WOMEN
07/13/2015 03:01 pm ET

Want A Lesson In How People Judge Women's Voices? Start A Podcast.

Putting your voice out for public consumption -- and critique -- is a stark reminder that it's a man's, man's world.
Closeup of Woman on the Phone
CSA Images via Getty Images
Closeup of Woman on the Phone

"Whiny." "Empty-headed valley girls." "Sorority girls with zero insight."

When two women decide to record their voices and put it out for public consumption, these are the kind of constructive comments that follow.

We are two women. We also decided to start a podcast about “The Bachelor” franchise, "Here To Make Friends," several months ago, because we thought it would be fun and believed we had some things to say on the subject that might be worth listening to. We knew we would have some haters -- as women who write for a living on the Internet, we’re no strangers to the backlash ladies who deign to have opinions tend to receive -- but we weren’t prepared for how much of the critique we received would be centered around one thing: our voices.

We probably should have been. Ann Friedman recently wrote about the underlying sexism that surrounds the critiques about the way women speak -- regardless of what they're talking about -- in a piece for New York Magazine, connecting it back to her own experience hosting a podcast.

“Until I started co-hosting a podcast, I was fairly oblivious to my own vocal patterns,” she wrote. “Then the emails and tweets started rolling in, advising me and my co-host that we would sound a lot smarter if we could just pay a bit more attention to our speech.”

Of course, listeners are entitled to love or hate any podcast, including ours -- hey, we’re new to this, our quips don’t always land. However, in line with Friedman’s experience, the contemptuous vitriol directed at us seems to have more to do with our female voices and “feminine” vocal patterns, than the thoughts and opinions we express with said voices.

As podcasts rise in popularity, a previously overwhelmingly male-dominated medium is becoming more diverse. Many women who spent years behind the scenes producing have stepped out “in front” of the mic. It’s incredibly empowering for women to have greater access to podcasts, and to be able to put their voices out there, but it also opens women up to having their voices -- and therefore, their perceived intelligence or lack thereof -- picked apart.

Large open mouths talking above woman
GARY WATERS VIA GETTY IMAGES
Large open mouths talking above woman

It may seem paranoid to note that we, like other female-hosted podcasts, have drawn a barrage of insults about our vapidity while comparable podcasts by men or mixed-gender hosts draw more measured feedback. A recent episode of This American Life, “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS,” made public just how many emails they got about their female producers and journalists. “They call these women's voices unbearable, excruciating, annoyingly adolescent, beyond annoying,” said host Ira Glass, mainly for the crime of vocal fry. He later points out that he too has vocal fry, but, of course: “I get criticized for a lot of things in the emails to the show. No one has ever pointed this out.”

Glass has one of the most distinctive voices on the radio; it’s creaky, oddly cadenced, a bit lispy at times -- though, since he speaks from a script, there are few “likes.” He’s been lovingly chided for his unusual speaking style, frequently parodied, but it almost seems to add to his mystique. The same can't be said for his female contemporaries.

We got tweeted at by one listener who chastised us for saying “like” every third word; apparently it made us seem less intelligent. This isn’t an uncommon thing to tell young women. (Or, really, any women. We stumbled across similar criticism of Melissa Harris-Perry and her female guests on Twitter just last night.)

Claire recently sat down for an interview with a male author -- a multi-talented, learned, brilliant man who’d just published a remarkable novel -- and had a fascinating conversation with him, during which he said “like” every third word. He also up-talked, for that matter. It would be wrong to question his obvious intelligence due to these verbal habits, and likely no one has or will. It’s women, not men, at least not white, straight men, who find their speech patterns constantly scrutinized for deviations from the dominant accepted norm, with any tic or casual verbal styling attributed to stupidity or immaturity.

Research shows that it’s not just women who employ “feminine”-coded speech patterns. A 2013 study found that young people -- across gender and ethnic lines -- all use “Valley Girl talk,” meaning uptalk. And a 2014 study found that both men and women have vocal fry, it’s just that women are punished (a.k.a. perceived as unintelligent, incompetent, untrustworthy) more severely than men for using it.

It doesn’t help that young women, as is true for young people from marginalized groups, tend to pioneer changes in speech patterns. Though those changes eventually filter through to the entire population, including white men, these speech habits only become acceptable for people in this dominant class.

But of course, it’s not really about the speech habits. It’s about being women, speaking. Think of the centuries-old stereotype that women never stop yapping -- nearly every culture has proverbs to this effect: “Where there are women and geese, there’s noise.” But a review of over 50 studies conducted in 1993 by Deborah James and Janice Drakich made a startling revelation, according to the BBC: In only two of the studies, women talked more than men; in 34, men talked more than women. The bulk of the research suggests men and women speak at comparable rates, depending on the circumstance, yet the perception is that women talk constantly -- most likely, Amanda Marcotte argued on Slate, because by speaking an equal amount, they are judged as speaking more than they ought

Some people listen to our podcast and hear whiny feminists. Some listen to the same podcast and hear vapid, bubbly sorority chicks. Those are both trite stereotypes of women, but they are stereotypes of very different brands of women. It’s difficult to see how listeners could hear both in our voices, except for the thing the two stereotypes have in common: They're kinds of women these listeners don't deem worth listening to. In short, they hear our female voices, and they want to make us stop talking.

Men and women alike make these judgments, and encourage young women to alter our natural speech in order to prove our intelligence or skill. Don’t say “just,” every time you say “like” snap a rubber band on your wrist, lower the pitch of your voice so it’s less “whiny.” This advice is presented as well-intentioned and practical, but trying to change the way women speak is a fool's errand. Society will never be happy with our voices, if we just tweak them this way or that way. Even the highly professional, media-trained women journalists of This American Life don’t meet with approval. We will forever be altering our voices to prove something entirely unrelated: our worth. Meanwhile, men with odd vocal tics elude this scrutiny; we simply aren’t attuned to hear the grate of their vocal fry or the lilt of their uptalk, or at least not to find it annoying.

When it comes down to it, women's voices are a screen people in a patriarchal society project their issues with women upon. Ultimately when you critique to death the way women speak -- the way they communicate with the world -- you are trying to avoid hearing what they have to say. 

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