The taming of the shrill

During last year’s UK General Election campaign, Richard Madeley told readers of the Daily Express:

I can’t get enough of Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. That gorgeous accent! I could listen to it all day. It’s warmer than sunlight shining through a jar of honey.

Madeley wasn’t the only commentator who found the ‘warm’ or ‘lilting’ quality of Wood’s voice a bit of a turn on. Over in the USA, by contrast, it’s become a truth almost universally acknowledged that Hillary Clinton’s voice is a turn off. It’s been described by commentators as ‘loud, flat and punishing to the ear’, ‘decidedly grating’ and, inevitably, ‘shrill’.

The extent to which her critics have made an issue of Clinton’s voice has become a mainstream news story in its own right. Yet the topic of the male voice has barely featured in discussions of Clinton’s rival Bernie Sanders, nor in reporting on the Republican race, which is now an all-male affair. In the UK, similarly, election pundits expressed no opinions on the ingratiating smoothness of David Cameron’s vocal performance, or the blokeish braying of Nigel Farage. As Elspeth Reeve observed last year in the New Republic, men’s voices just don’t seem to make much impression:

[T]hink about Jeb Bush’s voice. It’s so—wait, what does it sound like again? He sounds just … like a guy, maybe?

It’s not that male politicians’ language gets no attention: there’s been plenty of commentary on their rhetoric, especially in the case of Donald Trump. And–as the New Republic piece goes on to demonstrate, quoting linguists like Penny Eckert, Carmen Fought and Mark Liberman–it’s not as if there’s nothing to say about the voices of Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Sanders. So, why is it only women whose voices are subjected to relentless critical scrutiny?  The short answer is, of course, ‘sexism’. But why does it take this particular form?

The most familiar feminist explanation for prejudice against the female voice connects it to the larger question of gender and authority. For historical and social reasons, the ‘unmarked’ or default voice of authority is a male voice;  criticism of female politicians’ voices is essentially a way of tapping into the still-widely held belief that women do not have the authority to lead.

Low voice pitch, a highly salient marker of maleness, is also strongly associated with authority. In 2012 an experimental study using digitally manipulated recordings of men and women saying ‘I urge you to vote for me this November’ found that judges of both sexes preferred the lower pitched version of each recording. Both men and women were advantaged by having a lower voice than their same-sex ‘rival’.

This association is what makes the word ‘shrill’, which combines the concept of high pitch with the idea of an unpleasantly piercing sound, such a common criticism of female public speakers. The linguist Nic Subtirelu has investigated the use of ‘shrill’, along with two other terms that do a similar job, ‘shriek’ and ‘screech’, in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. He calculates that the media are

2.17 times more likely to describe a woman or a girl as “screeching” (or a related form of the word) than a man. A woman or girl is also 3.14 times more likely to be described as “shrieking” (or a related form of the word), and she’s 2.3 times more likely to be described as “shrill”.

High pitch is associated not only with femaleness, but also with other characteristics which imply a lack of authority, such as immaturity (children have high-pitched voices) and emotional arousal (we ‘squeal’ with joy or fear, ‘shriek’ with excitement, ‘screech’ angrily). Saying that a woman’s voice is ‘shrill’ is also a code for ‘she’s not in control’.

It was this perception that led Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first and so far only woman Prime Minister, to undergo voice-training which lowered her pitch significantly. But the result was—to put it mildly—not to everyone’s taste. As Mrs Thatcher soon discovered, the only prejudice more widepread than scepticism about female authority is deep resentment of female authority.

That resentment is expressed in some of the other disparaging terms that are commonly used about women’s voices, like ‘abrasive’, ‘bossy’, ‘grating’, ‘harsh’, ‘hectoring’ and ‘strident’. Rather than focusing on pitch, this set of negative descriptors focuses on the tone and volume of a woman’s voice to suggest that she is aggressive and overbearing.

Today this is an even bigger problem for female politicians than it was for Mrs Thatcher. In an age of interactive, 24/7 media, we no longer treat our leaders as remote authority figures: we want them to be likeable or ‘relatable’ on a human level. But research suggests that it is harder for women to combine authority with likeability. If they score well on one, they’ll do badly on the other.

The female authority figure with the ‘shrill’, ‘grating’ voice is not just unlikeable, she’s also stereotyped as sexually repulsive. When Sylvia Shaw and I analysed media commentary on the UK General Election for our book Gender, Power and Political Speech*, we were struck by how frequently women in authority—and not only politicians, but even the woman newsreader who moderated one of the TV debates—were compared to archetypal female ‘battleaxes’ like the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school, the sadistic nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and ‘Matron’ from the ‘Doctor’ and ‘Carry On’ films. What these fictional characters have in common is that they’re grotesque: ageing, usually ugly, and either totally sexless or sexually voracious, terrifying the male objects of their insatiable desire.

The theme of the sexually predatory female was especially noticeable in commentary on the relationship between Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, and the then-leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband. In the Times, for instance, we got a strange little fable about pigeons, under the headline ‘Nicola Sturgeon and the politics of sadism’:

Spring is the season when pigeons distract us with their mating dance. The male paces about in an exotic strut, coo-cooing and puffing out his chest. The female makes a show of mincing away from him. He follows; she sidesteps; he pursues; she retreats. … On Thursday night on the BBC a similar courtship ritual could be observed taking place between two politicians, but with this striking difference. It was the lady in the dove-grey jacket coo-cooing with a puffed-out chest, and the gentleman in the dove-grey tie who was being coy.

The Sun compared Sturgeon to a Black Widow spider who ‘eats her partners alive’. And in this extract from a political sketch in the Telegraph, the words used to evoke the quality of her voice (in this case through the choice of quotative verbs) play into the depiction of powerful women as bossy bullies:

“Ed Miliband is scared to be bold,” scowled Ms Sturgeon. “We don’t want a pretend alternative to austerity.”
…Desperately Mr Miliband tried to steer the debate back to his absent foe. “Let’s not pretend there’s no difference between me and David Cameron,” he said, rather pleadingly.
“There’s not a big enough difference!” barked Ms Sturgeon.

Whereas Miliband ‘says’ things, ‘pleadingly’, Sturgeon ‘scowls’ and ‘barks’. Hillary Clinton has been described as ‘lecturing’ her audience (the behaviour of a schoolmarm or a strict mother) and her laugh has been called a ‘cackle’ (suggesting another version of the powerful but repulsive female, namely the witch).

Our cultural stereotype of the ‘attractive’ or sexually alluring female voice is very different. A ‘sexy’ voice may be high or low in pitch (think Marilyn Monroe or Lauren Bacall), but it is never ‘shrill’ or ‘grating’: it is breathy rather than clear, soft rather than loud, and ‘warmer than sunlight streaming through a jar of honey’.

Of course, a politician who used this voice would be criticized for ‘lacking authority’. Leanne Wood, whose warm and honeyed tones Richard Madeley said he could ‘listen to all day’, was endlessly patronized by the media: another writer described her as looking like ‘a 16-year-old whose date had failed to show up for the prom’. But unlike Margaret Thatcher, Nicola Sturgeon or Hillary Clinton, Wood did not commit the cardinal female sin of being a ‘turn off’.

Which brings me back to the question of why it’s women whose voices get all the attention. I think it’s at least partly for the same reason there’s more attention to female politicians’ faces, figures and clothes. Women are judged, to a far greater extent than men, by their perceived physical/sexual attractiveness. Judgments on a woman’s voice—the most directly embodied, physical aspect of linguistic performance—are part of the same phenomenon. And just like the judgments made on their bodies, the judgments made on women’s voices often express something more visceral, and more sexual, than the commentators are willing to admit.

Consider, for instance, Ben Shapiro’s defence of ‘shrill’ in a piece whose self-explanatory title was ‘Yes, Hillary Clinton is shrill. No, it’s not sexist to say so’.  His trump card is the observation that not all women politicians get called ‘shrill’:

Nobody calls Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) shrill, because she’s not shrill. She may have lifeless eyes, a doll’s eyes, but she doesn’t shriek like a wounded seagull.

‘Lifeless eyes, a doll’s eyes’??? On reflection, I think I agree with Shapiro that comments like these aren’t most aptly described as ‘sexist’. I’d describe them as outright misogyny.

*Gender, Power and Political Speech: Women and Language in the 2015 UK General Election, by Deborah Cameron and Sylvia Shaw, will be published in April 2016

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