Media Depictions of Speech Impediments Are Usually of Men, Sidelining The Struggles of Women Who Stutter
October 2020 was the first time I watched US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speak. Earlier that week, I had read that Biden grappled with a stutter, a childhood affliction that still found its way into his speech. I say ‘watched’ not ‘heard,’ because as someone who wrestles with a similar affliction, I was paying close attention to his face as he debated the incumbent president Donald Trump. I watched him blink hard when he felt the familiar trip on his tongue. The way he swallowed and breathed. How he occasionally repeated a word or a phrase, not only to emphasize but because the first time hadn’t been quite clear. It’s rare for me to have anything in common with a white male in a position of extreme power, but I recognized myself in every one of these behaviors. I wondered if he, too, especially had trouble with words beginning with M and C.
Persistent Developmental Stammering (PDS), or stammering that does not go into remission post childhood, can be an invisible disability, until it’s not. In popular culture, it has often been portrayed akin to deep mental deficiencies, in a “fool” whose speech is as poor as their brain, an object of ridicule. It’s been over a decade since Golmaal 3 had theatres full of people howling at Shreyas Talpade’s character, following which the Indian Stammering Association filed a petition in court. As a compromise, the filmmakers minimized Talpade’s stutter to a lisp in the subsequent movie, ensuring the comedic value of speech disorders remained intact.
However, Hindi cinema does have more nuanced examples of characters with speech impediments. Golmaal 3 released a year after Kaminey, where one of Shahid Kapoor’s characters had a defining stammer, a trait that, while marking him as vulnerable, did not take away from his character. And then there was Ranbir Kapoor in Jagga Jasoos, where despite his determination and sleuthing skills, his stutter only contributed to his winsome, perennially lost little boy appeal. Hollywood, too, has had its own niche for such characters, the most recent being Regé-Jean Page as the Duke of Hastings in Bridgerton.
Between Biden and these characters runs the common thread of gender – men who ultimately triumphed over their stutter, or triumphed in spite of it. Watching both Biden and Page, I wondered what happened to the women who weren’t quite so public and who lived and triumphed over their stutters in smaller, more private ways. Pop culture appears to have largely sidelined women with speech afflictions – an unfortunate fact, because stuttering adds to the complexities of the female experience and, unlike men, women have few layered literary or visual depictions to guide them through it.
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Research shows that over 70 million people around the world stutter. The gender ratio is skewed towards males at 4:1, though there is no conclusive evidence as to why men might be more affected. However, a 2018 research article published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, proposed that women were often underrepresented in these case studies and therefore reports on gender and stuttering were naturally skewed towards men. Women are also less likely to reach out for speech therapy due to financial constraints. The study also found that women who stammer gravitated naturally towards friends and (male) partners who could do most of the talking for them. In other words, there remains comparatively little data on speech afflictions in women, or how it might uniquely affect their professional and personal selves, because fewer women talk about it.
Anecdotal accounts are few, but they demonstrate how stuttering can compound women’s experiences of sexism. In a 2018 piece titled ‘The Men I’m Most Attracted to Are the Ones Who Ease My Stutter,’ Rachel Hoge describes trying to order a mocha latte, and finally agreeing to a macchiato because she could not get the word ‘mocha’ out. This is perhaps the biggest bane for a female stutterer, to simply agree to things and situations we do not necessarily want, because an argument means too many words. Smiling acquiescence and tentative speech are already typified as feminine characteristics; so when a woman’s speech is riddled with a stutter, people assume those qualities are merely amplified.
As a woman, it’s hard enough to find your own voice, with so much of the world determined to drown you out. With a stutter, it’s even easier to be dismissed or to be seen as an object of pity. People think they’re being kind by saying, “No, no, it’s fine,” every time you try to speak. The assumption that you’re easier to silence is palpable and easy to internalize.
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As a lover of language, debate, and good conversation, as a fairly aware woman with opinions that are deeply articulate in thought and writing, my uneven speech has been a source of frustration for many years. It is compounded by my active pursuance of a solitary lifestyle, where I enjoy living, reading, and traveling on my own. Before most interactions, I find myself rehearsing in my mind. Outlining which words to avoid. Controlling my breath so that I can get five words out at one go. Reminding myself to speak slower, almost singing sometimes. When shopping, I prefer to spend a good 30 minutes hunting for a hard-to-find item, rather than asking the staff for help. Although these are realities that most people who stutter live with every day, women have to navigate them in a world where they are expected to be verbal, warm and approachable, simply because they are female. It is easier for the world to assume that I am quiet, not by choice, but because I cannot speak fluently, because there is a deficiency, a feminine weakness somewhere.
And thus, it is almost a revolutionary act that I refuse to fit within these stereotypes, despite it marking me as odd, uptight, dangerous. I’ve conducted and negotiated successful job interviews. I’ve flirted outrageously, and also shut down overfamiliar men in bars. I’ve taken joyful, solo vacations in new lands and come back with a handful of new words in different languages. There’s room for me, for all women, to be quiet sometimes, and sometimes loud; to falter in their speech, but not back down. To be a stutterer, and be totally sexy! And that’s the reality we deserve.
Despite a world where texting reigns supreme, speech remains as visceral, as intimate to us as blood and bone, or in a stutterer’s case, as spine and gut. As we continue the battle to bring marginalized voices to the fore, it is important to recognize that not all voices will be equally fluent. Ultimately, the ones who pause, hesitate, or trip over their words deserve to be heard, maybe even more so than those who don’t. And it is equally important to recognize also that not all of these voices will belong to powerful men standing on presidential podiums.