Sexism, Vocal Fry, and Women’s Struggle for Vocal Authority

            While there’s no way anyone could think we live in a world without sexism, there are things you’d never expect gender bias to effect, like your voice. But over the past few years an investigation has begun in earnest to examine just how these inherent biases, stemming from our social conditioning, could be moving the fight on gender equality to a very personal place:  your vocal chords. But to understand the problem, you first have to understand vocal fry.

What is Vocal Fry?

Vocal fry, put simply, is the gravelly sound your voice makes when you try to talk lower than your natural range. For example, take a listen to this clip of Kim Kardashian:

The points where Kim’s voice gets low and begins to be gravely or scratchy-sounding is a phenomenon called ‘vocal fry’. It’s found in all cultures and people, and in some languages, it’s even integral to differentiating words and meanings. But in the modern world today, it’s become a tool used to criticize the voices and speaking patterns of (mainly young) women.

Vocal fry isn’t inherently bad for you – though some arguments may say otherwise – and in no way damages the vocal chords. It’s just a natural speech pattern that some people use more than others. But it’s become ‘bad’ in the eyes of its many critics when young girls use it in their everyday speech.

Vocal fry in girls has been described in a range of ways, even as passionately as “‘vulgar’, ‘repulsive’” and “mindless” in a YouTube rant by podcaster Bob Garfield. Those who hate it, mainly the older generation, say it makes those who use it seem obnoxious or not confident. But it’s almost always in relation to women or girls’ speaking voices – rarely, if ever, does someone comment on the vocal fry commonly found in men.

A Downward Trend

People have many theories on why vocal fry is becoming more prominent in younger women, but one theory in particular seems to be a more common consensus: it makes them seem more masculine, assertive, and capable. That may seem like a lot for such a little vocal tic, so here’s the breakdown:

On average, males tend to have lower sounding voices than females. Combine this biological fact with the many social biases we’ve learned to associate with gender, and it makes sense that our society associates deeper voices with being more dominant, more confident, and with having better leadership qualifications.

Sexism and Speech

The social conditions making women lower their voices bring a whole new issue to the table once people start complaining about it. Some even go so far as to complain about vocal fry to their local radio stations or podcasts, which elicit responses ranging from NPR interview discussions to snarkily crafted emails such as this one, written for the 99% Invisible podcast by Katie Mingle:

            Many people argue that vocal fry makes women sound too harsh and unlikeable, which makes sense considering the research. Most people prefer people of either gender whose voices fall into the natural biological range expected of them, and people tend to be better liked and even get more jobs when their voices match that pitch. But many women, even those who naturally encounter vocal fry, are being told that they need to change their voices to be successful and likeable or to be respected and taken seriously as professionals.

And this isn’t the first time that women have struggled with vocal patterns or been ridiculed for the way they speak while men got off scot-free. The first incident in recent memory was called ‘up speak’ and is characterized by an upward swing on the ends of sentences. You may know it better as the Valley Girl Accent. This was criticized, however, on the opposite end of the spectrum – those who used it were too ditzy and unsure, airheaded and unfocused on what was going on or always sounded like they were asking a question.

So if we can’t swing low and we can’t swing high, how are young girls supposed to be taken seriously when they talk? Well, one piece of good news in regards to vocal fry is that we might not have to change our swings at all, because the gap in vocal preference seems to be a generational one.

The Age Gap

            While vocal fry may seem like a big issue – and it is, given the amount of people who seem to find it unlikeable – some studies have found the divide isn’t just that of gender. The younger generation views vocal fry as drastically differently from its older counterparts.

            Where older generations often see this as a bad trait, younger college age girls (and college age people in general) tend to use creak more often in groups. In this case creak isn’t just a vocal tic – it’s a social cue, a link between members of a group. Younger people also describe women’s voices with vocal fry, when compared to the same speaker’s voice without fry, as more confident, professionally oriented, and ‘on the rise’ or upwardly mobile.

Want More on Vocal Fry?

If you’re interested in finding out more about vocal fry and the gender biases in language, check out the articles in the sources below or listen to this amazing interview from NPR that more closely examines vocal fry, linguistics, and sexism in relation to speech patterns: