A lot has been written about vocal fry over the past few weeks. Most of these articles are made up of the same parts. First, they start things off with some Valley Girl/Kardashian joke. Then, they interview some linguist about the history of the speech pattern. And then comes the avalanche of judgment, mostly informed by what white men in positions of power think of the way some women speak (spoiler: these men think it's annoying and want these women to speak differently or shut up).
Yesterday, Naomi Wolf, author of seminal feminist text The Beauty Myth, was trending for something she wrote for The Guardian on this issue. I was excited for a voice of reason to enter the conversation. But then I read the headline: "Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice." Et tu, Naomi Wolf? It didn't get much better from there.
The sub-header calls vocal fry a "destructive speech pattern." And Wolf carries that message home by focusing on studies that brand women with vocal fry as "less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable." She mentions that women don't use declarative sentences, don't sound confident enough, allow uptick to undersell their authority, etc. Notice a trend? Wolf places all the emphasis on what women are doing "wrong," while turning a blind eye to the real story here: the ease with which men feel at liberty to police, ridicule and shame women's behavior.
I believe Wolf when she says that, for some (*cough* old white dudes *cough*), vocal fry, uptick or the word "like" might come across as insecure or unprofessional. But it's irresponsible to pass these opinions off as a mandate on a marginalized group. Instead of writing an essay about how men should quit imposing behavioral expectations on women (you should smile more, you should wear pants, you should only breastfeed in private, you should talk like this), Wolf's essay spends all of its time putting the onus on young women and pleads with them to get some voice lessons so they can succeed and fit in with the men who disdain their mannerisms.
This approach might seem familiar because it's the same framework that crops up in discussions of rape. The focus falls on how girls and women can change the way they dress and act to lessen the chances of sexual assault, instead of on how we can teach boys and men to not sexually assault.
Haven't women spent enough time following rules made by men? And why the gendering of vocal fry? Men do it too, as this segment from Culture Gabfest attests:
But we don't get long essays about things men do wrong. Our culture is too busy picking women apart. We've become so good at it. So it's not a reach to assume that the uncertain uptick or the qualifying "like" could be consequences of a culture in which women—and what they have to say—aren't always valued, especially in professional settings.
Some people define the sound of professionalism based on what they've heard on the nightly news or NPR for years. A buttoned-up, serious white male tone. Those who don't naturally fit into that vocal category feel the need to conform. NPR's Gene Demby started Code Switch, a blog about race, ethnicity and culture based on the practice of slipping into a "more acceptable" speech pattern to be taken seriously.
And if one doesn't conform, he/mostly she is ridiculed. The reviews section for NPR's Invisibilia is riddled with complaints about host Alix Spiegel's vocal fry. For these people, anything insightful Spiegel contributes is cancelled out by her delivery.
In an essay titled "Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?," Ann Friedman discusses getting criticism from listeners of her podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, and the negative impact of trying to cater to these detractors:
"It quickly became apparent that if we were to take the advice of all of our detractors — carefully enunciating, limiting our likes, moderating our tone to avoid vocal fry — our podcast would sound very different. It would be stripped of its cadence and its meaning; it would lose the casual, friendly tone we wanted it to have and its special feeling of intimacy. It wouldn’t be ours anymore."
Jessica Grose, a cohost of the Slate podcast, the DoubleX Gabfest, echoed this sentiment on Fresh Air, when discussing how she employed a vocal coach to change her voice after receiving similar criticism:
"I felt like it was blunting my emotional range. I felt when I was self-conscious about my voice it lost that expressive, connective quality ... There was something lost when I wasn't being myself, whatever that is."
Like Friedman and Grose, I've also received this same kind of feedback about a podcast project I've been working on. Say "like" less. Get rid of the uptick. Be more authoritative. The next time I went into the studio, I was so focused on these notes, on excising the bits of personal flair in my normal speech that I felt like a robot, like someone else. The authenticity was gone. Pretending to be someone you're not isn't healthy, especially if it's to please others or fit into a mold that makes someone else feel more comfortable. As someone who spent all of high school in the closet, I know how damaging that can be firsthand.
But times are changing. Women, people of color, gay and trans people are finding themselves with a seat at the table, after being excluded or relegated to the token role for so long. And with that culture shift, the voices present are bound to vary. This threatens the status quo and inspires the kind of derisive comments on vocal fry that Wolf so prominently highlights in her piece. It's the sound of people accustomed to having the upper hand struggling against change, which is far more annoying to the ear than vocal fry could ever be.