Sounding Stupid: Vocal Fry and Girl Talk

Why does everyone keeps warning girls to stop speaking with vocal fry, or else you’ll “sound stupid.” But like, says who?! By Kristen Cochrane.

**Note: This article was originally published in August, 2015, but it feels even more relevant today: Recently, the internet became fixated on Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, who reportedly used a fake deep voice to sound more authoritative. And female podcasters are constantly getting shit for how their vocal fry is “annoying” (shout out Red Scare). What a troll! 

Main image from Gregg Araki’s “Nowhere.”

According to the internet, if you’re a girl who speaks with vocal fry, you’re unequivocally moronic or irrelevant. You know vocal fry: that creaky, low voice register that recalls Nicole Richie, Britney Spears, and the Kardashian sisters, among many others. Our Thinkpiece Generation (ironic, as I write one) has been churning out articles on this social phenomena for a few years now. But this contentious debate was re-ignited by Naomi Wolf’s recent cri de coeur in the Guardian, the headline of which urged women to “give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice.”

But first, you may still be confused about what vocal fry really is. For linguists, there are three vocal registers: falsetto (The Bee Gees sang like this), modal (what is generally considered “natural”), and fry (think how Britney Spears sings, so basically amazing, unless you’re a classically-trained musician, in which case you probably have a different opinion). Part of the debate around vocal fry has been that men also use it, especially in Australia (at least in the English language), and This American Life’s Ira Glass has even claimed to use it, but he doesn’t get condemned for it. Yet when women use it, they’re idiots. So is it a double standard?

With this in mind, it’s hard to believe that Naomi Wolf, the prolific author and a significant presence in post-second wave feminism, means to do what she has done with this op-ed, which is effectively a call to police other women on vocal iterations. Maybe the piece was poorly thought-out, or maybe Wolf remained unaware of the various ironies present in her tirade against a very complicated social and linguistic phenomenon.

Following the introductory paragraphs, Wolf uses the argument that men find vocal fry annoying, which is usually a uniting principle that feminists, despite ideological fragmentation, attempt to reject. When one thinks of a feminist, whether you are a radical feminist, liberal feminist, or Marxist feminist, it is safe to assume that you do not avoid doing things lest it offend men or male sensibilities (because women can embody male sensibilities, as Ariel Levy pointed out in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs). In other words, if you call yourself a feminist, you are not trying to please men by talking the way they want you to talk. Without fail, Wolf’s attempt to compel women to self-police a behavior or a repeated performance is precisely what anti-patriarchal consciousness has attempted to remedy.

But here’s the thing that a lot of the commentaries and thinkpieces on this subject are omitting: we have been taught to use vocal fry. In a half-awake daze one night I thought about the seminal Canadian media studies scholar Marshall McLuhan and his cryptic adage, “the media is the message,” which generally refers to the importance of a medium itself in conditioning how we socialize. Then, after reading about some Kardashian drama, and seeing a photo of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian looking like the Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette of 2015 in their adroitly hemmed Balmain ensembles, I realized, “the media is the monarchy.” Media personalities, right now, are our version of the twisted pre-French Revolution monarchy. Not only are Kanye and Kim simultaneously revered and reviled, but we seem to know everything about them. We are even dressing like them, with this bodycon dress and thick eyebrow trend dominating our aesthetic sensibilities. Kanye and the Kardashians are arguably beautiful, symbolizing the vast wealth and gluttonous lifestyle that contrasts a world that media critics have argued is close to revolution and revolt. Whether we get angry at how unjust this is or not, it cannot be denied that people like the Kardashians hold a serious role in our cultural consciousness. And like the Valley Girl phenomenon, it is obvious that we have begun to mimic how they (and one another) speak.

Here are some important arguments on the vocal fry debate, because at this point the debate is too live to make a definitive statement on what vocal fry means for us, or whether we should stop using it.

1) Vocal fry is not gendered, but rather a generational divide

There are so many things that preceding generations see as “ridiculous”, and this linguistic tendency has become one of them, so goes this argument. Proponents of this argument think that it’s not sexist to tell people to stop using vocal fry, but that it does make us sound stupid (for some reason). Bob Garfield, of the media criticism radio show On the Media over at NPR, thinks that vocal fry is “vulgar,” “repulsive,” “mindless,” and “annoying.”

OK, but this likely strikes most women as suspicious given that these words are often used to describe women with behaviors that deviate from traditional gender roles, like the “annoying” woman with opinions, the “mindless” woman who simply lacks intelligence, the “vulgar” woman who makes bawdy jokes, or the “repulsive” woman who has sex outside of marriage. These traits are also tied to masculinity, which leads to the next argument.

2) Vocal fry is just an imitation of a masculine voice

This makes a lot of sense when we think about the psychological school of thought known as behaviorism, through which we can parallel vocal fry with certain animal behaviors. Dr. Reena Gupta cites the Journal of Voice study that posits the higher frequency of women using vocal fry than men. Unless you’ve been living in something like M. Night Shyamalan’s commune in The Village, you are probably aware that women today often face belittlement and aren’t taken as seriously as men. Therefore, this theory, in Dr. Gupta’s words, claims that “because the male voice is perceived as being authoritative, perhaps that is why women are emulating it. It may even be subconscious.”

Alternatively, we can think of uptalk, or rising intonation, and so-called “baby talk” that tends to precede the inflection to vocal fry, as a parallel behavior of distraction display in animals. Many species use distraction display to feign injury, like birds that pretend to limp when a human is present so that they distract you from their nest. The Kardashians, for example, probably have some of the strongest business acumen in the world (yeah, yeah, sextape, but she’s also a multi-millionaire in her own right). So, in a really big way, Kim Kardashian and her brethren are the limping bird, pretending to lead you away while they amass millions.

Some helpful info on vocal fry, albeit from Fox News (sorry)

3) The old, white boys club is freaking out because women are being clever

The Atlantic once weighed in on the vocal fry debate a handful of years ago, with American journalist and linguistics graduate Gabriel Arana claiming that “women have long tended to be the linguistic innovators.” This becomes obvious when we think of the Valley Girl phenomenon, introduced to public parlance with Frank Zappa’s musical commentary on the uptalking girls from California’s San Fernando Valley. The Valley Girl-esque use of rising intonation as opposed to declarative sentences is, like vocal fry, associated with women and stupidity. But in an article by The New York Times’ Jan Hoffman, the “myth of the Valley Girl” is debunked.” Hoffman asked the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Mark Liberman about uptalk and found that, like vocal fry, it’s considered to be aggressive. For Dr. Liberman, Hoffman writes that “rather than suggesting insecurity, [uptalk] may in fact signal confidence, paternalism, coercion or faux conviviality.”

Since we’ve (hopefully) all seen it, I’ll reference Mean Girls. “The plastics”—aka Regina George, Gretchen Wieners, and Karen Smith—are socially dominant. Cady Heron is a lower-ranking person, at least at the onset of the film. Have you noticed how the plastics speak? It’s uptalk. Since art imitates life and whatever, this is a real thing that has been empirically observed—especially if you went to high school in the past fifteen years. In that Atlantic article, though, Gabriel Arana says that “the standard practice for linguists conducting research on a new language is to find a “NORM”—a non-mobile, older, rural male.” So literally an old, white dude. Apparently, “NORMs are the most conservative linguistically, and typically serve as a model for where the language has been. If you want to see where language is going, on the other hand, you find a young, urban woman.”

This last contention is where the Naomi Wolf article became really confusing, especially since it’s Naomi Wolf, and she’s kind of seen as one of the #moms (in Tumblr-speak) of third-wave feminism. But sometimes, our theoretical development stagnates, and we become problematic, which is why we are always learning new things and shouldn’t get too judgey when other people slip up (e.g. not going on a witch hunt when a celebrity earnestly apologizes for saying something offensive). Society is powerful in conditioning us, but at the same time, let’s not let it condition us to speak in a particular way because it “sounds stupid.” Because those are the basic rules of anti-oppressive resistance.

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and doctoral researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her work focuses on hierarchies of taste (e.g. how perceptions of highbrow and lowbrow culture are formed), and how this intersects with gender and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, AnOther, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE, and the journals Performance Studies and the Canadian Theatre Review. She currently writes a newsletter three times a month where she provides cultural commentary and themed reading lists: subscribe to her newsletter here :)

You can follow Kristen and her Kardashian, Elle Woods, and Clueless memes and performative video gags that blend critical theory and politically revisionist fan fiction on her Instagram at @ripannanicolesmith



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