Vocal fry - going low to judge women again

10:34 pm on 30 November 2018

By Noelle McCarthy*

Analysis - The first time I was accused of the latest speech phenomenon known as 'vocal fry' I was mortified.

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Noelle McCarthy Photo: RNZ / Noelle McCarthy

I was interviewing Hayley Westenra, filling in on RNZ's afternoon show.

The texter signed his name, but it escapes me. I can't remember the exact wording but it was something along the lines of: "Vocal fry, terrible interviewer, bring back Jim Mora."

The latter sentiments I was familiar with, but the vocal fry thing was new to me. I looked it up on the computer in the studio, and read a bunch of articles, American mostly, describing a new kind of verbal tic adopted by young women usually.

They were dropping the voice at the end of the sentence, lowering their natural register.

Though different to "up-talking" and "valley girl speak", vocal fry was no less a signifier of ditziness, according to one writer. His piece was illustrated with a picture of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.

I can still feel my cheeks burning - the text meant I sounded stupid.

Criticism of one's voice is part of the territory in broadcasting, and accents are polarising so I was used to it. But the vocal fry thing got under my skin and played on my insecurities - in radio you've only got your voice to win people over, why would they listen if they think you sound ditzy?

Granted, this was about 10 years ago before I woke up to the gendered nature of criticisms like "ditzy" or "silly" or "airhead" as applied to young women in broadcast media and many other industries.

That's not to say male presenters don't get stick about their voices, or their personalities in general - of course they do - but never once have I seen one called "an airhead" or "ditzy" the way I've seen those terms applied to myself and other female presenters over the years that I've worked as a producer monitoring the texts coming into the studio.

And vocal fry itself, is no longer a linguistic failing it seems, but rather a common and increasing speech phenomenon.

We're all at it now, according to the New Zealand Medical Journal. As a vocal fry-er from way back, I had to laugh when I heard Susie Ferguson introducing a piece about it this morning.

It was more of a groan than a laugh really, listening to the academic from Canterbury University explain why young women all over the country are dropping their voices at the end of sentences. Everyone does it when they're tired, she said - cue a clip from the Prime Minister, a fryer "from time to time" allegedly, and a new mother who is currently running the country.

"It's an effort to sound authoritative" explained a male expert, helpfully. Unfortunately we didn't have time to explore the cultural, social and historical reasons why this might be necessary.

By now I was definitely growling a good two tones lower than my normal register. I don't doubt for a second that all of the research is being conducted in absolute good faith, but women's voices have been policed and judged forever.

"Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low an excellent thing in a woman" is the famous line from Shakespeare, an idea that's endured far longer than it should have. When was the last time you heard a man's voice praised for its gentle lowness?

That difference in standard for men and women was one of the first things I encountered when I started broadcasting. I'm not sure whether it was a conscious decision to drop my voice a bit lower when I went on-air, but I do remember, I lived in terror of sounding shrill - ever since a programme director warned me "listeners turn off screechy women". Better to drop it low, Barry White style, than risk sounding like a harridan.

The vocal fry emails still do come in from time to time now, but they don't bother me as much as they used to. I've noticed a few features they tend to have in common - they're written by men, mostly, and they tend to be lengthy discourses that start with creaky voice criticisms and move onto general dissatisfaction with having to listen to a young(ish) woman on the radio in the first instance.

As you can imagine, I file this feedback carefully. I've never responded but after today, I know what I would say: Vocal fry it seems is the sound of the future. Get used to it.

*Noelle McCarthy is a writer and a broadcaster with over 15 years' experience in radio - mainly at RNZ where she has worked as a presenter and producer. Her production company, Bird of Paradise, makes serials and podcasts, including the immigration series Slice of Heaven, and Ours - Treasures from Te Papa.