of the last to use “It’s a kid’s movie” as a blanket excuse. I’m an anime fan. Plenty of the anime and animated movies from Japan that I watched were meant for kids but had deeper plot points than some American serialized television shows. I don’t say that to excuse the faults of any movie, Disney or otherwise, just to help frame the issue a little more.

But being older really helps frame many of these movies better. Hunchback becomes less and less about the weird diegetic gargoyle singing and more about a struggle between the sacred and the profane. In Hunchback I see a man struggle between his faith, his desires and his position of power. I see a character with the purest of hearts but unfortunately cursed with a face that the rest of the world finds detestable. I find comfort in music that is wonderful and Latin verses that I had to sing and chant in mass with my family. I see Paris in a way that many young kids have never seen before. I see imagery that to anyone who has read another book would instantly be impressed with. I see so many other things than just a really strange joke that tried to insinuate a gargoyle is attracted to a goat.

Mulan has one of the best most jarring tonal shifts of all from the bright, very misogynistic A Girl Worth Fighting For to the literal scorched Earth and destruction left behind by the Huns. Pocahontas has plenty of strange tone shifts between loving the Earth and nature, respecting native cultures and the relative similarity and mirroring from each side of an argument or conflict to jokes about food and cute animal distractions.

So what is there to be done about tonal dissonance? I admit now, if I want to watch Hunchback I skip around a lot. I hit the list of things I want to see like the subtle tone and key shift from Heaven’s Light to Hellfire. The Court of Miracles scene is a must if I have a copy that kept that scene in. God Help the Outcast is beautifully animated and I mostly just ignore anything involving Captain Phoebus and his rushed romance with Esmeralda. If the tone problem bothers you, I can totally respect that. It irks the hell out of me, too. But I won’t deny what these movies did. I still sing these songs. My friends and I can still recite the movies. This was our childhood. This was my childhood and even if it was tonally off, that’s okay.

I’ll keep singing The Bells of Notre Dame.