Research, Politics & society, Berkeley Voices

Fiat Vox: The history of why some say women sound shrill, immature

By Anne Brice

Professor Tom McEnaney, who teaches a class called “Sounding American,” says the U.S. has a long history of men criticizing the way women speak. Sound technologies, starting with the gramophone and phonograph, he says, were developed for men’s voices — and distort women’s.

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man and woman talking into a mic

(UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

Following is a written version of podcast episode #42: “The history of why some say women sound shrill, immature:”

You might recognize this voice.

[Clip of Kim Kardashian talking]

It’s reality TV star Kim Kardashian using what linguists call “vocal fry” — a kind of gravely low voice, like I’m doing right now. Other celebrities, like Zooey Deschanel, Katy Perry and Britney Spears.

Critics have said this relatively new way of talking doesn’t sound professional and doesn’t command authority. But others say that language is always changing, and that this criticism is part of a long history of insulting how women speak.

“It was part of a history of men in particular, especially men of a certain generation, talking down to women of the younger generation, about the way that they spoke.”

Portrait of Professor Tom McEnaney

Tom McEnaney, a professor of comparative literature and Spanish and Portuguese, teaches a class called “Sounding American” at UC Berkeley.

That’s Tom McEnaney. He’s a UC Berkeley professor who teaches a class called “Sounding American.” This is the first of two episodes where we’ll look at ideas explored in his class, from how the history of sound in the U.S shapes contemporary popular culture to what it means to sound American and how it relates to U.S. identity.

In his class, he brings up what defenders of vocal fry have said:

“There was this response to say what you hear as annoying, what you hear as immature, what you hear is non-professional, is actually a new way of speaking that carries a lot of prestige for women of a certain generation and among a cohort in that generation,” he says. “And so this is actually a powerful way of speaking.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a video ran in The Atlantic called “The Science Behind Hating Hillary’s Voice.”

Hillary Clinton giving a speech

Hillary Clinton giving a speech in Machester, New Hampshire on Nov. 6, 2016 (Photo by Barbara Kinney for Hillary for America via Flickr )

[Clip from Atlantic video: “People sometimes say that they would like Hillary Clinton more if her voice was a little bit less annoying. Why does she sound so irritating to some people? Amee Shah, who researches hearing and perception at Cleveland State University, ran an analysis of Hillary’s voice for us. According to Shaw, Hillary’s voice is actually average in pitch and loudness for her age and gender. But Shah did find that some people might perceive Hillary’s voice as louder because of the mic effect. Hillary tends to use too much force when she talks into a microphone during big speeches.”]

[Clip from a Hillary Clinton speech : “We have to decide whether we will all work together so we can all rise together.”]

McEnaney says the kind of prejudice against Hillary Clinton’s voice is defined against a certain standard and norm that developed along with media technologies — starting with the gramophone and phonograph — that were made with a standardized male physiology in mind.


McEnaney says media technologies, starting with the gramophone, were built with a standardized male physiology in mind. (Photo by Taras Kalapun via Flickr )

“And so women’s voices, normative women’s voices, were harder to pick up on those instruments,” he says. “This was true for microphones as well. And so oftentimes in the early history of media when women spoke over the radio, there would be distortion and noise because the technology was not developed for the range of their voices.”

He says presidential oratory in the U.S. has a certain standard sound, and engineers are responsible for producing that sound.

[Clip from a speech by President Eisenhower in 1961 : “Good evening my fellow Americans. We now stand 10 years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations.”]

And in doing that, they make a set of assumptions of what they need to do to make a voice audible. These decisions become the norm of what a voice should sound like.

“So this bias, which is built into the media system,” says McEnaney, “carries all the way up to the present, and these accusations of Hillary Clinton as speaking with the voice that’s shrill instead of the stentorian male voice of a whole tradition of broadcast male broadcast voices is shown to have political consequences in political debates today.”

But now, he says, we find ourselves in an even more disturbing situation in which our president doesn’t want to sound like he has an Ivy League education and instead speaks — and tweets — in fits and starts.

[Music: “Cases to Rest” by Blue Dot Sessions]

screenshot of Trump's twitter page

McEnaney says that to have a president who speaks — and tweets — in fits and starts, and who places value on the lack of education for people making important decisions, is a disturbing situation for the country to be in.

“That there would be such a value placed on the lack of education for people who are making massively important decisions,” he says, “doesn’t seem like just the democratic tradition, but really something that is against the access to public education, against the access to education for all people, so that all people wouldn’t have to desire that kind of tweeted speech, but could have a diversity of ways of speaking in different social situations.”

In our next podcast episode, McEnaney will discuss the concept of “white voice” and how difference defines the American sound.

“The United States is, of course, a polyglot country and it’s made up of all of these different languages and speech forms and that to say that there is an American sound is to suppress 80, 90 percent of the way that most of us speak.”