Patriarchy is so inventive. The minute a generation of women has figured out how to not be enslaved by Ideology A, some new cultural pressure arises in the form of Internalisation B, making sure they don’t get too far too fast. The latest example: the most empowered generation of women ever – today’s twentysomethings in North America and Britain – is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices. Or basically what they sound like.
It sounds less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable: “Think Britney Spears and the Kardashians.”
It is that guttural growl at the back of the throat, as a Valley girl might sound if she had been shouting herself hoarse at a rave all night. The less charitable refer to it privately as painfully nasal, and to young women in conversation sounding like ducks quacking. This vocal tone has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways.
But does cordially hating these speech patterns automatically mean you are anti-feminist?
I myself have inadvertently flinched when a young woman barraging a group with uptalk ran a technology-based conference call: “We’ll use Ruby on Rails? It is an MVC framework to support databases?” Well, will we?
One 29-year-old woman working in engineering told me it was easier for gatekeepers in her male-dominated field to disregard running-on, soft-spoken and uptalking women. “It is difficult for young women to be heard or even responded to in many male-dominated fields if they don’t strengthen their voices, That kind of disregarding response from men made me feel even softer and even lesser – in a vicious circle of silencing.” she said.
Style is content, as any writing teacher knows. Run-ons and “non-committal-ness” dilute many young women’s advocacy powers and thus their written authority. Many young women have learned not to go too far out on a limb with their voiced opinions; but the dilution of “voice” and the muddying of logic caused by run-on sentences in speech can undermine the power of their written thought processes and weaken their marshalling of evidence in an argument. At Oxford University, young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully.
The problem with young women’s voices is gaining new cultural visibility.
It’s easier for gatekeepers to disregard running-on, soft-spoken, vocally frying and uptalking women.
What is heart-breaking about the current trend for undermining female voice is that this is the most transformational generation of young women ever. They have absorbed a feminist analysis, and are skilled at seeing intersectionality – the workings of race, class and gender. Unlike previous generations, they aren’t starting from zero. They know that they did not ask to be raped, that they can Slut walk and Take Back the Night, Kickstarter their business ventures and shoot their own indie films on their phones – and that they deserve equal pay and access.
Which points to the deeper dynamic at play. It is because these young women are so empowered that our culture assigned them a socially appropriate mannerism that is certain to tangle their steps and trivialise their important messages to the world. But we should not ask young women to put on fake voices or to alter essential parts of themselves.