Up high or down low: What a woman's voice says about her

Special to The Globe and Mail

Actress Zooey Deschanel, star of the comedy "New Girl," takes part in a panel session at the FOX Winter TCA Press Tour in Pasadena, California January 8, 2012. (Jonathan Alcorn / REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn / REUTERS)

In a trailer for the film The Iron Lady, inanimate hair is the first step in Margaret Thatcher’s transformation into her titular persona.

But there’s another thing: “The main problem is your voice,” says a male adviser in a suit. “It’s too high and has no authority.” Meryl Streep as Thatcher drops her words a clenched octave and says, “That’s the tone if we want to strike.”

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Of course, it was the rest of Britain that started striking, but she got the tone right. Certainly it’s hard to imagine a woman of Thatcher’s stature speaking in a squeaky little voice, despite the rodent teeth.

The up-high, up-talking voice is not generally considered the soundtrack of world leadership, no matter how substantial the content of that voice. It’s the sound of a child, which means invisibility. Thus, when I don’t recognize a number on caller ID, I use my most West Coast, girlish, squeaky voice (sadly, this isn’t far from my regular voice).

My tremulous “Helloooo?” usually prompts telephone solicitors to ask, “Is your mother home?” I can truthfully reply “No” and we’re done.

But to be taken seriously, I put on a certain voice the way I put on a certain dress, a voice that lashes my Valley Girl intonations. I try to meet anyone I need to impress down in the lower registers. It’s a good strategy, according to a Dutch study that had 81 students read a neutral passage in three different voice ranges, then rank their feelings about the sound of their own voice. The results suggested that lower voices are associated with power, and lowering one’s own voice can actually induce feelings of power – deepening the voice may be a form of self-help.

Of course, if you’re born with a high voice (usually a package deal with a vagina), this seems patently unfair. Women may be up against some ancient biological prejudice: Estrogen raises a woman’s voice, and men are supposed to be more attracted to women when their voices are high, indicating fertility. But is it really true that high voices are bedroom, low voices are boardroom? It seems more likely that we associate lower voices with power because low-voiced men have traditionally wielded more of it. Had we had grown up in a world of Minnie Mouse-voiced women delivering state addresses and heading shareholder meetings, soprano might be the sound of authority.

During Hillary Clinton’s bid to lead the Democrats, pundits whined that her voice was “grating” and “turns people off.” When Jill Abramson became the first female editor of The New York Times, her unusual intonation – “the equivalent of a nasal car honk,” The New Yorker said – was analyzed and pilloried in the media (where she now has the most prestigious role of all). Maybe voice is the last acceptable site of physical female scrutiny, since it’s not so cool to talk about ass size any more.

Recently, a new kind of vocal tick has been identified as a possible “trend.”

“Vocal fry,” or glottalization, is the sound made when the voice drops into the lowest register and creaks like a floorboard. It’s the Zooey Deschanel crinkle, usually found at the end of a sentence. One 2010 study published in American Speech suggested that it’s more common in women than men and that listeners associate the sound with upward mobility and education. (I think it sounds like you smoke, which used to mean you were interesting.) Researchers found that vocal fry is considered a masculine sound, writing: “Creaky voice may provide a growing number of American women with a way to project an image of accomplishment while retaining female desirability.” Kim Kardashian, of all people, expresses this duality to a painful degree, with her high-pitched, “like”-flooded voice that peters off into a careless rumble.

I find that Kardashian voice as unbearable as a Michael Bay movie, and I feel the same agony when I endure the “ohmygaaaaawd” twentysomething women squeaking into their cellphones every time I leave my house (though, to be fair, grunting cellphone guys don’t really sound like they’re grabbing their slice of man-power pie either).

But this prejudice should probably give me pause.

In an episode of 30 Rock last year, Tina Fey as Liz Lemon is appalled by a young female comedian who joins the staff. Abby Flynn’s persona is a dirty-talking girly-girl in pigtails with a lollipop and a baby voice. When Lemon failingly pleads with her to show some self-respect and drop the act – in front of a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, no less – Abby says, “The whole sexy baby thing isn’t an act … I’m a very sexy baby!”

She then chastises Liz for being judgmental, pointing out that Liz’s glasses are as much a prop as her goo-goo falsetto, projecting a different female image, but equally affected.

In other words: Tune in to the substance of the conversation before deciding if the delivery hurts your ideals as much as your ears.

Follow on Twitter: @katrinaonstad

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