Vocal fry, uptalking, nasal: women's voices can never be "right"

15 years ago, uptalk was ruining women's speech; five years ago, it was vocal fry (with accompanying, science-free warnings about damage to the larynx and vocal apparatus); in the First Century BC, Romans used the term "Afrania" to refer to unpleasant women: the term was taken from Caia Afrania, the first woman to be allowed to speak before the Roman Senate (Valerius Maximus called it "unnatural yapping," a "bark," and a "constant harassment of the magistrate").

Today, Hillary Clinton is criticized because her voice is "like an ice pick" (Glenn Beck, CNN), then "robot-like" (Donald Trump), then the NYT announced that she'd switched to her "quieter-but-confident speaking voice."

Remember when This American Life ran a special highlighting all the hate-mail they got for their woman announcers' voices "vocal fry" (but Ira Glass, king of the fryers, never, ever, ever gets this complaint). Black women in the public eye -- Michelle Obama, NPR's Audie Cornish -- are accused of talking white.


In an excellent New Yorker story, Jordan Kisner says that some women do affect a vocal fry, but that's because when they use their own, higher voices, they're treated like lightweights, so vocal frying can be an attempt to masculinize their voices (though, of course, some women's voices just come out that way, for the same reason Ira Glass's does). Similarly, some women have said that uptalking is a kind of pre-emptive apology to the mansplainer who will inevitably jump down the speaker's throat as soon as she voices her opinion. Jazmine Hughes confesses that, even though she is black, "white" voices sound more authoritative "because white people are always the ones in command."

The most interesting part of it all is the way that women police other women's voices, which reflects their own anxiety and self-criticism. It's perhaps the most pathological element of the whole mess: that women turn on one another, but nothing they do, no amount of policing, will ever make their voices acceptable to men, because the problem isn't fry, uptalking, being "nasal" or "bitchy" -- it's that they're women, talking.


Ironically, vocal fry is an overcorrection for another female problem: a voice that’s too high. The first women I ever heard speaking with the telltale gravel weren’t reality TV stars like Kardashian but women in business. I noticed it while eavesdropping on a Lean In reading group meeting in a bookstore in Soho in 2011; every woman who spoke seemed to try to lower her voice farther than the last to sound more authoritative (read: more masculine). They sounded like a convention of jet engines. When I took a job in publishing, I heard the same affectation in conference rooms — voices lowered until they broke and dragged out, frazzled like a disaffected teenager’s. As I navigated my first sexist workplace, I occasionally dropped my own voice, hoping to sound less girlish and more worthy of serious consideration. I took care to find a timbre that suggested gravitas without veering into fry. It was the most practical application of my vocal training yet: playing a young woman someone might take seriously.

The comi-tragedy of this tactic is that after a point it backfires and makes you sound like an idiot. Critics of vocal fry often point to a study by Duke University’s business school indicating that vocal fry undermines the success of young women in the labor market. While an earlier study concluded that millennials associated fried voices with upward mobility and sophistication even though older adults found them “less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable,” the Duke study found that vocal fry was perceived negatively by everyone regardless of age. The demographic most irritated by vocal fry in younger women in their study, they added, was older women.


Can a Woman’s Voice Ever Be Right? [Jordan Kisner/New Yorker]


(via Skepchick)

(Image: Billie Holiday, PD)

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