99% Invisible Podcast’s Brilliant Response to Criticism of Women’s Voices

99% Invisible Podcast’s Brilliant Response to Criticism of Women’s Voices

99% Invisible podcast

Katie Mingle of the 99% Invisible podcast and the “problem” with women’s voices

Katie Mingle of the 99% Invisible podcast gets emails from listeners who complain about the quality of women’s voices on the program, and she’s not alone in a world where Fast Company calls vocal fry, a common speech habit regardless of gender, the “verbal tic of doom” for women. Never mind that the same habit is also common among men. Enough people have complained about the issue of women’s vocal habits on television and radio that it has even been written widely about in publications from Mental Floss to The Atlantic to The Washington Post. Women, apparently, have a tendency to perform their own voices wrong.

Vocal Fry:
Women are just doing it wrong! Again.

The This American Life podcast receives enough complaints about women’s voices that they recorded a whole segment about it in January called “Freedom Fries” to discuss the issue of vocal fry. Here is an example of vocal fry from what appears to be a fairly sexist study on the matter:

The above video, which summarizes a study from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, notes that men’s lower voices are thought of as more authoritative than women’s voices overall, even when women’s voices don’t exhibit vocal fry. The host, Bill Mayew, goes so far as to task women, not men, with changing what is lately deemed a poor speech habit for them in particular.

It is inappropriate for Mayew to blame women’s voices for their own lack of success rather than frame the negative perception of women’s voices as part of our culture’s larger bias to value the authority of men over women. He’s running headlong into the dangerous logic of rape apologetics, which blame women’s choices of dress and location for the violent crimes people choose to commit against them. 

Using this specious line of thinking, women are considered culpable for the professional harm that comes to them, even though both men and women commonly exhibit the vocal trait. When women’s vocal fry is framed as what undermines their professional advancement, not the basic fact that they are women, the message is clear: it’s not men or a biased culture that need changing. Women are just doing it wrong again! Again.

The truth is that this isn’t about vocal fry nearly as much as it is about our culture’s response to women in general. As a result, policing the sound of women’s voices is nothing new, and what people complain about changes over time. According to host Ira Glass, This American Life’s…

…listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word “like” and about upspeak…But we don’t get many emails like that anymore. People who don’t like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.

The real irony of the above Duke University video is that Bill Mayew exhibits vocal fry throughout, and no one thought it enough of a problem to correct in a video about the professional dangers of vocal fry. His voice is fine, because we assume his authority. 

Don’t believe it? Here is another example of privileged male vocal fry: Noam Chomsky. He’s been speaking in public with vocal fry for over 50 years, and I bet his superiors have never received a tide of letters to complain about his voice. I chose a video of a much younger Chomsky to show that his vocal fry is not simply a product of his age:

99% Invisible’s great response to listener complaints about women’s voices

Back to Katie Mingle and the 99% Invisible podcast — our inspiration for this article from beginning: 99% Invisible is no stranger to listener complaints about women’s voices, either. Mingle has apparently received enough listener complaints about women’s voices on the program that she’s opted to create a brilliant folder and auto-reply email system to deal with such criticism in a rather fitting and pragmatic fashion:

99% Invisible email auto reply about women's voices

At GenderAvenger, an organization with which I am affiliated, we are excited by 99% Invisible’s response to complaints about women’s voices. It gives this kind of anti-woman bias just the amount of priority it deserves, zero. Like the email says, and this underscores GenderAvenger’s very reason for being as a group that promotes the inclusion of women’s voices in public dialog, “there are plenty of shows [to listen to] that don’t feature women’s voices at all.” Take us or leave us, but we’re here to stay.

The truth that affects all of us:
what we really need to be talking about

When we give so much of our media space over to discussion about the irritation that is listening to women’s voices, we miss the underlying truth and strengthen an already powerful and ugly cultural bias. This ongoing, superficial public discussion about women’s speech habits is really about our resistance to listening to or featuring women in public discussion. It is not about how women need to be taught how to speak.

The bias against women in public dialog, from the complaints about the way they speak to our reticence to see them in positions of power, limits their participation in the culture and the politics that affect change not only in their own lives but also in their communities and the larger world. This imbalance has deep and broad social, political, and economic impacts for all of us, both women and men.

That is what we really need to be talking about.

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