Can You Hear Me?

Examining the relationship of The Female Voice and Media

December 16th, 2015

In a world….”

The phrase alone evokes an electrical impulse, a sonic memory that may or may not belong to me. A voice western society has been conditioned to recognize as authoritative and trustworthy, the sound of something important about to be said. The sound of every pharmaceutical product and film narration. This voice belongs to many different people but has one thing certainly in common; it is indisputably masculine. Rarely do we hear the feminine voice as the sonic embodiment of capitalism. Nary a time does the voice of her tell us what is important. This is just one of the ways that media has essentially erased the sound of the woman. Starting in the domestic sphere and ending on the television screen, the female voice is silenced and reinvented by modern technology and media. Who gets to sound feminine, whose female voice gets to sound authoritative or timid, smart or stupid, gay or straight, sexy or ugly, ethnic or white, to be heard or silenced, is all redefined by society’s adoption of television as a main form of communication, capitalism, and entertainment.

Our story begins in postwar America, when middle class women were returning to the role of homemaker, leaving behind the working world they were now discouraged from participating in. As Lynn Spigel writes in her piece Making Room For Television, “Although most post war women were not ready to accept the full-blown attack on the patriarchy […] they were not simply cultural dupes. […] post war women both negotiated with and rationalized the oppressive aspects of the family ideal.” (Spigel 184). The television imposed the responsibility on women to take an active role in creating the domestic space and ultimately reshape the family dynamic and how the family interacts with one another. By dictating where the television in the home was placed, the woman and the homemaker controlled how the family moved about the home and where the family congregated. How then, does a technology that seemingly offers the woman so much authority simultaneously silence her? For this, we must go back to the cultural adoption of HiFi. HiFi music listening was seen as an inherently masculine activity. In his piece “Turn It Down! She Shrieked”, Keir Keightley writes, “This masculinisation [of hifi] was partly tied to the origins of hifi in do-it-yourself home hobbyism, as well as its connections to World War II techniques and technologies.” (150). Because women were erased from the inventing and tinkering process of listening technologies, they were not worthy of participate in listening culture. The voice of the woman then became seen as disruptive to the activities of the man, especially during this time where the home was being manipulated to bring the family together. Keightley suggests that as this ideal of togetherness flourished in both the domestic and work spheres, the man’s desire for “masculine domestic space” was ever increased. This space served as an escape from the great oppressor that was the wife, “Note that while the average American is male, it is the wife who is seen as ruling the domestic space, and who is objectified as an unbreachable obstacle to improved sound reproduction.” (Keightley 160). The domestic space becomes a battleground over who gets to be heard. Keighley references E.L Halpern’s response to an article that demonizes wives for their supposed hatred of loud music. He writes, “[Halpern] concludes by describing a typical domestic scenario in which men shout at each other [about the listening technologies], while the phonograph plays at ‘full blast’, until the wife asks that the husband turn down the volume, whereupon the husband replies ‘Say, what’s the matter with you anyway? Don’t you like music?” (168). Eventually the volume of the phonograph drowns out the voice of the woman, and man wins the domestic battle. He retreats to his den of solitude to relax while the wife is shut out to perform domestic duties. That is until the television emerges, and the family absorbs media, the television, in unity. Women welcomed the television with open arms because their husbands were drawn out from the dens and sat down to spend time with their wives. The television integrated this love for the technological and for entertainment as a form of relaxation. “Some women even saw television as a cure for marital problems […] ‘My husband and I get along a lot better now. We don’t argue so much..” (Spigel 185). The housewife seemed content with the mere appearance of their husbands in the domestic space and acknowledgement of their existence. However, this interaction still did not require, nor did it desire, for the woman to speak. Perhaps they did not argue so much because they were no longer speaking to each other. Conversation is a sacrifice for peace, and sitting in silence wrapped in eachothers arms gazing blankly at a television screen becomes romance in an ever waning marriage. In a sense, her aesthetic presence is of more value than her sonic presence. Her words and her thoughts are no longer necessary to know her and no longer necessary to bond with her. So long as she occupies the man’s time in some capacity, she is content. She does not have to be heard in order to feel loved. Thus, the television has betrayed her and stolen her voice.

Though the television silenced the housewife, the voice of the female star was ever present. The voices of actresses like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett as well as Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe were heard by millions of American families every day. The voices of these women became the dominant presence and essentially facilitated televisions gendering of the female voice. Whether soft and annunciated like Jayne’s or harsh and demanding like Lucille’s these voices served to sonify the woman and define what it means to sound feminine. The voices of these characters are simultaneously correlated to their appearance through the medium of t.v. Thus, the presentation and way in which they deliver their voices essentially defines the appeal the voice then has. Lucy’s delivery is meant to be comedic, her high pitched whiney tone is meant to disrupt and annoy. Jayne’s voice is husky and soft, her delivery meant to seduce and entice. These sounds done with intentionality are subsequently associated with these behaviours and translated into real life. What we consider unpleasant or appealing in a female voice stems from these over exaggerated performances of the two characteristics. It also defines who gets to sound feminine. Because all these women speak with the intentionality of performing their gender to some degree, those who fall outside the lines of what is deemed feminine don’t get to participate as such. A woman like Bea Arthur would be described as having a “masculine” sounding voice because it falls below the desirable pitch for a “feminine” sounding voice. This is a particularly interesting obstacle for trans-women who often feel “outed” by their voices, even after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. In order to perform the gender effectively, trans-women take hormones and engage in speech therapy in order to sound more feminine. Norma Garbo, a vocal coach that specializes in training trans-women to sound more feminine, describes in an article for The Atlantic what it means to have a feminine voice, “It’s more than just the pitch that makes a voice feminine; equally important is the lilt, or the rise and fall of the pitch, which happens through vowels.”. How a trans-woman decides to perform femininity directly correlates to how early television stars chose to perform sonic gender because they were aestheticized as the ideal woman. All who follow are conforming to a standard set by those who first appeared. As Jonathan Berger once noted, “Men Act, Women Appear”. So long as the body is idealized and aestheticized, the voice will be as well.

However, though the higher pitched voice may be considered more feminine, it does not necessarily mean that it is desirable. Going back to our “in a world” example the high pitched feminine voice has little to no authority. There is very little work for female voice actors looking to pay the bills by breaking into the very lucrative business of commercial voice acting. Linda Lowen writes, “At first glance it might appear that women and men enjoy parity based on the number of voiceovers on TV commercials. Women’s voices are commonplace in commercials that sell everyday household items such as dishwashing detergent, toilet bowl cleaners, diapers, paper towels. But commercials selling big ticket items such as cars and trucks are largely the domain of male voices.” This gesture, of course is implicative of who these industries expects is buying these particular products. However, would women still buy diapers if a man’s voice was on the commercial? Most likely yes, because these products are needs if you are a parent. However, a car is not necessarily essential. Would a man buy a car if a disembodied female voice told him to? The auto industry thinks not. The disembodied female voice apparently lacks the authoritative qualities as well as the emotional range of a man’s voice. Because a man can sound soft if need be while a woman can only sound that way. Unless her voice has masculine qualities. “We prefer low voices because, we assume, voices say something far beyond the words they convey: We perceive men with lower-pitched voices to be more attractive and physically stronger — and also more competent and more trustworthy — than their less burly-voiced peers. And we perceive women with lower-pitched voices along the same lines (though we also tend to perceive them, tellingly, as less attractive than their Betty Boop-y counterparts).” writes Megan Garber, an author for The Atlantic. Lower frequencies are generally more appealing because they sit better in our range of human hearing. They are less harsh on the ear which is the argument for why higher pitched female voices are seemingly undesired. But there is also the element of age and experience that comes into play, whether it’s subconscious or not. A high pitched voice is implicative biologically of a younger female, and when disembodied is especially obvious. Women’s voices that are at a lower pitch are more appealing because it conveys an air of experience and age, and therefore has more authority. But then how come women are still not present in commercial voice over work? Women can appear without speaking but cannot speak without appearing. In an article for The Huffington Post Mark Pedelty, Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota, explains , “Only allowing a woman to speak when she’s seen reaffirms that her currency is not her mind but her body.” The elimination of the disembodied female voice from media is a direct affirmation of misogyny and the objectification of women, a violent perpetration of the patriarchal belief that a woman’s value, her currency, is inherent to her physicality. Her mind is secondary to her body. “The woman is the object and the man is the subject.” which is why Carl’s Junior can sell burgers with a body and a man’s voice telling you to buy it. Why Viagra commercials have women telling men it’s okay to have erectile disfunction.

This notion of female voices as being heard without being seen is especially important when talking about the sonic representations of race. Is it possible to hear race without looking at it in the face? The first instances of what reina alejandra prado terms “sonic brownface” occurred with Disney’s The Three Caballeros and Warner’s Speedy Gonzales. These cartoons attempted to replicate the Mexican accent sonically by amalgamating stereotypical Hispanic sonic markers into one hilariously mismatched accent. By combining this amalgamation with traditional markers of Mexicanness, media thus defines what a Mexican sounds like. This is especially problematic in a country where non-regionality is valued in television personas because it stands out as something explicitly foreign and for those who have never interacted with a person of ethnicity (they exist) the representation is accepted as truth. The result is then fetishistic in nature; we are conditioned to believe this is what Hispanic looks and sounds like therefore it becomes expected and wanted. And it is not inherent to Mexico, it is applied to all people of Latin association in a racist simplification for overstimulated Americans. In the piece Listening to Modern Family for the website Sounding Out, Juan Sebastian Ferrada and Dolores Inés Casillas focus on Sofia Vergara’s character Gloria in the t.v show Modern Family. They write, “Visually audiences may be ogling over her curves, but it is her vocal body — her “accent,” tone, and staged grammatical blunders — that work to racialize her character as much as sexualize it.” Vergara, a native of Columbia and a natural blonde, was forced to dye her hair in order to conform to American television’s standards of an “appropriate” brown haired Latina. Her grammatical blunders are staged, a punchline to the perpetually (apparently hilarious) joke that is non-native english speakers. The sonification of her body is then essential to her being and her performance of race. Without it, it is apparent that she is not of Northern European descent (and she is still beautiful), but her fetishistic qualities are lost because she is not exoticized. “Listeners have always struggled to make sense of one’s accent and speech style especially if the speaker’s body does not match stereotypical perceptions based on race and gender. A key study showed, for instance, that when participants were shown a recorded lecture by an Asian American woman voiced over with a white woman’s voice, they overwhelmingly insisted that the Asian American woman spoke with an Asian accent.” Sophia cannot exist without engaging in sonic brownface because of the inherent racism of American culture. Those who do not look like us cannot be like us. Those who are of color cannot sound like us. Those who appear feminine cannot be feminine without sounding feminine.

In conclusion, television has been an essential component in culturally defining the female voice. From silencing it in the home to dictating what a racialized voice sounds like, television has exerted its power over the female since it’s inception. It has been utilized as a tool of the patriarchy, reinforcing structures of misogyny as a means of capital and entertainment, exploiting the vocal qualities of the female in order to sell products in a targeted and dehumanizing way. It has stolen the agency from everyday women to engage in a world without having to sonify her gender, delegating and defining who earns the right to sound feminine to a male listener. Its emphasis on the optical has negated the sonic and thus diminished her intelligence. For what is speech but a mere expression of our minds? Our communicative abilities, our intelligence is demeaned by our inflections and our biology, our assumed geography and nationality based on sonic cues. The words are distorted by the musicality or disruptiveness of our voices that either lulls the listener into a lustful haze or gives permission for our immediate disregard. Will our voices ever be heard without bias? Would removing the emphasis on the object that is contrived and shifting it to the subject be enough to set us free? Unfortunately, our fate lies in the hands of those who write, dictate, and create our media. Until their methodology is altered, until the perceived audience is killed for the genuine, we can expect nothing but sub conscious affirmation of our prejudices and reinforcement of our problematic structures that seek to alienate and other those who we do not understand. We cannot be expected to open our eyes and ears while they are constantly being glued shut by contrived media, where radical ideas are never presented for fear of causing discomfort. We cannot be educated while we desire only to be placated.

Works Cited

Adams, Rebecca. “Why Women Are Only Heard When Seen In TV Commercials.” The Huffington Post., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

“Female Celebrities Still Can’t Break Through the Glass Ceiling of Voice-over Work.” Vulture. N.p., 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Garber, Megan. “Why We Prefer Masculine Voices (Even in Women).” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Keightley, Keir. “Turn It Down!” She Shrieked: Gender, Domestic Space, and High Fidelity, 1948–59. 2nd ed. Vol. 15. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

“Listening to Modern Family’s Accent.” Sounding Out. N.p., 28 Mar. 2011. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.

Lowen, Linda. “Is Your Voice Hurting Your Chances of Career Success?” News & Issues. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Prado, Reina Alejandra. “Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent.” Sounding Out. N.p., 10 June 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Saini, Shivam. “Learning to Talk Like a Woman.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Spigel, Lynn. “Make Room for TV.” (1992): n. pag. Web.