Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education

Hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators: the messiness of ‘children’s voice’

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You can’t go far these days without hearing about the importance of pupil voice in school improvement, planet climate warnings or, at the older end of the age spectrum,  the Brexit referendum, perhaps the biggest pretence at listening to the voices of the British people in recent years. The referendum tells us a lot about how voices are manipulated, distorted and selectively listened to; and there’s some learning here for us if we want to ensure that young people’s voice is at the heart of what is important to us.

Fighting for the creative voices of children and young people is something that’s dear to our hearts at TMC and has been since we were established 10 short years ago and we’ve recognised that children and young people adopt many different ways to express their views –  laughing, crying, smiling, gaze, grasping, touching, pointing and uses of materials amongst many others.

It’s been central to much child centred learning pedagogy across the world too but there’s always a risk that claiming to privilege children’s voice as  the central plank of your cultural or social policy making  becomes a tokenistic  attempt at democratic education, which can, with a hypnotistic Kenny Craig waving away of the hands –  Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don’t look around my eyes, look into my eyes, you’re under –  mask several other agendas  – pupil compliance, customer satisfaction, and the inexorable marketisation of education – in full flow.

Hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators – the old Music Hall Variety shows can tell us a lot about the risks to fighting for the creative voice of children and young people.

Ventriloquation – when a speaker speaks through the voice of another for the purpose of social or interactional positioning (Wertsch, 1991, Bakhtin, 1981) – is not just a spooky music hall act but is brilliantly demonstrated in Toy Story 4, when Woody, on his quest to return the trash toy, Forky, to his owner Bonnie, chances upon a doll called Gabby in an antique store and her slavish ventriloquist’s dummies, the Bensons.

The conflict between Woody and Gabby Gabby is at its heart, a fight for the voice of the child.  Gabby Gabby’s voice box has been broken and her desire to replace it leads to her capturing Woody and offering a deal – give me your voice box and I’ll give you back your lost toy, Bo – and by implication his long lost love.

The Bensons are instrumental in her fight to regain her voice box, and Woody, ever the Tom Hanks hero, obliges.  He donates his voice box to her through a surgical procedure; which leads to her eventually gaining the attention of a lost child at the end of the film which ensures both the toy’s and child’s happy-ever-afterness.

Scratch the surface of Toy Story 4 and there are several other delights in store when it comes to understanding the complexities of children’s voice – or better put, voices.

Heteroglossia (roughly translated as ‘multi-languagedness’) is described by Bakhtin in his work “Discourse in the Novel.”  The idea is that there are several distinct languages within any single (apparently unified) language or text: and that different languages each have a different voice which compete with one another for dominance.  So, when we refer to ‘children’s voices’ we’re better accepting that children – like all of us – do not speak in one coherent voice but that many competing voices are at work in their utterances.   Responding to what we think are authentic children’s voices is not as straightforward as our desire would like it to be.

This is exemplified brilliantly in Toy Story 4: at a crunch point in the search for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, who all through the film has been advised to listen to his inner voice, struggles to listen to the voice he wants to hear from the button-induced phrases from his own voice box:

“Stand back everyone” doesn’t cut it.

“Everyone take cover!” isn’t what’s needed.

“To infinity and beyond!” is missing the point.

But finally, the inner voice phrase “The slingshot manoeuvre!” does the trick and Buzz is off to save the day again, reminding us in the process that the ‘inner voice’ is also, far more complex, more heteroglossic, than it might first appear.

Toy Story 4 also shows how children’s voices are heard through acts of impersonation.  In one of the final chase sequences through the carnival at the end of the film, one of the toy gang, Trixie,  impersonates the family car’s  GPS system and the toys manipulate the controls, so taking control of the car.  Other moments in the film have utterances from Woody being heard by the humans in the story – breaking the convention in the films where the toys can only be seen as inanimate objects by the humans, never with agency, and certainly never with voice. Out of sight they may be, but for the first time perhaps, the toy has found their voice and agency in the land of the humans through acts of impersonation.

So, as well as bearing in mind the hypnotists, ventriloquists, impersonators and elusive butterfly of the inner voice, the other aspect of children’s voice we’d be mindful to be aware of  is its fleeting nature.  Always in transition and translation, voice is not a fixed entity.  We do not speak consistently for long.  We are always learning; and always listening to new voices which we try to ignore, assimilate, pass off as our own or wrestle into a completely different form.  Our authentic voice – true children’s voice – can never be completely pinned down or determined because our lives depend on flux and flow, confluence and influence.

Author: drnicko

Cultural Architect

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