No, no it can't.
July 19, 2016 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Can a Woman’s Voice Ever Be Right? "From the Roman Forum to the 2016 campaign trail, anxiety over what women sound like is part of our cultural DNA."
posted by jenfullmoon (25 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent piece (and quoting Mary Beard is always a plus). The last three words are the tl;dr: "Just speak anyway."
posted by languagehat at 3:00 PM on July 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

I think young women, especially, have a hard time with this because they are so often on the forefront of social change and thus a target for society as a whole.
And yet, eventually their speech patterns become part of the mainstream (remember the uproar about "like" as a discourse marker? Now you hear it on the nightly news.) and pundits find something else to use as a proxy for culture wars.

Newscasters are a different beast though.
An acquaintance of mine (male) is a TV anchor and his normal voice is miles away from his "broadcast voice".
The broadcast voice is deeper pitched, slower, more sonorous because that is what we have been trained to expect from mainstream TV/radio announcers.

Modern NPR, puts more of a focus on "natural" or "live" voices along with mic'ing that emphasizes treble.
This can be somewhat jarring, especially when it is a younger reporter, and probably gets all kinds of ranting from people used to the local public radio style, where it literally sounds as if the host is falling asleep in the studio.

(Also, the voice of Ira Glass makes me immediately reach for the volume knob, even during a promo, but I've never written a letter to complain about it. Maybe I should so he doesn't feel left out. heh)
posted by madajb at 3:31 PM on July 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Jazmine Hughes confessed last year in the Hairpin that her confusion about her own voice comes from confusion about what kind of identity or authority she feels compelled to project into the world: “As much as I hate to admit it, unconsciously, white voices do sound somewhat more authoritative to me, because white people are always the ones in command,” she wrote.

Really good article, thanks for the post. This quote reminded me of a University professor talking about how we assign authority to other voices. She said in another class the students were doing small group projects, and one group was made up of four women and one man, and when it came time to choose who would narrate their presentation they chose the man. She asked them why they had picked him - not only was he the minority in terms of gender, but all the women were Northern Irish and he was English - and they realised that they just automatically felt he had the voice of authority. That probably made me question the assumption that male voices are the default in a way nothing had before, and it's always stayed with me.

(And suddenly I'm realising I'm hugely curious about what my fellow MeFites sound like. Apart from cortex, jessamyn and podcast guests, and one other person I've spoken to on the phone, I don't know anyone's voice except what I imagine them sounding like. Now I'm wondering why I think this person sounds like that and I'll be having a think about who I "hear" as having a "nice" voice or not and why that is and how many assumptions I've taken in after all.)
posted by billiebee at 3:47 PM on July 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I finished my BA a few years ago. Because I was a good ten years older than many of my classmates, I stuck out more than I would like. I didn't have problems asking questions about difficult subject matter, particularly in classes outside my major. Over time I noticed that many of the international students in my required courses would ask me for help with the lectures or would borrow my notes if they missed class. One day I asked one of the girls, why me? I'm much older and more marm-ish than the other kids who were in classes with us...why are you coming to me for help?

The answer was simple: "Because I could understand you."

Many of our classmates either had what I describe as the Becky From Calabasas accent, or they spoke with thick New England dialects.

I think about this a lot whenever I read discussions about women's voices being "policed". When I was six years old, my mom signed me up for elocution classes to help me shed a pronounced Boston accent. There were a lot of extenuating circumstances, some of which were personal and some social. I knew that a Boston accent sounded déclassé in 1983, and that words like "pissah" and "packie" (as in package store) were inappropriate for school, and I learned that how I talked to my mom was different than how I talked to my schoolteacher, how I talked to my teacher was different than how I talked to my friends, etc. One of the things that bothers me about the "young women are language innovators" line you sometimes hear is that not many young women have the kinds of relationships or boundaries that adults have, and that they don't always realize that slang or generational accents can make some communication challenging, and not in a way that suggests a patriarchal influence (eg, talking to non-English speakers).

The other thing that makes this discussion challenging is that the "young women are language innovators" line implies that young White women from affluent backgrounds are language "innovators". Many young, affluent White women appropriate language from AAVE and other marginalized dialects, but when they use that language it's considered "cute" and "mainstream". I think we need to look at how we engage with these studies and who is actually a "language innovator".
posted by pxe2000 at 4:33 PM on July 19, 2016 [11 favorites]

I took Latin in high school and college. The study of a dead Romance language taught me a love of run on sentences and an appreciation for how arbitrary language evolves.

I'm comfortable with the assertion that "young women are language innovators" line. It's problematic, but that's because society is problematic. Young white affluent women are at an intersection where they have enough privilege they can influence society, yet marginalized enough to identify with and mimic minority culture. People with more privilege are less likely to change language, people with less privilege are less likely to get people to adopt their language.

This is where I struggle with critiques of appropriation. I keep thinking about Miley Cyrus and twerking. Because of her privilege, she was able to minimize the policing of twerking. It became less vulgar and sexualized, because it was suddenly divorced from simply being a black thing. Not that policing women's bodies disappeared. We police young white women plenty. But we police them far less than young black women.

Appropriation is a symptom of our racist society. So I see the value in recognizing it. But the problem isn't appropriating other marginalized groups. It's that our patriarchal society couldn't see the value in minority culture until it's given a more acceptable face
posted by politikitty at 7:00 PM on July 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is personal to me because I've been told, a lot in the last few years since I got forced to work public service, that my natural voice sounds "rude and mean and like I don't want to help you." (All women are saying this, btw. No comments from the mens.) I actively have been femming it up more, being Super Cheerful and Perky! Then I get bitched out for being high pitched and fake, but it's less awful critiquing than I get for when I speak like myself, which as far as I'm concerned I will never do again while working the counter or answering the phone. I've had people literally rip the phone out of my hand to leave my voice mail message because they can't stand my voice. Even my shrink thinks I should get voice lessons--except unlike the acting class mentioned in this article, I can't find anyone willing to teach this to me. No matter what I do, I can't win.

Of course, I suspect it's being female that's what I'm doing wrong. I strongly suspect the people in my office who get their way are either the loudest or, let's face it, deep voiced males because our office is probably 80% women. I know damned well people aren't going to listen to me about anything because I'm female, so why try.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:37 PM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think also of how men's voices are naturally louder than women's, so they interrupt without anyone noticing - whereas a woman speaking loudly (even just trying to speak over an interruption) is heard as interrupting.
posted by anshuman at 7:59 PM on July 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

there are many young black women who are language innovators.

this is an effect within speech communities, and we're still pretty segregated. young black women are probably equally as innovative, but mainstream white culture doesn't take much notice of their innovations until some white people start using them.

or in other words, it doesn't just count as an "innovation" once white people become aware of it, or once it becomes part of the white "standard."

there's nothing about the statement that young women are language innovators that should leave black women out, but as long as we're neglectful and ignorant about black language use, it will seem that way.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:46 PM on July 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

Many charming and useful features of English as she is spoke were pioneered by women, nonwhites (anglophone and otherwise) and/or juniors before they were accepted by the locally dominant speakers. Also, for reasons that can be summarised (inadequately) by "the patriarchy", any woman is at a disadvantage to any man when it comes to sounding authoritative. IMAO both these things are beyond dispute.

I don't think women have to find the "right" voice. They mainly need to make sure their voices are heard, often enough, on a wide enough range of topics, to make the female voice a "normal" thing for any topic. Since women make up about half of the human race, I believe that is doable, though not easy. But real minorities, and people speaking the local dominant language as a second language, will always have a harder time because wherever you are, whoever you are, you will sound odd to the dominant speakers, and you will be judged for it.

When I was growing up, the "default" font for serious literary or journalistic publishing was a serif font. Sans serif was OK for headings, artsy stuff and short blurbs, but serif ruled, and seemed eternal. Now, aided by its adoption for computer publications and displays, sans serif is accepted everywhere and is often the default font. The sans serif fonts didn't change, people's perceptions of their acceptability for serious use changed. But using a script font is still a fringe thing and probably will remain so.

That said, anyone who wants to explain, persuade or inform others needs to learn how to control and use their voice. If you're a white dude with a degree then you currently start on first or second base, but someone else who knows their stuff yet who also knows how to modulate their voice and pace their delivery will slaughter you in getting their meaning across, even if they are a woman, or black. If u kant do it rite u lose.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 10:41 PM on July 19, 2016

my natural voice sounds "rude and mean and like I don't want to help you."

Wow, you get this too? And from women! Egads I love this site for feeling less isolated. It took me a while before I noticed the context to these remarks – one of the perqs of getting older.

Contexts (I would love to hear from other women):
Growing up/school: "You have such a calm, intelligent voice!" (I was top of my class, so *shrug*)
University: "You're so soft-spoken! I wish you'd talk more."
Adult personal life in general: "So quiet and calm."
Adult working life before I became a manager: "Your voice is very peaceful."
Adult working life in managerial and negotiation contexts (in which I use the same poise and restraint, because hey that's been my way since forever): "Your voice is rude and mean!!!" Only women say this. I haven't figured out reasons why yet, though the obvious root is probably internalized sexism (i.e. something like "omg how can you do this thing we're taught never to do"). Men tend to phrase it in terms of "you're too direct," but when push came to shove, every single one of my managers agreed I'm a strong negotiator. (This was a thing that happened recently.)
Adult personal life when asking for things: "I don't like your tone!!!"
Adult personal life when talking with friends, which includes things that make me frustrated/angry: "You're so quiet, you should say more."


Meanwhile, loud deep-voiced male managers who shout at people regularly, use outright insults on occasion (I have honest-to-god witnessed "fuck you!" in meetings), and everyone overhears it: "They're so authoritative."

Anyway yeah, re: the article's takeaway. Yet another perq of getting older. It's like, if nearly everything we do is wrong/not good enough, then what's stopping us from doing whatever we want? Muhaha. We already know what reaction we'll get! Wheeheehee.
posted by fraula at 1:59 AM on July 20, 2016 [8 favorites]

I say that "young, affluent White women are seen as language ~innovators" because whenever someone says that, they cite young, affluent White/perceived as White media personalities like Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and whichever member of the extended Kardashian/Jenner clan is in the news this week. Someone like Peaches Monroe, a Black woman who either created or popularized the phrase "on fleek", rarely if ever gets mentioned as a language "innovator", in spite of the fact that you can trace Becky from Calabasas's favorite phrase of last year directly to her Vine. Young, affluent White women have popularized words like "bae" and "fam" in the mainstream, almost all of which can be traced back to Black culture.

The focus on speech patterns of young, affluent White women at the expense of the Black women who are actually innovating the language reflects a larger problem with how we interact with the idea of the young, affluent White woman. The most protected class in America is the young, affluent White woman, and because of their protection they rarely want to examine their privilege. Those of us who don't come from that background have to work twice as hard for scraps at the table. (I say this as a working-class White woman, and many of my WOC friends talk about having to deal with things I've never experienced.) Hearing the "[young, affluent White] women are language innovators!" line get trotted out reminds many of us that we could never get away with the behavior or speech patterns that are "cute" or "innovative" coming from a Becky from Calabasas type.

As a side note, I really hate the word "innovator" in this context. Innovation implies positive change, and we don't know in this moment whether these changes will be positive or not.
posted by pxe2000 at 4:09 AM on July 20, 2016

I can't even tell you how many times my husband has thrown me a cold shoulder for sounding "rude" when I have NO IDEA that's what has happened.

He is generally very quiet, from a "guess culture" I guess, and is anti-yell.

My family is huge, definitely "ask culture," Italian, and only speaks in yelling and gesticulations.

Case in point: Last night I show him a video of Beyoncé on my phone and he goes, "Who is that?"

I answer in (what I think is) the most appropriate way, which is to exclaim, loudly, "WHAT? THATS BEYONCE!"

And poor fellow looked like I had slapped him in the face. I had to apologize....?
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:47 AM on July 20, 2016

I don't entirely understand how this is an article about young, white women from affluent backgrounds, to be honest. I don't think that This American Life producer Stephanie Foo (“Somebody said I sounded like a stoner 13-year-old,” producer Stephanie Foo reported on a This American Life segment about the hate mail the show receives regarding its female producers’ vocal fry") is a young, white woman from an affluent background. She's a pretty prominent advocate for diversity in public radio who describes herself as Malaysian Chinese-American and as an immigrant who grew up in an immigrant community. And here's a This American Life story in which she discusses her childhood, which I guess is one of the stories in which her voice is so awful and unacceptable. (She mostly speaks in her usual voice, but there's a part of it when she talks with an older relative in what she calls Manglish, which is a fusion of English and Malaysian. Also, it probably needs a content warning for child abuse.)

This article is, I think, part of a larger discussion about privilege and voice, which mostly seems to be going on at NPR. The conversation is very much about race and class, as well as gender.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:58 AM on July 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

> As a side note, I really hate the word "innovator" in this context. Innovation implies positive change, and we don't know in this moment whether these changes will be positive or not.

I suspect you're getting that implication from current business jargon; I promise you that when linguists talk about innovators and innovation, there is zero implication of positive change (not least because linguists don't believe language change is either positive or negative—it just is).

> I don't think women have to find the "right" voice. They mainly need to make sure their voices are heard, often enough, on a wide enough range of topics, to make the female voice a "normal" thing for any topic.

Yes, exactly. I confess that I, having grown up in the unbelievably sexist '50s and '60s, had a hard time taking things said by female voices in public seriously, but years of hearing more and more women in public positions (politicians, newscasters, etc.) have pretty much done away with that. (Same with black-sounding voices.) I'm quite sure my grandkids would be surprised to learn that anyone has that kind of problem with women's voices.
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on July 20, 2016 [6 favorites]

I experienced this just this morning. I went to a worship service led by one of the candidates for president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and was initially turned off. Her tone had that quality I associate with forced cheeriness (like Allison on Orphan Black), and so I deemed her much less serious and effective than the candidate I heard preach yesterday (another woman, but with a more traditionally ministerial affect). She'd also chosen a theme I felt was pretty cliché: hands and the work they do. But I stuck around and she started talking about the work she was doing with BLM and police reform, and wrapped it up by showing us how one of her hands is disabled and the difference that makes and does not make. By the time she put up the video of all the things the hands of our community do, I was openly weeping. So let me eat my plate of crow here and try to remember not to judge people by how they sound, and to constantly be aware that I'm programmed to do so even when I'm trying not to.
posted by rikschell at 8:48 AM on July 20, 2016 [8 favorites]

Anyone else never expressed an opinion about someone's voice to them in their entire life?

As long as I can communicate with you, I don't care what your voice sounds like.
posted by Temerit at 12:58 PM on July 20, 2016

The focus on speech patterns of young, affluent White women at the expense of the Black women who are actually innovating the language reflects a larger problem with how we interact with the idea of the young, affluent White woman.

Language evolution is colonialization. It will be the outsiders who introduce something new. English evolved because Rome conquered other civilizations. But those civilizations didn't get a say in what parts of their language were picked up by the Romans.

I understand wanting to avoid the erasure of the contributions of minority culture. But that's about the etymology and history. The evolution of language is inherently about the gatekeepers. The ones who have enough privilege they can buck norms and influence change*.

When black people innovate language it becomes a separate dialect. It becomes something that is not Standard English because we have used it as a marker to reinforce the racism embedded in this country.

*And this fascinates me. Because language is more democratic than democracy. The gatekeepers of language are privileged. But less privileged than the gatekeepers of financial or political power. But it's still made up of people, and will reflect the racism of our society until we end it.
posted by politikitty at 1:01 PM on July 20, 2016

I don't understand what you think your comments have to do with the article, politikitty.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:19 PM on July 20, 2016

Can a Woman’s Voice Ever Be Right? Yes they can. Just watched this the other day: Brie Larson, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Charlotte Rampling, Kate Winslet, Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren, and Carey Mulligan on THR's Roundtables | Oscars 2016 in which women are asked intelligent, non-agressive questions on topics that they're familiar with and they're allowed to respond in full. All have different voices, and there's nothing wrong with any of them because they're not fighting to be heard over the sounds of a (usually male) pundit calling them out on how they look or what they're saying or what they're wearing.
posted by Zack_Replica at 2:06 PM on July 20, 2016

"It's like, if nearly everything we do is wrong/not good enough, then what's stopping us from doing whatever we want? Muhaha. We already know what reaction we'll get! Wheeheehee."

I'd love this idea, except people are straight up punishing me/making me suffer/getting me in trouble for not pleasing them enough in how I speak and communicate. It's actually hurt me financially. I can't afford to not please people, both financially and for my own safety and security in life. It's just frustrating to know I can't possibly get it right, but if I don't, the consequences are high.

(For the record, they've somewhat backed off recently due to external changes happening at my job that mean I am directly serving the public less and theoretically may get to stop doing it entirely by 2017. But if that wasn't happening, I am sure I'd still be in whopping trouble all the time.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:45 PM on July 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

When black people innovate language it becomes a separate dialect.

I think this is the wrong way to put it. It treats what White people do as "language" and what Black people do as "dialect" of that language--that is, it makes Black English subordinate to White English.

But neither is subordinate to the other. They're simply two closely related language varieties, neither a dialect of the other. When a young Black woman popularizes a new term within her Black community, this is just as much language change as when it happens within a White community.

I think what rubs me wrong about your comment is how it treats social perceptions as equal to the truth. When it comes to sociolinguistic status, it's certainly true that Black English is seen as inferior or subordinate to White English. But linguistically speaking, they are equal.

I'm also not sure what it means to say that language change is colonization. It is very hard to fit this statement to what I know is true about language change--e.g. to the young Black woman popularizing a term, to the spread of lexical tone distinctions from South Korean women to South Korean men, etc.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:06 PM on July 20, 2016

I really wanted to talk about how the article made me feel as a trans women who spent thousands of hours working on my voice, but it turned out to be too big a topic for me to tackle right now. The double-binds are layered on top of each other, between sounding feminine and being respected, between passing for survival and erasing my queer identity, between authenticity and using different voices in different situations. It's a lot to unpack. I'll definitely be coming back to this when I've got the time and energy. Thanks, jenfullmoon.

I very much appreciate that the article included trans perspectives. God, Kim Kardashian, though, I never had a problem with her before, but I can't get over the cruelty she leveled at Caitlyn; it makes my skin crawl.
posted by WCWedin at 7:25 AM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

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