A girl in her early twenties was on the phone to her mother. She wanted her mother to ease her worries over a job interview the next day. This is what I heard from the girl:
“Yeah, I mean, I write okay, but when it comes to interviews, like, I can’t do it. They think I’m dumb when I speak. It’s not, like, what I say. I just have dumb girl voice.”
Dumb. Girl. Voice.
I wish I didn’t know exactly what she was talking about. I wish, heartily, that I myself had not mocked women who speak with this particular pattern of elevated pitch and drawn-out vowels. It’s been far too long since I studied voice to be able to accurately describe exactly what I’m talking about, so here is Louis CK’s impression of it. And here is Iliza Schlesinger with her version of it, starting at the 1:50 mark.
One reason I have mocked this voice is because I thought it a choice. I thought women who chose dumb girl voice wanted to be perceived as dumb, largely because they believed (whether correctly or not) that being dumb is what would attract most men.
I don’t know. I don’t know why I interpret this particular voice as dumb girl voice. I don’t know if women choose this voice, or if it is natural occurrence, or if it is a choice for some women and a natural state for others.
If it is sometimes a choice, well, we all mimic the behaviors of the social groups to which we want to belong, whether that desire is for professional success, community status, romantic love, friendship…. So maybe there are women who note that this voice is the voice used by a social group to which they want to belong (for whatever reasons), and so they adapt their own voice to match this one.
I am no stranger to adapting my voice in order to gain acceptance by certain groups. In its natural state, my pitch sits at a pretty low register. I often joke by calling it my “man voice.” In my daily life, without conscious thought, I raise my pitch most of the time. My voice is more generic this way. Easier to digest. People don’t focus or comment on it, and therefore do not focus or comment on my physical person, which is something I avoid as much as possible. When I don’t make a conscious effort to recapture my natural pitch in the privacy of my own company, I can go weeks, if not months, without actually speaking in my natural pitch.
But I never raise it too high. And this is not only because it would probably hurt, but also because I recognize that lower voices, more masculine voices, tend to garner more respect. This was solidified for me when, while portraying a naïve young girl in a play, I was told that I needed to raise my voice about half an octave or people were going to think my character too mature and intelligent.
After being slammed around in the political realm, Margaret Thatcher worked with a theatrical voice coach to lower her pitch. What we now think of as her natural voice is actually the product of hard work and careful design, a design that sought to portray her as more masculine, and therefore more capable of effective leadership.
If, somehow, one were able to not know anything about either Nico or Taylor Swift, and if, somehow, we were able to record Nico singing Swift’s songs and Swift singing Nico’s songs, I imagine the perception would still be that Nico was a far more complex, interesting, mature, experienced human than Taylor Swift. (Which might or might not be true. The point is that we should be judging on content and style and composition. Not vocal register.)
One could (and many people do) argue that a person’s experience and knowledge and depth is expressed through his or her voice, and that this is why Nico’s voice is lower and richer than Taylor Swift’s voice.
But if we say that deeper voices equal more experience, more knowledge, more maturity….then aren’t we saying that most men are more experienced, more knowledgeable, more mature, than most women? And just to be clear that I am discussing gender more than sex, isn’t this saying that men with effeminate voices are less these things than those with masculine ones?
Look, maybe there are women who adopt Dumb Girl Voice with the intention of being perceived as dumb. Maybe they prefer (for whatever reasons) to be perceived as this.
But what if some people naturally speak in this manner? Or at least in some range near it? What of this young girl I overheard on the phone, who doesn’t think she can get a job because of what she sounds like? Is that on her? Should she, like Margaret Thatcher, train her voice to be something different?
Are we really comfortable saying that people who want to be respected should alter themselves to be more masculine?
When we say Dumb Girl Voice,
what if what we’re really saying is
girl voices are dumb?
This post does not in any way explore all of the problems inherent in judging a person’s value and capability based on what we perceive to be inscribed in his or her physical voice. There are issues of class and race and region and a great many others. I hope to get to those at some point as well.
I also want to also discuss how the perception of masculine and feminine voices in written form can lead to either acceptance or dismissal by various groups, though there are people who have written on such things before, and their work is much more thorough and compelling than anything at which I could possibly arrive.
I guess what I am saying is that there is more to say on this matter, and that I hope to add my voice to those saying it.
Also, there is this amazing project called Voicing Gender that everyone interested in such things should check out.
Image taken from here.