At the moment, I’m revising my first scholarly multimedia piece; the video highlights the way that women use hashtags like #YesAllWomen to re-embody themselves in the face of dehumanizing gender-based violence. I love the work; I’m proud of the arrangement and the pacing. The topic is important and timely. The footage is affecting. The scholars I draw from are brilliant and eloquent. I’ve worked hard — and largely succeeded, I think — in bringing together the kairotic moment and the important work of feminist scholars from rhetoric, women and gender studies, sociology, and elsewhere.
But I hate my voice. I’ve recorded the audio for this piece eleven times now. My voice is too high. I pop my p’s. I talk too fast. I breathe too loud. (That’s right, I even hate how I inhale and exhale.) My very bodily presence continues to frustrate my efforts to do this work the way I want to do this work. I feel broken, ill-equipped to do the work I so want to do.
And this experience makes me wonder: what are the implications of a digital future that is more embodied? How do these kinds of projects, made not just from our words and ideas but also from our voices and faces, change how we understand ourselves as scholars? And what happens if I hate my voice? (Spoiler alert: I persevere; the work matters too much to me.)
Vocal Fry and Millennial Women
This isn’t merely a question of vanity. There’s evidence that the speaking patterns of millennial women (like me) lead to us being taken less seriously than older (and male) speakers.
As more of us have moved into professional settings, millennial women have been warned about the dangers of uptalk and “vocal fry,” characterized by a low-pitched, “creaking” sound. According to a 2014 study, vocal fry is perceived particularly negatively by older listeners and is negatively correlated with competence (Anderson, et al.). There’s also continuing evidence that people with deeper voices (aka, on average, men) are more likely to be tapped for leadership roles.
Millennial women have been warned that vocal fry can imperil our career prospects. We’ve been told to give up these speaking patterns and regain our power. This is, I think, advice from well-meaning advocates. But it raises deeper questions: why does my manner of speaking matter? And why does it always seem like it’s the speaking patterns of women that are correlated with negative attitudes? These aren’t difficult questions, really. The answer, as it often is, is that these attitudes reflect a cultural bias toward older (but not too old), white, male interlocutors. Recognizing that, however, doesn’t magically redirect my own internalized dislike for my higher, more nasally voice.
Honestly, the process of reorienting myself toward a healthier relationship with my voice will be a long and difficult one. Internalized misogyny is difficult to exorcise. But a new vocabulary, one that helps me talk about my tone, style, and physical vocalization in relationship to the audience of my performance, might be a good place to begin.
In their 2010 book on style in rhetoric and composition, Chris Holcomb and M. Jimmie Killingsworth offer “footing” as a more rhetorically inflected replacement for “voice.” Holcomb and Killingsworth argue that this shift emphasizes the interaction between performer and audience in ways that “voice” simply does not: “The concept of voice focuses on the performer, but footing always puts the performer in relation to something else—or somebody else: the audience” (p. 61). For multimodal digital compositions that included my physical voice, face, or body, such a shift allows me to recognize my physical voice as one of a number of facets of my scholarly identity and the ways that my identity is negotiated within discourses about what “good” or “normal” or “appropriate” or “scholarly” voices sound like. It interrupts the internalized notion that I just don’t sound scholarly and forces me to ask under what circumstances and with what audiences my notions of scholarly have been negotiated.
In Praise of Perseverance
Beyond this shift, though, what do I do? And what does this combination of internalized (misogynist) expectations of “professionalism” and the very real rhetorical dimensions of this more embodied scholarly practice mean for my own practice and personhood? The short answer to this second question is, “I don’t know.” But I do know that it’s a question our community must explore. If we don’t consider the ways that race, class, gender, sexual identity, disability, and any number of other embodied identities interact with questions of professionalism, we may well miss out on so many voices, voices that crackle or stumble or challenge our notions of scholarly utterance in other ways we haven’t yet grappled with. On a more personal level, though, I just don’t know how to respond to the internal and external pressure I feel to speak, look, or exist in the “right” ways to be taken seriously as a scholar.
Perhaps, though, I can offer a provisional answer to the first question about what to do now, in this moment when I still hate the way I sound: I persist. I recognize that even if I hate my voice, it remains a valuable addition to this conversation, not just because of the topics I cover or the insights my work (hopefully) offers, but because what we most need in this new, more embodied version of digital rhetoric and digital scholarship is more voices. Voices speaking loudly. Or quietly. Voices that are too high. Or too low. Voices that speak haltingly about their own experiences or work to amplify the experiences of others. We need more voices. Even my voice and even if I still hate it.
Anderson, R. C., & Klofstad, C. A. (2012). Preference for leaders with masculine voices holds in the case of feminine leadership roles. PloS One, 7(12), e51216.
Anderson, R. C., Klofstad, C. A., Mayew, W. J., & Venkatachalam, M. (2014). Vocal fry may undermine the success of young women in the labor market. PloS One, 9(5), e97506.
Holcomb, C., & Killingsworth, M. J. (2010). Performing prose: The study and practice of style in composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Indigo, A. (2007, Oct. 11). Microphone [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexindigo/1606826416 CC BY 2.0
Mayew, W. J., Parsons, C. A., & Venkatachalam, M. (2013). Voice pitch and the labor market success of male chief executive officers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(4), 243-248.
Tigue, C. C., Borak, D. J., O’Connor, J. J. M., Schandl, C., & Feinberg, D. R. (2012). Voice pitch influences voting behavior. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(3), 210-216.
Wolf, N. (2015, July 24). Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice.The Guardian.
Khazan, O. (2014, May 29). Vocal fry may hurt women’s job prospects. The Atlantic.