For many of us, speaking comes as naturally as breathing. Our voice is a fundamental instrument in communication, but for many it can also be the subject of much criticism and policing. In this article, I explore the ways in which the voices of women and non-male individuals are criticsed in a way that cisgender men’s voices never are.
The way a voice sounds is primarily shaped by anatomy. We each have vocal folds in our larynx that vibrate when we push air through them. The pitch of your voice is determined by how fast your vocal folds vibrate. Although you can modulate pitch by tightening and loosening your vocal folds, which, in turn, makes your voice higher or lower, longer vocal folds generally vibrate slower than shorter ones. The longer your vocal folds are, the lower your voice is, and vice versa. The length of your vocal folds is typically considered a secondary sex characteristic (a physical feature related to biological sex that is not a reproductive organ). Those assigned male at birth tend to have longer vocal folds, and those assigned female tend to have shorter.
Although it has long been understood that biological sex and gender identity are discrete, social norms surrounding gender presentation treat the presence of secondary sex characteristics, such as the pitch of one’s voice, as an immediate marker of gender identity. Cisgender men with higher voices are labelled feminine, cisgender women with lower voices are labelled masculine, and trans people (particularly those who have not undergone hormone or vocal therapy) have their gender identities undermined due to their voice being the ‘wrong’ pitch. Furthermore, non-binary people are assigned gendered boxes based on the sound of their voice.
Using the anatomy of someone’s larynx to police their gender presentation is cruel and arbitrary, and it should not happen. Despite not having the scope to examine the full relationship between voice and gender, this article focuses on the gendered policing of women’s voices in contrast to men’s.
Women’s voices face much more scrutiny than men’s. This manifests in two ways. Firstly, high-pitched voices are criticised much more than low-pitched voices. There are a plethora of unpleasant descriptors applied to high-pitched voices — think shrill, screechy, shrieking — but few equivalents exist for lower voices.
Studies show that people trust deeper voices more, although it’s unclear how much of that trust is biologically programmed and how much is socially conditioned through being told that men are inherently better leaders. Female leaders like Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher changed the pitch of their voice drastically over the years they were in the public eye, with both rumoured to have taken professional coaching to deepen their voices. Despite this, their voices were still labelled ‘shrill’ and ‘grating’ significantly more than their male counterparts.
Secondly, women are further criticised for vocal features such as vocal fry. Vocal fry, or ‘creaky voice’, occurs when you relax your vocal folds while pushing air through them, slowing the vibration as much as you can, resulting in a raspy-sounding voice. Kim Kardashian is often pointed to as the poster child for vocal fry – most articles explaining what it is will feature a clip of her. It is lambasted as an annoying trait, with some critics (falsely) claiming that it ruins your voice and undermines how seriously you are taken. This is bizarre, as every single person, regardless of their gender, uses vocal fry in their everyday speech. Most of Matthew McConnaughey’s lines are delivered with vocal fry, and instead of being lampooned like Kim Kardashian, he is lauded for his sex appeal. In 2015, the podcast This American Life received an influx of hate mail towards female guests who spoke with vocal fry, despite the male host, Ira Glass, using vocal fry frequently throughout episodes. I haven’t even touched on vocal mannerisms such as uptalk (when you finish your sentences with rising intonation – something the Kardashians are also lambasted for, despite being a feature of most Australian accents) or filler words such as “like”, both being linguistic features that women are over-criticised for. The message seems clear: to be taken seriously, one must sound like a man.
Except, this isn’t true. Because when women modulate their voices to sound deeper, they are criticised further. Women with deep voices, like Elizabeth Holmes, are the subject of pernicious conspiracies about the authenticity of their tone. Both Thatcher and Clinton received criticism, from feminists and chauvinists alike, for purportedly deepening their voices over time. Artificially deepening voices has other effects: it makes it harder to employ a full range of intonation, as you can only deepen your voice so far. This leads to women like Clinton being criticised for being “monotone”. Deepening your voice also leads to vocal fry, ironically suspending women between criticisms for sounding too shrill or too vapid.
The fundamental problem is not that one must sound like a man to be taken seriously, it is that one must be a man to be taken seriously.
Gatekeeping which voices ought and ought not to be listened to is one of the most insidious tools of oppressive systems. Disguising this gatekeeping as legitimate linguistic criticism makes it even harder to detect and oppose. Voices should not determine the merit of what they are being used to say.
Be critical of those who dismiss others based on the length or mechanics of their vocal folds. And, perhaps most importantly, learn to love your voice just the way it sounds; what you say is so much more valuable than how you say it.