Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Vocal Fry and Shrill-ary Clinton

Last spring I attended a hearing in federal court. A female attorney argued on behalf of the defendant. After the hearing I debriefed with my colleagues. One of the men I was with mentioned that he found the female attorney “off-putting” and “shrill” and "he couldn't even pay attention to what she was saying." Adjusting my voice, I asked him what he meant. My questioning was met with a long-winded defensive non-answer.

Shrill. This is a real concept women in the workplace have to contend with. Not only are we expected to be conventionally attractive and intelligent (but not overpowering), we also have to worry about the natural tenor of our voices.

A few weeks later I was filling out the evaluation for an adjunct professor’s course I had taken that semester. I overheard a male student talking about her. “She’s just hard to listen to.” Again, I pressed. What did he mean? Why was she hard to listen to? He offered no explanation. Weeks later I heard the term “vocal fry” for the first time.

Vocal fry is the term coined to describe the oscillating sound heard in speech. It is the “fluttering of the vocal cords, resulting in a popping or creaking sound at the bottom of the vocal register.” Based on media discussions, vocal fry is not something one should wish to possess. Though both men and women fry their voices, the phenomenon almost exclusively hinders women.

Women are expected to have higher-pitched voices. Yet, people with deeper voices are perceived as dominant and successful, and more often than not land coveted leadership positions. Men prefer female partners with high-pitched voices and female leaders with low pitched voices. This double standard manifests in vocal fry, which occurs when women attempt to lower their vocal registers. The result is a vibrato that many find unprofessional. One journalist described vocal fry as a “fingernails-on-the-blackboard phenomenon” and vapid.

The correlation between deep voices and professional success is unsettling. Our voices (like so many other female-attributes) are already held to an unattainable standard. If we speak too quietly we are meek, if we are too loud we are abrasive, if our voices are high-pitched we are mousy, and if they are too low we are masculine. The natural tenor of women’s voices has become a subconscious factor in how we perceive a woman’s intelligence and professionalism.

Hillary Clinton gave a speech this past Monday acknowledging her success at the Iowa Caucus. Before she even left the stage, users took to Twitter to attack not the content of her speech, but the what she sounded like. One commentator suggested that Clinton is “incapable of finding the difference between yelling and passion.” Another expressed fear that we would be forced to listen to her screech for the next eight years (“Imagine 8 years of that screech”). Hillary Clinton has long been the recipient of vocally degrading-epithets. Donald Trump has labeled her as "shrill." And the nickname Shrill-ary was tossed around during the 2008 election.

Yet Bernie Sanders is free to yell to his heart’s content. His vocal range is seen as passionate and revolutionizing. Bernie can be as unpolished as he wants—where Hillary must adhere to the feminine standards of both appearance and voice. In 2008, Stanley Fish, in a New York Times article observed:
If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t, she’s too masculine. 
Eight years later and little has changed. Hillary is a political powerhouse, but she is seen as “calculated” and a “politician” (which in 2016 is considered an insult). She embodies the establishment. Yet, each day on the campaign trail, she must control her tone. Each sound and word that escapes her mouth must be practiced and prepared or she might sound shrill or domineering. Her laugh is a cackle but when she does not laugh she is cold. She cannot win.

Hillary is a public figure, and some could argue that she has placed her voice in the spotlight. But she is an example of one real way women are silenced. Women’s voices tell stories, they advocate for others, they express ideas and values. The attorney I saw argue in federal court was articulate and accomplished. Because of the sound of her voice, her ideas went unheard.


Ari Asher said...

Follow up: Here is an article posted today addressing criticisms of Clinton's voice and tone.

Sonja said...

Your post made me think about this article by Ann Friedman ( Friedman posits (like you do) that men engage in the same speaking patterns that women do, but they are not criticized for it. She also discusses research that says that women engage in certain "feminine" speaking habits as a way of building relationships and engaging in deeper communication. This point really got to me, critiquing women's speaking habits is so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget that there may be benefits to vocal fry, up-speak, and other stereotypically female ways of talking. I do feel that women are capable of deep, interpersonal communication, that can be an asset both personally and professionally. It's a shame that we're constantly being criticized for it.

Meredith Hankins said...

I had a very similar experience at the California Supreme Court over the summer. One party was represented by a woman that I found very effective, knowledgeable about the issues and also respectful of the Justices (who tend to interrupt counsel, and each other, very frequently). The other party was represented by a man who spoke loudly, dodged questions, and flat-out ignored and talked over a Justice at one point when she tried to ask him a question. Despite going into the argument agreeing more with the legal arguments presented by the male attorney's side, I came away from the arguments swayed by the female attorney. When recapping the arguments with colleagues afterwards, I was shocked to hear a (male) colleague imply that the male attorney had represented his side well while the female attorney hadn't "been aggressive enough."

In this case, I think the benefits of the woman's more respectful tone worked in her favor - as the female-majority bench was visibly irritated by the male attorney's performance. To me, the arguments served as a reminder to know your audience, but also a recognition that the female voice *can* be heard...when a female audience is listening for it.

India Powell said...

I really enjoyed reading your post, because I was just recently introduced to the term "vocal fry" (which I think is a really ridiculous name for natural voice fluctuation, but that's beside the point). And your anecdote about the female attorney making her oral arguments in court reminded me of the lead attorney in the case from the podcast Serial. For those who haven't listened to the podcast, it investigates a murder case from the late 90's, and focuses largely on the shortcomings of the defendant's lawyer. One thing that really irked me about the podcast and its fans was the inordinate amount of discussion surrounding the female defense attorney's "shrill" voice. Rather than focusing on the very real and tangible missteps of the lawyers, people went on and on about how "annoying" her voice was during trial. What I'm getting at is this: the focus on women's voices has become a barrier to looking at the real issues, whether of a political candidate or of an attorney.

RC said...

I had been following similar commentary this week with regard to Clinton’s voice, and, as you mention, she just can’t win with anyone: either she’s shrill and annoying or loud and yelling.

In either case, critics focus on her voice rather than the words she speaks, which reminds me of very grave implications when it comes to gender, voice, and how entrenched our society is in patriarchy. I take issues about male or female tone and volume very seriously, as that has commanded all of my interactions for as long as I can remember, primarily as a means of survival. My voice is lower when I speak to men. My voice is lower when I want to seem competent. My voice is lower when I try to project authority. Male voices are lower and deeper, and our ears are trained to associate male voices with power and competence. What concerns me is that an underlying component of that association is fear. I’m somewhat alarmed that male yelling is so normalized in our society that it is seen as the default, while women doing the same is what catches people’s attention. Male authority and aggression are considered a baseline. I can’t fathom to what extent that has desensitized people to what are probably very obvious indicators of potential male abusive behavior.

Liz said...

I have definitely noticed the double standard women face especially when they are in positions of power. The manner in which a woman speaks is constantly scrutinized in the media but also in the workplace.

I have heard a man who speaks loudly to a crowd be defined as a leader, while a woman doing the same is defined as being bossy or a b****.

It's unfair, but I am not surprised when Hillary is criticized over her "tone" of voice that someone like Trump does not have to deal with. I feel it is going to take women and our allies to publically call out these double standards and draw attention to the damage that these sorts of messages send to our youth.

The social constructions of gender are harmful to women and they will continue to be perpetuated if we remain silent. With social media, I believe women can create a movement to bring change to stop the harsh criticism of women in positions of power.

Kate said...

This weekend, I participated in a mock trial competition. There were multiple rounds, so we had the opportunity to be judged by multiple people. The contrast between our first and second judge - first a man, then a woman - had me thinking about this exact issue, as well as other ways that men and women present themselves.
Our male judge was a tall, large man with a larger than life demeanor. He was also incredibly unaware - or didn't care, either way - of the way he physically presented himself. He slouched, he ran his fingers through his hair, he talked (loudly) in half sentences, sharply inhaled while looking up at the ceiling trying to compose answers to questions, and basically threw his presence haphazardly around the room. He seemed very comfortable with himself, and also seemed like he said the first thing that popped into his head at all times. By contrast, our female judge sat very still, sometimes narrowing her eyes at the contestants, and answered questions in short, crisp little sentences. She was relatively harsh in her rulings on evidence objections, and overall seemed much less comfortable in her own skin.
I tried to imagine our female judge acting the same way as our male judge, and I couldn't even create the image in my mind. It would almost shocking for a woman in a position of influence to physically present herself in that way. It really highlighted to me the different expectations that men and women live under, as well as the surprising amount of leeway and freedom of personal expression we give to men. I don't really have a problem with that, but I wish it was even close to similar for women - especially those of us who may be more comfortable slouching, making faces and talking in half sentences.