Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

You’re All Wrong and You Can’t Win

June 15, 2007

by Border Heeler

This inaugural post is inspired by a story from American Public Media’s radio show, Marketplace. The piece, entitled “Professional women? With little-girl voices?,” is about young professional women whose voices are so high-pitched as to appear child-like. An unusual choice of stories, perhaps, as it does not call up a deeply radical feminist analysis, unlike many other stories currently being looked at by other feminist bloggers (see, for example, Twisty’s wise words). I have, though, always been fascinated by gendered language and body language, hence my interest in this story. Also, it a good example of that popular antifeminist pastime, blaming the victim!

Apparently, according to the story, there is an epidemic of “little girl voices that project, Take care of me, Be sweet to me, I’m vulnerable, I’m weak.” This is problematic enough that bosses all over the country are sending their female employees to voice coaches to both lower their voices and change their word choices so they appear more authoritative.

If you do check the story out, be sure to listen to it, not just read it, as actually hearing the vocal examples is informative. And after hearing the story, my first response was … ambivalence. The baby-girl voices did tend to grate and make me dismissive of the speaker. I felt enormous relief when definitive, “authoritative” women were speaking. And many years of both self-defense education and academic training taught me the value of not appearing weak.

But the obvious question in this story is overlooked: Why is it so dangerous to appear weak? The obvious answer would seem to be that men in the workplace (or on the street) are actually piranhas waiting to pull you down at the first opportunity, and any show of weakness appears to them as an opportunity! This really is a life-or-death matter.

But instead, the focus in this story (and for those in the business of retraining women to speak with “more authority”) is on the women’s faulty voices. In other words: You are All Wrong and You Must Change – to be safe (or have the illusion of safety, or at least claim you were not at fault when pulled down).

So, You Must Change. But not too much, because, as linguistics professor Deborah Tannen notes in the story:

“Women in authority are in a double bind.” If they sound too young, Tannen says, they run the risk of not being taken seriously. On the other hand, if a woman sounds too authoritative . . . “Well, that kind of undercuts our expectations for femininity, or for a woman. So she kind of has to choose between being a good authority figure and being a good woman.”

This reminded me of the old “Dress for Success” manuals for professional women. (And that they are not all so old.) Possibly the first of these was published in 1978 and updated in 1996 as New Women’s Dress for Success, by John T. Malloy. And 2002 brings Dress Smart for Women: Wardrobes that Win in the Workplace by Kim Johnson Gross and Jeff Stone. Here is a quote from the 1996 Malloy book:

We discovered that when a woman is dealing with men in most corporate environments she seems more friendly wearing a suit without a lapel. The look is softer and more feminine, and most men respond positively to it.

However, a woman has to walk a very narrow line. If she sends signals that are so feminine that they are read as sexual, it has the opposite effect. This surprises most women, but sexual signals in an office setting, while seeming to please most men, do not. Most men are either annoyed or intimidated by women who dress for sex. (p.66)

So, here we are again. Dress for professional success, meaning ‘with authority.’ But not too much, because you must still be soft and feminine, i.e., friendly, i.e., approachable (i.e. ownable). But not too feminine, because that is sexy. Which is still ownable, but scary in the wrong setting. And don’t forget: authoritative!

Well, that clarifies things.

(Obviously, above all, please men! That is what you are there for, right? Well, no, but that is what might keep you safe.)

A more recent website advises young professional women going on a job interview to wear a skirted suit instead of a pantsuit. The author apologizes for having to tell women this sexist reality, but many interviewers will not look kindly upon a professional woman in a job interview wearing a pantsuit. Indeed, the exact rules for women interviewing quickly get arcane and extremely specific: wear a skirted suit on your first two interviews with a firm, and you may wear a pantsuit on the third. And, as noted on a related page, wear a skirted suit, but not a dress. And “skirt length should be a little below the knee and never shorter than above the knee — no night club attire here.” Remember – don’t veer into sexy! Nor manly. And not dowdy. Just right! (Regarding the childish voices: Is it any wonder that Baby Bear might be the role model?) And be sure to follow the maze of rules about suit color and lapels and shoe types and hose types and makeup. Always aim toward feminine. But, “You should opt for a briefcase rather than a purse.”

In other words: You’re All Wrong and You Must Change, but also, You Are Bound to Lose!

And, above all, use this as another arena to Obsess About Your Appearance, because any deviation from this impossible thing men want you to look like in this situation will cost you plenty.

So, back to baby voices. When I first heard the story about young professional women with high voices, I thought immediately of these dress manuals, and my initial reaction was that the manuals did not bother me as much as the voice coaching because, after all, “everyone” wears a uniform to work. Right? Well, yes, but no: looking more closely at the manuals reveals that women are doing much more than that. Women are wearing a work uniform (“We’re professionals here: look authoritative!”) but also a complicated sartorial coding to men: I am friendly, I am approachable, not for sex (at least not in a way that scares you), but for everything else. I’m nice. I’m tough. But I’m nice.

These messages are irreconcilable, so: You Are Bound to Lose.

But changing our voices? That seemed rather worse. Dress up is one thing, but changing a physical part of us? That is worse. Right? Well, yes, but no … we are supposed to be doing that all the time. Forgot! Apparently, the baby voice is just the “too feminine” analogy to the dressing “too sexy,” except that it is now “too weak.” So, get yourself out there and learn to speak authoritatively. (But not too much!) It is really exactly the same as the dress “problem.”

Change yourself!

One quote in the voices story gave me pause. A woman, Emily Lonigro, who had been to a voice coach explained what helped her changed her voice from babyish to authoritatively adult:

Lonigro likes the sound of her voice now. She’s mastered exercises to relax her lips, throat, and tongue.

LONIGRO: So that your voice can actually flow out of you rather than getting all caught up right in your face. Or if you’re keeping your mouth shut, it’s like this, and it gets really small.

Gee, I wonder why young women might be tight in the face and throat? Constant anxiety about how to look AND sound? Growing up in a highly pornographized culture and wanting to hold tight to yourself? To not have things shoved down your throat? Just generally feeling under assault? A physical manifestation of the ideal woman (mouth closed)?

Well, it matters not why – just … Change! Yea, let us all play blame the victim!

When you get your voice “fixed,” the professional men will decide what else is wrong with you. Are breasts really authoritative? Too sexy? Too feminine? Too scary? Intimidating? Distracting? Make the (skirted) suit look wrong? Professional woman, get thee to a surgeon!