July brought us yet another charming turd from Naomi Wolf, self-appointed arbiter of modern feminism — and source of much frustration to political and cultural critic Naomi Klein, who has to remind everyone that she’s not the same person every time Wolf says something irritating. Wolf informed readers that women need to alter their voices to eliminate vocal fry and ‘reclaim their strong female voices.’ What was interesting about this column, though, was what happened next. Usually when Naomi Wolf pisses everyone off there’s sort of a collective sigh of irritation and a ripple across social media, but this time, people fought back: Viciously, and articulately.
First, a word on vocal fry, for those not familiar with the phenomenon. It’s characterised by a creaky, popping, almost bubbling sound at the lower register of the speaker’s range, slightly elongated speech, a sort of grumbliness. It’s common among women, and women are frequently told that it undermines their authority or makes their voices sound ‘annoying.’ A related phenomenon, uptalk, involves talking like every sentence is a question? Likewise, women are accused of making themselves appear weak or shy by using uptalk. Other mannerisms, like inserting ‘like’ and other interjections into sentences, are similarly criticised. Women, evidently, need to speak crisply and clearly with perfect enunciation in order to be taken seriously.
Not that long ago, I observed many self-identified feminists agreeing with Wolf — women should stop undermining themselves by speaking in cutesy, affected ways. ‘The less charitable refer to it privately as painfully nasal, and to young women in conversation sounding like ducks quacking,’ Wolf wrote, echoing the notion that women’s voices are ‘annoying.’ She went on to refer to women’s voices as a ‘problem’ that needed to be solved, rather than simply the way that some women speak — and she certainly didn’t acknowledge the linguistic phenomenon involved in the evolution of a very specific kind of female voice, an issue linguist Debbie Cameron addressed in a response to Wolf’s piece.
In a counterpoint Guardian piece, Erin Riley nailed Wolf to the wall, pointing out what was really going on with her commentary: Service to the patriarchy and the notion not just that women should alter their voices to please men, but that really women should be silent altogether. Riley noted that dislike of women’s voices has torpedoed careers, but that the issue was less about how they spoke than the fact that they were speaking at all. At KQED, Emmanuel Hapsis added to the conversation, saying that: ‘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.’
It isn’t the first time Wolf has been, appropriately, accused of victim blaming.
Responses to her piece also didn’t stop there. At the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, Lior Zaltzman had sharp words for Wolf: ‘If you find vocal fry irritating in women, and only in women, then it’s something you should ask yourself about.’
Women are systematically and completely policed in modern culture, expected to dress, act, and talk in very specific ways to please society at large. Some of that policing has come from communities that claim to be advocating with and for women — like feminists who attack women with ‘annoying’ voices while neatly ignoring the gendered implications of what they’re saying. Like many of the people responding to Wolf’s essay, I freely admit that I find some kinds of voices and accents grating, but that’s my problem, not that of the people who are speaking. Arguing that someone should alter their voice to please me is ludicrous, and we should be focusing on how accents and speech patterns affect opportunities — how simply answering the phone with the wrong accent can make or break a job interview, for example, and how some communities use codeswitching depending on where they are. As a codeswitcher myself, I’m well aware of the social pressures put on people to present the voices other people want them to have.
Wolf’s column didn’t add to the complicated body of work and analysis on the subject of women’s voices and how the public interacts with women. Instead, it exhorted women to alter a key component of their identities in order to satisfy men around them — women with vocal fry, she informed us, are losing out on job opportunities, losing respect in academic, having trouble being heard. Whose fault is that, though?
Given the way that criticism of vocal fry has been welcomed in the past, it was really heartening for me to see people pushing back, hard, against Wolf’s column and the notion that women are responsible for the way other people react to their voices. It highlighted the fact that social attitudes can change, and that responses to advocacy can also shift. While it’s not likely to make Wolf more circumspect about spewing hateful and ignorant opinions in the future — and it certainly won’t dissuade publications from running her work — it does lay the groundwork for direct challenges, rather than expressions of quiet irritation, when Wolf and those like her undermine the very work of the doctrine they claim to espouse.
I still don’t identify as a feminist and likely never will, but as an outsider, watching the shifts within feminism has been highly revealing. Wolf and her ilk are beginning to experience a slow rejection as the face of mainstream feminism thanks to those working within the movement to change that, and it makes me very, very happy.
Image: Close Candid, Garry Knight, Flickr