Giving Power Back to Women's Voices

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Most people express surprise when they hear the sound of their own voice played back. It’s because the voice that a person hears in while speaking is not the same voice the person hears captured on a recording. That being said, the recorded voice represents the “real” voice.

“Somebody said that my voice sounded like driving on gravel.” – Stephanie Foo, Producer

And the result is that often people hate the way they sound.

In this article, Dr. Yale Cohen, director of the Hearing Sciences Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, explains that once people hear what they actually sound like, they will most likely, urged by dislike, change their voice in real time.

“Imagine you didn’t have a mirror for six months and you had a perception of what you looked like. Meanwhile, you start eating lots of food and you gain lots of weight. If you [suddenly looked in a mirror], you’d be shocked,” he concludes.

A voice is an instrumental piece of one’s identity and personhood. But what if others hate your voice?

Women’s voices, in particular, have always been under great scrutiny. The terms “vocal fry” and “upspeak” are often used to describe a woman’s voice and bounce around quite a bit in the media.

Vocal Fry is the lowest pitch out of the three vocal registers: falsetto, modal and fry.  Apparently, most people use their falsetto when they sound “normal.”

In the Journal of Voice, researcher Todd Gibson wrote: “Vocal fry is a voice register often used by young adult women for sociolinguistic purposes. Some acoustic correlates of lexical stress, however, appear incompatible with the use of vocal fry.”

It’s often used at the end of sentences and sounds “croaky.”

Upspeak, on the other hand, is a sort of Valley Girl talk, where sentences tend to sound like questions.

The official Wikipedia definition is “The high rising terminal (HRT), also known as upspeak, is a feature of some variants of English where declarative sentence clauses end with a rising-pitch intonation, until the end of the sentence where a falling-pitch is applied.”

Some have argued that women adopt it to sound laid back and others have argued that it’s used to emphasize certain words and command respect.

The Kardashians, Zooey Deschanel, and Britney Spears are a few of the examples one can find under a Google search of what vocal fry sounds like. And for upspeak–simply Google the movie Clueless and there will be plentitude of upseaking.

“Listeners will continue to find reasons to dismiss women’s voices.” – Erin Riley, Writer & Historian

Nevertheless, it is a topic that grates at many.

This American Life (TAL) got so much hate mail about their female hosts who exhibited vocal fry and upspeak that they decided to do an entire segment covering this phenomenon.

“The growl in the woman’s voice was so annoying I had to turn it off,” wrote one complaining listener to TAL.

“Lately, every time I get together with female radio producers, it’s just like comparing war stories,” laments radio producer Stephanie Foo of TAL. “Somebody said that my voice sounded like driving on gravel,” she continues.

So what are you supposed to do if you’re a woman with a vocal fry? Shirk behind a bush, sink deeper into your office chair…?

Naomi Wolf, author and renowned feminist, thinks young women should abandon the vocal fry entirely and regain their power, aka voices.

In her opinion, the vocal fry undermines women, especially in the workplace.

In this Guardian article, Wolf mentions a law partner who can’t make out what young women with vocal fry are even talking about.

“Their constant uptalk means I am constantly having to reassure them: ‘uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.’ It’s exhausting,” he says.

Furthermore, Wolf argues that the vocal fry youngins are being held back from gaining respect in their respective professions due to their insistence on “tangling their steps and trivializing their important messages to the world.”

It is not proven, however, that young women are electing to speak this way. It may simply be their own natural tonality.

And asking someone to change their voice may not sound very empowering after all?

Many contend that the vocal fry stigma is a problem of the patriarchal standards set forth by society.

Erin Riley takes issue with Wolf’s assertion that women should change their voices. She argues that history shows there will always be vocal fries and that “the listeners will continue to find reasons to dismiss women’s voices.”

In fact, Riley believes the entire basis for vocal fry is yet another way to typecast and marginalize women, rather than actually listen to them.

And she may have a point. There is plenty of evidence that show that men also use vocal fry abundantly.

Yet no one is making a stink about that.

If anything, one could conclude that it’s a better time than ever to begin a dialogue, and perhaps even redefine, the public’s definitions of what it means to sound strong, resilient, or powerrrrrr(croak)fful.