When did you hear a man like “I hate my voice.” Never. Men never get critiqued on their voices unless they sound effeminate, which is just misogyny. We all know that. But women always complain about their voices; they hate the sound of their own voices. I can't tell you how many times people say: I’d love to do radio but I hate my voice.
That’s Lauren Ober, the former host of NPR’s The Big Listen. In this episode, find out why women’s voices are so often criticized, why those critiques are so easily internalized, and why it’s time for women to tell stories…using their own voices.
I’m Tanzina Vega, and this is Werk It: the Podcast, a compilation of some of the best moments from the live event.
Lauren Ober: What's up, Werk It? That was so lame I know we had a hard lunch everyone but we could maybe give a little more enthusiasm. And all the people who are leaving right now, I don't know where you're going. I don't know where you're going. My name is Lauren Ober. I am not Jenna Weiss-Berman. I know some of you have gotten confused. It's OK. All lesbians look alike, I guess, here at this women's podcast festival. Just kidding I don't want to shame you. But I just did sorry. OK. So my name is Lauren Ober. I am formerly the host of a show on NPR and WAMU called The Big Listen. I am soon to be the host of a forthcoming top secret podcast from APM.
So what do I know about using your voice? Basically nothing, but I am a professional talker. I'm a professional listener, and sometimes people pay me to help them talk better. And so I want to talk to you a little bit about voice today because over the years I feel like I've been involved in radio. I've noticed that men never complain about their voices. Even before I was involved in radio, like, when did you hear a man like “I hate my voice”? Never. Men never get critiqued on their voices unless they sound effeminate, which is just misogyny. We all know that.
But women always complain about their voices; they hate the sound of their own voices. I can't tell you how many times people say: I love to do radio but I hate my voice. And I wonder, if we hate our voices. That because we hate our voices, other people hate them, too? Or do people hate women's voices because -- OK, so I'm, like, I can't read my notecards right now. I'm going to start that over. Basically I'm trying to say that it's a chicken and an egg situation. All right. So like do we hate women's voices because women hate their voices or vice versa? You get the drift.
So. So why do people hate women's voices? Here are some ideas I have on the topic. My ideas are probably wrong but that's because I'm a lady. Even though it doesn't look like it under my menswear-inspired outfit.
But so why do people hate women's voices? Because they remind us of our nagging mothers? Because they hurt our ears with their incessant screeching? Because patriarchy? Because they don't convey any authority because they sound like children? Because men's voices are better and everyone knows it? Because Hillary Clinton?
Asking why people hate women's voices, honestly, is like asking how long is a piece of string. There is no satisfying answer. But we do know that hating women's voices is not a new thing. And some people way smarter than me have thought about this.
There is a woman named Mary Beard. She's a professor of Classics at Cambridge and the author of many books including Women In Power: A Manifesto. She has thought a lot about women's voice in ancient times, which I mean to say, she has thought a lot about women's silence. This is a clip from her 2014 winter lecture at the London Review of Books titled “The Public Voice of Women”:
[audio clip] “Public speaking and oratory wasn’t something that ancient women just simply didn’t do: it was an exclusive practices, an exclusive skill that positively defined masculinity as a gender. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man – and of course we’re talking an elite man – to become a man was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness. So a woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition, not a woman.” [end audio clip]
OK so not only could men -- so men could only speak. But if you spoke out, you are a man, right? Period end of story like women just did not have a voice. Not only that but:
[audio clip] “As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage. A high-pitched voice indicated female cowardice. Or as other classical writers insisted, the tone and the timbre of women’s speech always threatened to subvert not just the voice of the male orator, but the social and political stability and the health of the state as a whole.” [end audio clip]
OK so think about that. Basically women's voices had the ability to bring down a republic. Your voice is so powerful that you could topple an entire system of power just by vibrating your tiny lady vocal cords. So just think about that. Just think about that for one second. You were so threatening, your voice was so threatening that you weren't able to speak. So just keep that in your very tiny lady brains for a second. Okay so if you've ever had the temerity to speak while female, you know that there are some intense reactions that this can provoke.
Just for kicks, I googled “speaking while female” and in like a nanosecond I got eleven thousand three hundred results. There are a lot of people who've written about this and like helped women figure out how they could be heard, despite their shrill birdlike squawks. So that's cool. Thank you, Internet.
No, but I mean if we, if any of you host your own shows, if you work with female hosts, you know that speaking in public is particularly risky for women who use their voices in public ways like podcasting, right? And I think we could look on the Apple podcast charts. If we looked at the top 50, we would see that not a lot of women on there. And maybe it's coincidence. I don't know.
But but there are a lot of things that people feel that they have the right to say to us when we are on air, right? When we deign to use our own voices. So I put out a call to some some Facebook groups to hear what women have had said about their voices and here are just a few. Women's, women in audio sound like: a stuffed up 13-year-old reading off of cue cards; a high-schooler who has issues trying to please people; chubby; tall and blond; a sharp pencil in my ear; a man; a mentally challenged Southerner; a Smurf that had sex with a Teletubbie while tripping on acid and then was queefed out of a unicorn’s vagina into a pool of glitter and rainbows topped in cupcake sprinkles; also, people said, women sound like in a derogatory way: NPR. So apparently, that’s a slight.
No, but I mean this is like nuts. Like these are the emails that we get. We all know we've all gotten them. Even I have gotten some negative feedback for my dulcet tones. It's almost unconscionable. But there you go. Here are some of the emails I've gotten from people like Norman, Jeannine, and my favorite -- C. Conover from the Netherlands who says that that people on our show “were talking in high, squeaky, giggly, staccato, and folksy voices so the presenters don't sound confident. I'd suggest public speaking workshops.” Joke’s on you, pal, because look where I am right now.
Oh so like who would send these? I'm always wondering like who are these assholes who are sending women these notes? And apparently one of those assholes is me. Because 12 years ago -- no excuse me in 2012 -- I, Lauren Ober, send a note to the folks on Slate's Double X GabFest now called The Waves; “I just want to point out that many of your regular contributors suffer from vocal fry,” like they had ebola or something like that. This is like one of the biggest shames of my life that I'm sharing with you guys right now. It's a safe space. Also I just wanted to show you that I know how to use Microsoft Paint from 1992. Okay? So you're welcome.
Okay so there are two main, main real critiques of women's voices vocal fry and upspeak. I figure before we could even talk about those, we would we would listen to a little definition courtesy of our friends at NPR. This is a little video produced by Selena Simmons-Duffin.
[audio from video clip] So what is vocal fry exactly? That's what happens when anyone drops their voice to its lowest register. It tends to fry or crackle or pop. Our own studies have shown that both men and women tended to find the vocal fry voice as untrustworthy. And what is the deal with uptalk? Basically this is ending a statement as if it were a question. “You're going to go down the street? And you don't make a left right?” So the uptalk is a way of saying I'm continuing follow along with me. How do people in studies perceive up talkers? They say things like well this person has no confidence. They're timid, they're deferential. So people don't like our voices or how we use them. We seem to have this biologically driven judgment that lower pitched voices connotate stronger, more trustworthy, more competent people. Maybe we can keep that in our minds when we're listening to someone speak in a high, squeaky, uptalk voice and our brain goes: This is an idiot. This isn't a person who is not very smart. This is a person who doesn't believe what she's saying and has no confidence. In fact, those qualities have nothing to do with this person that we're listening to. [end audio from video clip]
If you still don't understand the scourge of vocal fry a very helpful gentleman by the name of Eric Woodard put together this supercut a particularly sizzling moments from the first season of Invisibilia [audio montage plays] To the west coast. Just in it. For younger listeners. The day I met S, he answered the door in these very colorful shorts. Friend lights from the ocean. Friday night. His wife married. To watch movie. Violent thoughts before. Disturbing thoughts before. Torso. Ball. Ball. [end audio montage] By the way that man has a wife and children. I found him online. You can, too, if you want.
But real talk: Like why don't we talk like this? Why? Why have we noticed this, and why do we speak in this particular way? I have some thoughts on it. It's potentially controversial, monstrously unscientific. Please don't @ me please, please. This is just a hypothesis. So here's my thought on vocal fry: Vocal fry is a way to hedge, to shrink, to modulate, to keep yourself small, to not step into your full power, to speak in a register from which you cannot shout, and you cannot destroy the state with vocal fry. I promise you. You can't -- just not going to happen. And I realize that there are many reasons why we modulate our voices, for different reasons, whatever. But this is one thing that I've been thinking about a lot. But maybe we don't do it for that reason. Maybe we just do it because of this dude.
That man is Ira Glass.
He has this particular affectation or affliction. And he didn't know what it was until 2015 when he had a conversation with his colleague Chana Joffe Walt on an episode of This American Life.
[audio clip] Have you noticed that I do it, too? Not until right now. Yeah yeah. Even as I say these words. And I didn't, I didn't notice it when other women do it either until I started to read about the phenomenon of vocal fry. And then I didn't notice it and and I find it annoying, now, when other people do it. I mean I don't notice it all the time but if I am thinking about it and hear other people do it, other women do it especially, I become like a woman who hates women. Wow. You're like it's like you've absorbed the messages of your oppressor. I hear it I hear it in you now. Yeah. I get criticized for a lot of things in the e-mails to the show. No one has ever pointed this out. That's completely unsurprising. Do you think it's just sexism? Yes I think it taps into some deep part of people's selves where they don't want to hear young women including me. Like it taps into that in me. [end audio clip]
So Chana Joffe Walt, we all found out, is a woman who hates women. No. I really think that vocal fry is a way that we we hold ourselves back and we don't fully assert ourselves. As Mary Beard said: “We can end nations with our voices. But we can't do that if we are not fully heard.” And if we silence ourselves and we do the work for other people then what's the point? I never hated my voice until I got into radio I really never thought of it it was just part of me was just who I was.
When I got into hosting I did some voice training to learn how to control my breath and speak more conversationally and write narration that works from a natural speech patterns. And so I figured I probably couldn't leave you without any kind of -- That's embarrassing, by the way. I did that knowing it would be totally embarrassing. Chicks equals everyone, so whatever. I'm old I don't care.
But there's a woman named Marilyn Pittman who I've worked with before. Maybe some of you have. If you do, you know she makes people cry. But she also will make you better at using your voice. Here's some tips from her. These are verbatim. She said print these verbatim. So I am.
Learn how to breathe diaphragmatically so your voice has resonance, power, and volume. That's speaking from your gut. Look it up if you don't know exactly the technique. Play with your voice so you have a fuller range of expression. Try reading copy like you're reading to a child. Warm up by laughing or acting drunk through 10 seconds of copy. This loosens you up so you can find greater expression. Don't continue acting drunk and don't show up drunk. That's a bad idea. Mark the copy using Marilyn’s Talk the Copy techniques, which is basically just underlining key words or phrases marking breaths, especially breaths in the middle of sentences. That's really important. Try it for yourself. If you're in the business of scripting and writing and reading your own script, do try that. I recommend it. And think about the content you're reading as you’re reading the copy. So see the story and the person. Be in the story. Be present in it. That's really helpful.
So I didn't want you to just hear from me about voice because I have one particular opinion on it. I think all women should just be shouting from the rooftops all the time. And I love my own voice and I never really had to struggle with it. But I wanted you to hear from some other folks. This is my friend Lewis Wallace.
He is a writer and radio producer in Durham, North Carolina. He was a former Marketplace reporter and he was one of the only trans reporters I've ever heard on the radio and as a trans person in public radio he’s had to think a lot about how he sounds:
[audio clip] “I feel like a big part of my just trans experience has been about embracing my voice kind of regardless of how other people perceive it. And that can be really unpredictable. But, for a really long time, it was like people might look at me and they might think like ‘That’s a boy.’ Or ‘I think it’s a boy. But I’m not sure. Maybe.’ And then I would talk and people would be like, ‘Oh, nevermind. That’s a female person for sure.’ And so my voice has been very, very gendered by other people. For myself to feel empowered within that, I’ve had to just have, like, self-love and deep self-respect, I think, around my voice to not take on other people’s weird stuff about it.” [end audio clip]
All right. So he wants you to love your voice, like date your voice like go out and take your voice on nice dates. All right. So the next person I want you guys to hear from is Jazmine “King of the South” Walker, cohost of The Black Joy Mixtape out of Washington D.C., which she co-hosts with Amber J. Phillips the high priestess of Black Joy. If you don't know the show, what is wrong with you? Hers is a voice that is so rarely heard in mainstream media. But oh do we need to hear it. Here's Jazmine.
[audio clip] “My voice, I think, is an amalgamation of being in different places in the South. I’ve lived in Mississippi, I’ve lived in North Carolina. I’ve worked in central Appalachia. Not Appa-lay-chia. Appalachia, wassup. And I feel like it just embodies the multiple terrains that exist in the South. There are mountains, there are beaches, there are hills, there are flatlands. There are so many different places to see and I feel like, that it is a voice that embodies that, as well as embodies generations of Black people who have decided to survive in the South. And so I am not ashamed of that. I’ve very proud of it. It’s all sweet, it is heavy, it is juicy. It’s dope.” [end audio clip]
If you walk away with nothing else, just try to think of yourself as having a dope voice like my friend Jazmine. But she's so good. Like I, we talked for awhile we got kicked out of a D.C. public library which is why that audio so crappy here. But she said so many amazing things, and I have to share one more thing that she said:
[audio clip] “The more we accept voices as they are, the more we are able to not only co-exist but allow people to thrive exactly as they are. So my voice is in opposition or is a resistance to the status quo that is stifling and harming the majority of us. Most of our voices do not fit into this norm and us constantly trying to figure, well, how how can I sound different, how can I look different, how can I present myself differently. It’s all drag, baby.” [end audio clip]
It’s all drag, baby. It doesn’t matter. It’s all drag.
All right. So my last friend I want you to hear from -- her name's Alice Wong. She's a disability rights activist and host of a podcast called Disability Visibility. She’s also the editor of a new anthology called Resistance and Hope: Essays by Disabled People, which you should buy wherever you buy books. Alice has a neuromuscular disorder and she has to wear a BiPAP machine to help her breathe. So you have to tune your ears really closely, real carefully to understand what she's saying. And that's okay. That's not going to kill you. All right? So here she is:
[audio clip] “You know I really think of it as ‘Darth Vader Lite.’ You know because actually I do identify with Darth Vader. I think he’s a much misunderstood person. And I am kind of evil. And I’m filled with the Force. So I think of this as my form of resistance. It’s definitely me exercising my power that I have and the capacity that I have to get my voice out there. And to, really, more importantly, get the voices of other disabled people out there. [end audio clip]
I just want to you know that all those people talked about their voice as resistance. And I think in this time it's really important. Because a lot of us are being silenced or people are trying to silence us. And I think that understanding that you have something really important to say is is valuable. I want to leave you with one last quote from Alice. It's actually a manifesto she wrote for a transom dot org. Shout out, Transom. It's called “Symphonic Disabled Voices.” Here she is reading it:
[audio clip] On radio, I want to hear people who…
pause when needing to breathe
make noises when they talk
salivate and drool
communicate, enunciate, and pronounce differently
use different speech patterns and rhythms
use ventilators or other assistive technology
use sign language interpreters or other people that facilitate speech
use computer-generated speech
…I want to disrupt what’s thought of as the default public radio voice. I want to challenge listeners as they ride the subway, jog on their treadmills, drive on their commute. Even if the sounds and words we create might require greater concentration and attention, I believe our stories are worth the effort. [end audio clip]
And your stories I think are worth the effort as well. I want to finally leave you with some homework:
So our friend Jazmine told me that her voice sounded like molasses, red velvet, and peaches with honey. I want you to think of three descriptors in that vein or at least just one descriptor of your voice. Mine is maybe like dried leaves, or like a fog horn with like a cantaloupe stuck in it, or something like that.
But I want you to think of three descriptors of your voice. You know rolling fog, warm smile. Does your voice sound like Grandma Esther’s rugelach? I don't know. But I want you to let me know. I want you to tweet me @OberandOut, what you think of your voice. I want to hear the creative ways that you can use to describe your own voice. You can use the #WomenPodcasters and #WerkItFestival. But really I want you to take that to heart, and think of those words, and remember that you have something to say and you can say it in a really beautiful way.
Thank you so much to Werk It. Thank you, WNYC. Thank you to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the New York City Mayor's Office for Media and Entertainment.
That's how you can get in touch with me. Also if you want to sound better, hit me up. You know. I'm, I'm available for hire. Thanks, guys.