Recently I’ve written a few posts in response to the notion of “sexy baby voice” in Lake Bell’s latest audiobook. Bell identifies “sexy baby voice” with three characteristic features: “high pitch” (which I argue is actually bright resonance), “vocal fry” (what phoneticians call creaky voice) and “slurring.” I’ve argued that while bright resonance can be controlled to some degree, it is characteristic of youth and femininity, and that creaky voice is the only way that some young woman can add darker resonance (and hence a bit of gravitas) without sounding tomboyish or fussy.
I wanted to write a quick post about Bell’s third criterion, “slurring,” which Gladwell summaries as “running some words together,” and “sentences without spaces.” Bell’s caricature of slurring gets to the point where she sounds like she’s doing an impression of a drunk sorority girl, but in moderation this is a well-documented pattern of speech variation: some people are noted for short, quick transitions from one speech segment to the next and from one intonational pitch to the next, known as “staccato” articulation, while others take these transitions more gradually, designated by the Italian word “legato.”
Guess what the legato vs. staccato articulation patterns are associated with? Gender. I learned it from my voice teachers, Kristy Bissell and Erin Carney, as part of lessons on developing gender expression in the voice. I’m not familiar with research on this in phonetics, if any has been done.
Basically, staccato articulation is stereotypically associated with men barking orders, while legato articulation is associated with women discussing things in soft, flowing ways. Yes, these are stereotypes, and we can all think of women who bark orders and men with soft, legato articulation. But those women are perceived as acting masculine when they speak with staccato articulation, and men speaking legato are perceived as speaking in feminine ways.
It’s understandable why the use of legato articulation bothers Lake Bell so much: it’s the antithesis of a particular voice-over style that she admires. In her chapter she includes an audio clip of a film she made in 2013, In a World… Before listening to this chapter I had never heard of her or the film, but I discovered that it was seen by a fairly large number of people, and generally well appreciated. That film introduced the general public to her idea of “sexy baby voice,” and was discussed by Mark Liberman in a series of LanguageLog posts.
The name of the film references the famous phrase “In a world…” used in voice-over tracks to introduce trailers for science-fiction action films. In the film, Bell’s character is competing to be the first woman to voice these kinds of macho trailers. The thesis of the film is that women are just as capable as men of delivering this punchy, aggressive style of speech, and are being held back from that success by what else? “Sexy baby voice.”
Even without going to the hypermasculine extent of action film voice-overs, Bell is implicitly endorsing the management-consultant approach to voice and gender that treats any bias against women’s speech as evidence of a deficiency in the women’s speech itself, a deficiency that can be remedied with enough courses in proper speaking. This is extensively debunked by linguists like Deborah Cameron and Lisa Davidson in articles that I linked from previous posts.
So there we have the three features of “sexy baby voice”: bright resonance, which is an indicator of youth and femininity; creaky voice, which is one of a handful of strategies available to young women to darken their resonance, and legato articulation, which is also an indicator of femininity. If we find this in women who are actually young, it basically means that they want to get away from girlish voices without sounding like tomboys or fussy older women. Judging young women for this strikes me as unfair and mean-spirited.
I have to point out, however, that young women are not the main target of Bell’s “sexy baby voice” tirades. Her ire is directed at older women who, she argues, have other ways of accessing dark resonance but use bright resonance with creaky voice anyway. I’ll address that in another post!