Your athletic voice

This is the sixth post in a series inspired by Lake Bell’s audiobook chapter “Sexy Baby Voice.” In previous posts last year, I’ve covered the three key features she uses to define this vocal style – bright resonance (which Bell refers to as “high pitch”), creaky voice (“vocal fry”) and legato articulation (“slurring”), and discussed the various ways that we can manipulate our vocal tracts to create or amplify bright or dark resonances.

Elizabeth Holmes, wearing a black jacket over a black turtleneck with her hair in a bun, gestures in an explanatory way

Photo: Glen Davis

In my most recent post I talked about Bell’s disingenuous use of the phrase “here’s my voice” to suggest that bright resonance is fake, and mentioned a similar scene in the sitcom Loudermilk where the title character contradicts a young woman when she says, “this is my voice,” based on her use of creaky voice. Conversely, Elizabeth Holmes’s use of low pitch was seen as evidence that she wasn’t using her “real voice” – that her voice was as fraudulent as her business.

On an individual level, these accusations of fakery are simply false – these people are all using their own voices, and not pretending to be other people. The accusation is not that they’re trying to use someone else’s voice, but that they’re adopting vocal qualities that aren’t “really theirs.”

People like Bell, or Loudermilk, or the people who excitedly shared clips of Holmes speaking in a normal pitch range for American women, have strong feelings about this. Why do they care? I’ve heard three arguments: that producing speech with these qualities takes effort, and it covers up their “real voice.” And there’s an accusation of motive: their false voices are false pretenses to try and get something.

First, the effort: the biggest difference between “vocal fry” by itself and “sexy baby voice” is bright resonance. As I discussed in my post on youth, bright resonance is generally associated with youth and femininity, because it’s usually caused by small vocal folds in small vocal tracts, and women and children tend to be smaller and have thinner vocal folds. Even younger women tend to have brighter resonance than older women, primarily because of the effect of hormonal changes during childbirth and menopause.

It’s worth noting that Bell’s main target is older women who retain that combination of bright resonance and creak (or maybe even adopt it) in their middle age and beyond. Her claim is that these women’s “real voices” have darker resonances, so the bright resonance is fake, and it requires effort. So when she says that “sexy baby voice” is “athletic,” that only applies to older women.

I can confirm that point at least from some experience here, having testosterone-thickened vocal folds and a relatively large vocal tract: producing bright resonance takes a fair amount of work, especially if you try to adopt the habits all at once later in life. But if the women in question have adopted these habits gradually, as their vocal tracts change, then it may not take a lot of conscious effort.

Bell’s criticism of older women with “sexy baby voice” reminds me of similar criticism of older women for “dressing young,” in ways that may or may not be overtly sexualized, or taking on other features of the appearance of young women, like hairstyle, hair color and mannerisms, or even getting cosmetic surgery with the goal of looking younger. She is essentially accusing these older women of faking youth – or trying to – with their voices.

Bell’s message to these older women – you don’t have to try so hard! You can be accepted and valued for your maturity! Chasing youthful appearance is a trap! – seems benign on the surface. It’s not clear she’s getting through, just as it’s not clear others are getting through with similar messages about older women wearing short skirts or getting facial surgery. And if the effort is not that much once the habits are established, then there’s not much to the argument in the case of voice.

In a future post I’ll talk about the next argument, that older women who produce creaky voice with bright resonance and legato articulation are covering up their “real” voices, which of course use modal phonation, dark resonance and staccato articulation.