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.