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Society loves to remind women how they’re doing it wrong. What exactly? Pick just about anything. Our clothes, our hair, our voices. The Naomi Wolfs of the world like to patronizingly bring us back into the feminist sisterhood by urging the reclamation of our “strong female voice.” Old men like Lexicon Valley cohost Bob Garfield feel it necessary to remind us that the way we are speaking isn’t appealing to him, so best to knock it off.
The social policing of women’s voices, vocal fry being the latest installment, is nothing new. Women are expected to walk a tightrope in most aspects of our lives. We are supposed to be feminine, but not girly. With our voices, we are supposed to speak in our “strong female voice,” but not too strong as to blur the line between male and female.
According to Garfield, the “really annoying” speech pattern is more common among young women. “I don’t have any data,” he insists to his cohost, “I simply know I’m right.”
Well, Garfield and his complete lack of data are quite wrong. According to NYU linguistic professor Lisa Davidson, most research has found that men employ vocal fry to the same degree that women do. The difference, she tells BTRtoday, is that we tend not to perceive it as much in men because men generally have a naturally lower pitch than women, so the difference is less apparent.
“The fact that you can hear it in women gives people ammunition for it to be something that you criticize women for,” Davidson argues. “Whereas in men, you just can’t hear it as much. So if people are going to criticize young men in a way that they’re not going to criticize young women, they’re just going to have to find something else to criticize them for.”
However, people don’t go looking for that thing to similarly and disproportionately criticize young men for. “It does strike me as just another piece in the general type of misogyny that goes around,” Davidson suggests. “To the extent that people do criticize women in a way that they don’t criticize men, this is just another piece of that.”
It’s the same policing as female dress. Women are scrutinized much more closely than men and it’s never enough. Too prim, too slutty. With voice, it’s too high or it’s too low. Too much uptalk yet too much vocal fry.
“People have styles of dressing that cranky older generations don’t like,” Davidson reminds us, “and they criticize young people for dressing that way. This is really no different. Young people always come up with new ways of defining their speech, whether through these vocal characteristics or new words, and other people don’t like it.”
The problem with vocal fry is that women’s voices are “just dis-preferred,” says Davidson. Take gay voice. As Dan Savage points out in the documentary “Do I Sound Gay?,” gay men will often reject men who speak with “gay voice”–the stereotypical affectation filled with flourishes and uptalk–because of misogyny.
“They want to prove to the culture that they’re not not men,” he says. “That they’re good because they’re not women. They’re not like women, they don’t want women, they don’t want to sleep with women, they don’t act like women. Then they’ll punish gay men who they perceive as being feminine in any way.”
Anything is better than sounding like a woman, including a woman who is trying to sound like a man, as vocal fry is often perceived.
According to political science professor Casey Klofstad, who studies how biology and society affect decision-making, we don’t like vocal fry because it’s counterintuitive to our understanding of gender biology.
“Based on what we know about how humans perceive human language, how birds perceive bird song, for example, what we see almost universally is that averageness is preferred,” Klofstad tells BTRtoday. “We like prototypical sounds and when you deviate from that, especially when you deviate in a sex-atypical way, people tend not to like it.”
According to Klofstad’s research, someone employing vocal fry in a job interview appears less “trustworthy” and therefore less hire-able. At the same time, his data suggests that both in politics and in the workplace, lower-pitched voices are more desirable and electable. The clincher is that, according to Klofstad, “the advantage with having a lower-pitched voice appears to be stronger in female candidates than in male candidates.”
Why? Because having that naturally lower pitch brings women closer to heteronormative maleness, and those heteronormative men already have a leg up.
There is a generational gap here. New studies reveal that young people have fewer concerns about vocal fry.
When told that one study revealed college-aged people thought that a woman’s vocal fry made her sound professional and career-oriented, Garfield expressed profound disbelief: “you mean there were positive associations among her demographic?” He called it “horrifying” and informed his cohost that he “assumed it would lead to lower population growth because on top of everything else… to my ear it’s so repulsive. And yet it’s deemed sophisticated? By our next generation of leaders?”
It’s particularly telling and in no way novel that, to him, vocal fry is a boner-killer because of its repulsiveness. If it doesn’t please him and older men like him, it must surely be a devastating trait that needs to be quashed.
Despite this kind of response, young women continue to rattle their voices. Davidson believes this is because the in-group benefit to doing so outweighs the “vilification” from older generations and different demographics.
“Young women are defined by vocal fry, though unfairly, and gay men are defined by a certain speech pattern that has been adopted,” says Davidson. “For the people who use these qualities, it defines them as a group and overall probably having that kind of solidarity with other people like you is more valuable than the derision you get from having a speech pattern that’s different from the dominant patriarchy.”