Lake Bell is making the press rounds supporting her new movie In a World, which is about a woman who is trying to succeed in the male-dominated voiceover world. Bell directed, wrote and stars in the film, which is garnering rave reviews. That a woman has developed such a strong narrative and has made what sounds like a very feminist movie is completely fantastic. What’s less fantastic is the way the real-life Bell has been denigrating other women’s voices in the New Yorker, on NPR, and on the Daily Show.
As in most press tours, Bell keeps saying the same thing over and over again, so I’ll just quote her on NPR’s All Things Considered, complaining that too many women use what she calls the “sexy baby” voice. Which means, "Not only is it pitch, so really high up, but it's also a dialect, it's like a speech pattern that includes uptalking and [vocal] fry, so it's this amalgamation of really unsavory sounds that many young women have adopted.”
First of all, according to the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, we don’t actually know that women use uptalking—raising the end of their sentences so it sounds like a question—more than men do. It’s just associated with women in the United States (though it’s also associated with New Zealanders, and no one complains about their voices in quite the same way). So, like many other things associated with women, it’s only a problem when we do it.
I talked Liberman for a New York Times piece I wrote about upspeak earlier this summer, and he told me that, “When there is some kind of behavior—linguistic or otherwise that’s a bit unusual, people might not notice it when it comes from people they don’t have valuative categories for.” Which is to say, if someone you admire speaks a certain way, you will think that way of speaking is great; if someone you have a negative view of speaks a certain way, you will think it sounds stupid.
Bell herself says that she lowers her voice when she’s around a lot of men. “I speak lower than my actual voice, especially when I'm on a panel with a lot of dudes,” she told the New Yorker’s Tad Friend, as if that’s a good thing that other women should emulate. But speaking lower than your natural voice is what contributes to vocal fry—a sort of creaky voice—which Bell also thinks is a scourge. Part of why women’s voices are higher is not socially constructed, as Bell posits (she says women who have high-pitched voices are like “a 12-year-old little girl that is submissive to the male species”). It’s physiological. Women who are smaller may have narrower vocal folds, which will lead to a higher pitch.
I agree with Bell that making yourself sound younger or dumbing yourself down on purpose won’t be great for your career. But, what she’s advocating is that women should have low voices to sound smart, or even sexy. Since she obviously cares about advancing women, maybe she should stop instructing them that they need to sound like dudes.