Earlier today, Jezebel ran an article about how voice quality can affect others' perceptions of you, depending on whether or not it can be classified as "rough, weak, strained or breathy," as opposed to "normal."
Does anyone argue with the fact that a person's voice can become the single most defining feature about them? Try reading these quotes and hearing ANYONE ELSE'S voice saying them:
How'd you do? Yeah, me neither.
What is interesting to me — and by interesting, I mean infuriating — is that according to reputable sources (read: older men, apparently), the last two voices you heard in your head are unacceptable.
Apparently, it's unacceptable because of vocal fry, that creaky little sound that lowers women's voices, shortening the octave of difference that typically separates men's voices from women's.
The last big female voice trend we heard lamented was the "Valley Girl lift." which, according to Hofstra fine arts professor Laurie Fendrich, “reveals an unexplainable lack of confidence in one’s opinions and a radical uncertainty about one’s place in the world.” Raising our voices makes women sound like 'an empty-headed clotheshorse for whom the mall represents the height of culture,' she writes."
Does it bother me that this particular female professor just called a huge number of a generation of up-and-coming women 'empty-headed clotheshorses'? A little bit, yeah. What bothers me more is that the latest thing has been to lambast women for vocal fry, which was the subject of a January NPR piece* in which Slate Lexicon Valley podcaster (and NPR On the Media host) Bob Garfield mourned the "vulgar" way girls speak now.
Because now that we've stopped doing the Valley Girl thing — well, ladies, you're still doing the speaking thing wrong.
I still remember tuning in to this piece in January and imagining a blustering, confused older white guy who just CAN'T UNDERSTAND what's HAPPENING to the GIRLS these days! The more I listened to gems like "I don't have any data, I simply know I'm right" and “You mean there were positive associations among her demographic? It’s so repulsive, and yet it’s deemed sophisticated by our next generation of leaders?” the more I remembered being in high school and hearing these same arguments about the Valley Girl lift, and how that was destroying the minds and morals of our young ladies.
And what I'm coming away with is — for the most part, men can speak however they want, and who cares? Writing this, I Googled "male speaking trends." Almost all of the top results I got were about female voice trends. (The ones that weren't were about how to distinguish male voices from female voices and gender differences in spoken Japanese.)
We're not hand-wringing and pearl-clutching about the "vulgar" ways boys speak now, but we are sure as hell concerned about our girls making themselves "vulgar" by lowering their voices and making them sound more masculine. And we've been doing it for years, because that thing where they were raising their voices and making them more high pitched, that wasn't okay either.
In her Slate piece about this issue, Amanda Hess wrote, "I suspect that the spread of 'creaky voice' makes Garfield so mad because it represents the downfall of his own mode of communication." Probably true.
But it's also true that there is always a backlash when girls, or women, change what they're doing. And it's worth asking why we see these trends in women's speech, but not so much in men's. Could it be that women are constantly adjusting both the words they use and the way they say them in order to be more accepted by men, whether personally or professionally?
The most interesting thing to me about vocal fry is the suggestion that as women gain more ground professionally, this speech trend is slowly wearing away the distinction between men's and women's voices. And if women don't sound feminine, or unsure of themselves (which a lot of people see as feminine), or at least indicate through their speech that they are looking to men for direction, then what will become of us all?
Every time I think about this issue, I think about "Star Trek: Voyager" and the amazing Captain Janeway. I never watched "Voyager" when it was on TV, because I remember my dad complaining about how annoying that woman's voice was, and I internalized his feelings about it. Since that time, I think that's the thing I've heard most often about that show — that, and that Seven of Nine was hot. Years later my husband discovered streaming television, and launched a "Voyager" marathon that lasted for weeks.
And all I can say is that Janeway has a low, low voice for a woman, and she was amazing. I couldn't remember, after a while, why I never watched the show — what was my problem?
I might have a better idea, now.
*I do realize that this is hardly breaking news, and the conversation about vocal fry has been going on for a while. It is also, however, a topic that has been nagging at me since the piece aired, and reading the Jezebel piece today just set me off on my rant. So thanks for putting up with the rant.