Uptalk, Vocal Fry and the War On Women's Voices
by Alexander Jones | published Nov. 6th, 2015
At 13, Jesse Amesmith first learned how not to speak like a woman.
"I read an article in Cosmo or something that was like, '13 Ways To Drive Him Crazy in the Bedroom,' and one of the things it said was that men find high pitched noises in the bedroom to be annoying or a 'turn off,'" Amesmith said. "So, for a good few years of my young sexual life, I was terrified to make a noise that wasn't some sort of sultry low mumble, which at 15 or 16 is really awkward and strange."
Amesmith is currently the singer and guitarist of the Rochester-based punk band Green Dreams, which has amassed a substantial regional following in their still relatively brief existence (their first demo was released in 2012). Part of what makes Green Dreams stand out against its contemporaries is Amesmith's unflinching vocal support of modern feminist movements, which has made her a standout figure in the Rochester punk community. The road to Green Dreams was paved with countless moments of casual sexism due to Jesse's high vocal register, however.
"I remember wanting to sing in punk bands in high school and my guy friends who were in bands would say things like, 'Yeah, but like, you're a good singer. You can't sing in a punk band,'" Amesmith said.
The phenomenon Amesmith has been experiencing is far from recent. Criticizing and mocking the vocal inflections of women — particularly young women — has been a societal currency for a considerable amount of time. The age-old stereotypes of "valley girls," "ditzy blondes" and the "bossy woman" have been fodder for comedy bits and generational shaming for long enough that what their usage truly represents can be obscured.
Young women are often instructed to speak in a lower register over the phone in order to sound more authoritative and knowledgeable. Women constantly face criticism for engaging in "uptalk," which is sending one's sentences in a slightly higher register and a questioning intonation, despite there being no evidence that women utilize it more than men. A recent Onion article bore the headline "Girl Finally Speaking Up Enough For People To Critique Her Speaking Voice." It was a work of satire, but in a global society that has used women's voices as another avenue to police their actions, it felt particularly resonant.
Another speech trait that has been making headlines recently is "vocal fry," defined by NPR as "a tendency to draw out the end of words or sentences with a low, creaky voice." Despite vocal fry being largely pegged as a female-led vocal phenomenon, men are just as guilty of utilizing it. Ann Heppermann, producer of the Slate podcast "Culture Gabfest," recently put together a mashup of over a dozen examples of male vocal fry. On a recent episode of "This American Life," host Ira Glass was able to distinguish undeniable vocal fry in his own voice, but pointed out that he has never been made aware of it in the way that women are shamed for it.
"I get criticized for a lot of things in the emails to the show," Glass said. "No one has ever pointed this out."
"It makes me really angry," Stanford University linguistics professor Penny Eckart told NPR regarding vocal fry criticism. "And it makes me angry, first of all, because the biggest users of vocal fry traditionally have been men, and it still is — men in the U.K., for instance. And it's considered kind of a sign of hyper-masculinity … and by the same token, uptalk, it's clear that in some people's voices that has really become a style, but it has been around forever and people use it stylistically in a variety of ways — both men and women."
There is a concerning lack of hard psycholinguistic evidence supporting speech patterns like vocal fry and uptalk as female-led occurrences. There is, however, emerging research supporting the idea that women who speak with uptalk or vocal fry could find it more difficult to land a job.
There is, however, emerging research supporting the idea that women who speak with uptalk or vocal fry could find it more difficult to land a job.
A recent University of Miami study instructed 800 participants to listen to seven adult females between the ages of 19 and 27 years each speaking the phrase "thank you for considering me for this opportunity" in both a normal register and with vocal fry. The participants said that they would rather hire the speaker with the "normal voice" 80 percent of the time. Interestingly enough, the same participants were asked to listen to seven men of ages between 20 and 30 speaking the same phrase "normally" and with vocal fry, and the 80 percent result remained the same.
So what does research like this tell us about our persistent cultural phobia of the female voice? It shows us that both women and men face the same repercussions for having these vocal traits, despite women largely getting the blame for them. It also shows us, perhaps more significantly, that modern women are currently engaged in a zero-sum game in regards to how they choose to speak. If they speak with lower intonations, they are slammed with vocal fry allegations and lambasted as too "annoying" to listen to. If they allow their voices to drift into higher registers, they are lampooned as unintelligent — victims of the "uptalk" plague who can't possibly be taken seriously. If they speak "normally," they're often not heard at all.
Both women and men face the same repercussions for having these vocal traits, despite women largely getting the brunt of the backlash.
Language is an amorphous, constantly evolving communication medium. Simple vocal patterns like uptalk and vocal fry are hardly substantial indicators of one's intelligence, and the way they are laid at women's feet as something to answer for is a prime example of contemporary sexism.
"We can reject the knee-jerk habit of dismissing people for the sound of their voices without actually hearing what they have to say," Marybeth Seitz-Brown says in her article "Young Women Shouldn’t Have to Talk Like Men to Be Taken Seriously."
"And — rather than telling women to talk like men or shut up — we can encourage each other to celebrate the different rises and falls, the creaks and quakes that make up our voices."