We need to talk about feminism and vocal fry

Recently, there’s been much ado about “vocal fry,” a raspy, creaky sound that’s crept into speech patterns lately, particularly among young women. Last week, author Naomi Wolf published an article in The Guardian all about vocal fry, imploring women to abandon tics like vocal fry, breathiness, and upspeak (the pattern where every word rises at the end, like a question) in order to be taken more seriously in the work place. “The problem of young women’s voices is gaining new cultural visibility,” Wolf wrote, citing professors and business professionals who are irked by those tics. “We should not ask young women to put on fake voices or to alter essential parts of themselves. But in my experience of teaching voice to women for two decades, when a young woman is encouraged to own her power and is given basic skills in claiming her own voice then huge, good changes follow.”

Wolf is an important figure in the world of feminism, and her point was to urge young women to strengthen their voices in order to better compete and participate in a male-dominated society. But in doing so, she invited a significant backlash. Who says, after all, that women’s voices have a problem to begin with? Earlier this month, in New York, Anne Friedman wrote an article urging people to “get over the way women talk,” arguing that all the focus on “stop saying sorry” or eliminating vocal fry seems empowering, but is actually a form of policing the way that women speak.  “Are women the ones who need to change?” Friedman asked. “If I’m saying something intelligent and all a listener can hear is the way I’m saying it, whose problem is that?”

An NPR round-table on Fresh Air had a journalist, a speech pathologist, and a linguist discussing whether vocal fry and upspeak are indeed undermining women’s authority in the workplace and the classroom—or if they were just excuses not to take women’s voices seriously. Many men have similar vocal tics, but very rarely are those called into question. The focus on vocal fry, upspeak, and the use of certain words centers almost exclusively on women, so it’s hard not to read these criticisms as a subtle form of misogyny. The Guardian even ran a counterpoint to Wolf’s essay by Erin Riley, who argued “It is merely another excuse to dismiss, ignore and marginalize women’s voices, both literally and figuratively. And it’s just the latest in a long history of finding excuses not to listen to what women, especially young women, say.”

The clash here is not between anti-feminists and feminists. At its heart, the conflict over vocal fry is a clashing of feminist ideologies. Wolf’s opinion is that women are tripping themselves up in the workplace. “What is heartbreaking about the current trend for undermining female voice is that this is the most transformational generation of young women ever,” she laments. “They have absorbed a feminist analysis, and are skilled at seeing intersectionality – the workings of race, class and gender.”

It’s true that this generation of young women have the benefit of decades of feminist thought to build on. Wolf suggests that young women’s voices aren’t authoritative enough, and implies that they’re somehow squandering all the hard feminist work that came before them. But what’s really happening is a generational shift, both in feminism and in the workplace.

Certainly in some work environments, formal speech is still the operational language, and things like emoticons in emails and constant use of Internet slang won’t fly. But speech is adaptive, too. In many work environments now, for men and women, casual is the norm. No one tells Mark Zuckerberg he has to put on a suit to enter a room, or that he has to stop saying “like” to enter a boardroom.

The other shift is in the way that women understand what participation in the workplace means. It’s less about working to play by the rules already in place, and more about working to be understood on their own terms. As Roxane Gay explains so aptly in her essay Bad Feminist, it’s about acknowledging that women (and really, just people in general) are complicated beings, with often conflicting emotional desires, and rather than trying to correct the ways that women violate an ideal, we should acknowledge and embrace those contradictions. The body diversity and acceptance movement, for example, is a rejection of the idea that women’s bodies have to look or act a certain way in order to suit a particular model, one that favors a tiny range of body types and skin colors. Women’s bodies are not problems to be fixed; they are just how different bodies look.

The idea of tailoring your voice to suit the ears of people who might otherwise be annoyed by it seems similarly ridiculous. Voices come in all kinds of accents and tones and, like bodies, carry with them all the signs of who we are. The way you pronounce words or use slang terms connects you to a community. That’s not to say that people don’t adapt their speech in different situations—you probably speak differently to your grandmother than to your bestie—but the way you talk is part of your identity. So when Wolf asks women to cool it with the upspeak, it’s easy to see why that comes off less as a professional tip and more as an affront. She’s right that this generation of women are transformative, but where Wolf sees a problem, there’s actually progress. Women are pushing the conversation about equality forward—vocal fry and all.

(Image via iStock)


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