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Naomi Wolf suggests no more vocal fry for career advancement for young women. (Photo: Type A Films)
In the Guardian this week, New York Times bestselling feminist author Naomi Wolf wrote about the “vocal fry” supposedly plaguing young women and preventing them from being taken seriously. Wolf describes “vocal fry” as “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.” She mentions that like run-on sentences, breathiness, and uptalk (which is when you turn your sentences into questions by ending up on a high note), it undermines women’s authority — and among young, ambitious, and smart women, it can harm their careers. Wolf references a Catalyst study that proves speaking well is better for your career than working hard. Wolf adds, “Today’s women know they can do great things; what they doubt — reasonably enough — is that they can speak well about those great things.” In other words, she feels young women are extraordinary but set themselves back by speaking like Valley girls.
In Slate’s podcast “Lexicon Valley,” NPR “On the Media” host Bob Garfield once commented on the “vocal fry”: “It’s almost exclusively among women, and young women at that — and girls. At some point, as they utter a sentence or phrase, somewhere between halfway and the very end of the phrase, something happens to their voice as if they have a catch in their throat.” It’s creaky, and if you’re having trouble picturing it, it’s manic-pixie-dream-girl Zooey Deschanel’s voice.
As a matter of fact, young women have been ahead of the trend in linguistic patterns, and men are perpetrators of these speech mannerisms, too. Professor of linguistics Carmen Fought told the New York Times in 2012, “If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional, or even stupid. The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.” Fellow linguist Mark Liberman added, “George W. Bush used to do it from time to time, and nobody ever said, ‘Oh, that G.W.B. is so insecure, just like a young girl.’” In refutation of Wolf, Erin Riley wrote in the Guardian: “Vocal fry is not a problem. It is merely another excuse to dismiss, ignore and marginalize women’s voices, both literally and figuratively. And it’s just the latest in a long history of finding excuses not to listen to what women, especially young women, say.”
Young women are taking to social media to defend their speech mannerisms. For example, Columbia University student and Rookie writer Gabby Noone tweeted, “I will not ditch my vocal fry it is my litmus test to weed out the haters from hearing all my brilliant thoughts.” NPR podcast host, PJ Vogt, tweeted, “Hello I am here to say I have male vocal fry.”
Katie Mingle’s reply to people who complain about female reporters on the radio. (Photo: Twitter)
Ira Glass, the famous (and male) producer of This American Life, investigated the phenomenon of getting “vocal fry” complaints against female voices on his show, noting that even before “vocal fry” discussion went viral, people complained about women’s voices for other reasons. “These are some of the angriest emails we ever get,” he said. “Listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word ‘like’ and about upspeak, which is when you put a question mark at the end of a sentence and talk like this. But we don’t get many emails like that anymore. People who don’t like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.” Recently, radio producer Jenna Weiss-Berman tweeted the message Katie Mingle of “99% Invisible” sent out to people who complained about the sound of female voices: “Amazingly we don’t even have a folder for complaints about the male voices on our show, because we’ve never gotten one! Isn’t that strange? We think so.”
Of course, while the usage of vocal fry should not be held against young women or men, it is important to recognize that this is a culturally ingrained characteristic and not something inherent to the biology of youth or women. Wolf concludes in her essay, “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 trivialize their important messages to the world.”