Voices at an exhibition

Last week I went to see the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition ‘This is a voice’, which explores, among other things, ‘how the unique grain of the voice locates us socially, geographically and psychologically, and how the voice can be dramatically altered by treatment and training’. The exhibits relating to this theme deal with subjects ranging from accent reduction to ventriloquism. But in this post I’m going to concentrate on two pieces which consider the way voices are gendered.

In Chris Chapman’s 2016 video ‘Voice and identity’, Adele, a trans woman, and James, a trans man, talk about the way their voices changed during the process of transitioning. Their personal reflections are intercut with explanatory commentary from a speech and language therapist, Jen Read.

One of the first points the video makes is that altering the way they sound is much more difficult for trans women (who make up around 85% of the caseload for speech therapists working with trans people), because the feminizing hormones they take do not affect their voices. Taking testosterone, by contrast, causes a trans man’s vocal folds to thicken and so produces a deeper voice. James recalls that his voice had changed perceptibly within three weeks of beginning treatment. He presents the way he sounds as something he has little or no control over—though he is happy with the result, saying that others now respond to him more consistently as a man.

Adele describes a much more conscious process of thinking about the kind of voice she wanted and then working out how to produce it. She says she never wanted a ‘girly’ voice: even if that had been achievable, it wouldn’t have been right either for her profession (acting) or her sense of who she was as an individual. Her post-transition voice has remained noticeably low in pitch. But like James, she reports a positive effect, saying that people no longer have difficulty in recognizing her as a woman.

What Adele’s case underlines is that sounding like a woman is not just a question of pitch. If you were only going by pitch, Adele could be a person of either sex. What leads others (including me) to perceive her voice as a woman’s rather than a man’s is her whole vocal performance of femininity; in her case that depends less on pitch per se than on her voice quality, intonation (that is, pitch movement, the melody of speech), and the way she articulates certain sounds.

Jen Read’s comments make clear that pitch is only one of the things she works on with her clients. She also shows them how to produce what she calls a ‘brighter’ sound by articulating further forward in the mouth, encourages them to add more breathiness to their voices, and teaches them to make use of more varied intonation patterns. Some courses and advice books aimed at trans women go further, offering suggestions for feminizing your vocabulary (use words like ‘gorgeous’), grammar (ask lots of questions) and paralanguage (smile!).

Not all the intended recipients of this advice are eager to take it. The veteran trans activist Kate Bornstein rejected it entirely:

I was taught to speak in a very high-pitched, very breathy, sing-song voice and to tag questions onto the end of each sentence. And I was supposed to smile all the time when I was talking. And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk like that!’

The truth is that nobody talks like that. Many of the tips given to trans women are plucked from the same steaming pile of ‘zombie facts’ about women’s speech that I’ve criticised in earlier posts (e.g., that women chatter away endlessly, apologize constantly and make everything sound like a question). What they collectively add up to is a picture of female speech that has approximately the same relationship to reality as Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent in Mary Poppins. But the thing about caricatures is that we do generally recognize what they are meant to be. If your main concern is to avoid being misgendered, a highly stereotypical performance might actually serve your purposes better than a more ‘realistic’ one.

Even at its least stereotypical, though, the voice-training given to trans women takes a normative approach. It doesn’t start from empirical observations about the way most women actually sound, but rather from an idealized notion of how a woman ought to sound. Most of Jen Read’s advice, for instance, is based on the idea that sounding like a woman means projecting ‘feminine’ qualities in your voice–that’s why she teaches clients to make their voices softer, breathier, warmer and more emotionally expressive. These vocal characteristics have nothing to do with the physical differences between the sexes: their association with women rather than men is cultural rather than natural. And from a feminist perspective they are not unproblematic, because so many of the qualities we define as ‘feminine’ are inextricably linked to women’s subordinate status.

If there is more to the gendering of voices than pitch, why is it assumed that trans men do not need to be instructed in the finer points of ‘masculine’ performance? Reviewing the literature on transgender and language in 1999, the anthropologist Don Kulick commented that virtually all the sources he read, both expert and popular, made that assumption. What lay behind it, in his view, was a tacit understanding that femininity requires (from all women, not just trans women) a more elaborate kind of performance than masculinity. As Kulick puts it,

Being a man is self-evident, whereas being a woman is a complicated set of procedures that require careful adherence to detailed, explicit instructions…about how to walk, talk, sit, eat, dress, move and display affect.

His point is illustrated by the contrast between James’s unselfconscious account of finding his voice (which he presents as more a case of it finding him) and Adele’s acute awareness of the choices she had to make. It’s a pity ‘Voice and identity’ doesn’t explore this difference in more depth. In fact, I found it generally lacking in complexity, though that may be because it isn’t aimed at people like me who already know something about its subject. For those who don’t, it’s a clear and informative presentation.

The same cannot be said about the other exhibit relating to the altered/gendered voice, Imogen Stidworthy’s video installation ‘Castrato’. This consists of three screens, showing, respectively, a soprano, a boy treble and a counter-tenor–those being the voice-types that were digitally merged to simulate the castrato voice for the film Farinelli. The catalogue description says that the artist has taken the ‘lost voice’ of the castrato (the last one died in 1922) as ‘the starting-point for an investigation into the interdependence and divergence between voices and bodies’.

I’m not sure what kind of ‘investigation’ the artist had in mind, but I did find it strange that an exhibition in a museum devoted to the history of medicine and science provided no historical information about the practice of castrating boys to preserve their pure, high voices into adulthood. All the curator’s notes say about this is that it was ‘long since made illegal’.

Actually, castration was always forbidden by canon law (i.e. the law of the Roman Catholic Church)—though between the 16th and 19th centuries, when the practice flourished in Italy, it was the Church that gave castrati both their musical training and in many cases their employment. At a time when women were prohibited from singing in church (where St Paul had decreed they should be silent), castrati were highly valued as choral singers. They shared the boy treble’s ability to sing high-register parts, but they were more experienced, more rigorously trained and had far more vocal power (castration prevented their voices from breaking, but it did not stop them from developing the lung capacity of adult males). They were also in demand as operatic performers, playing both male and female roles. Until the 18th century female singers were banned from the stage as well as the church, but in any case the castrato voice was considered superior because of its greater purity and power.

Most of the boys who supplied this demand came from poor families who saw the castration of their sons as an investment. The pay-off was supposed to be economic security, and perhaps even fame and fortune. This didn’t always work out, though: some boys died from bleeding or infection (or overdoses of the opium that was sometimes used as an anaesthetic), and not all those who survived had the musical talent to succeed. Historical sources suggest that even those who prospered quite often expressed resentment towards their families, and sometimes refused them financial support.

The most famous castrati have often been presented as exotic or romantic figures, and in recent decades, as Patricia Juliana Smith points out, the way they ‘blurred distinctions of sex and gender’ has given them ‘a certain queer appeal’. The facts I’ve just outlined, though, make it difficult to regret the end of the practice that produced their ‘angelic‘ voices. Not because that practice produced anomalously-gendered people, but because it was brutal, dangerous and enacted on children (most were aged between 7 and 9) who could have had little idea what it would mean for their future lives. Some castrati are known to have married,  but hypogonadism usually impairs sexual function, and it always results in infertility. That isn’t a small sacrifice, especially when you didn’t choose to make it.

Thinking about the case of the castrati might also prompt reflection on the ethical dilemma that has recently arisen in relation to the increasing numbers of children who are presenting as transgendered before the onset of puberty. It is now possible to alter the course of their sexual development by treating them with puberty-blocking drugs and then initiating the transition process. But since treatment must begin before children are able to make their own medical decisions, the question arises of whether parents should be able to make this highly consequential decision on children’s behalf. As I mentioned before, many castrati seem to have felt regret, and in some cases deep resentment, about the choice their families made for them. Will that history be repeated with the current generation of trans children?

We might tell ourselves that the two cases have nothing in common: the motivations behind the choice are different, and this is not the 18th century. Our medical science is far more sophisticated, and our attitudes to sex and gender are more enlightened. But one thing we learn from the history of  science is to be cautious in assessing the state of our knowledge. What one generation of scientists presents as settled, objective fact may later come to be seen as wrong, incomplete and biased; what is regarded as an enlightened view in one time and place may be judged very differently in another. After seeing both the exhibits I’ve discussed, I couldn’t help wondering how our beliefs about gender, and the associated practices of training and treatment, will be seen by future historians and scientists.

The parts of this exhibition that deal with gender most directly focus on unusually dramatic forms of voice-alteration, and one point that gets lost as a result is that all gendered voices are in some sense altered voices. In most cases this doesn’t involve  medical treatment or formal training, but it is still an example of culture modifying the raw material supplied by nature.

That point even applies to the relationship between sex and voice pitch. Though this mostly reflects the physical differences between adult men and women, research suggests it has a learned component too: the ‘normal’ pitch of a male or female voice has been found to vary across cultures and languages. Studies have also found that boys’ voices can be distinguished fairly reliably from girls’, though before puberty that can’t be because of any significant difference in their vocal anatomy.

What we see in these cases is the effect of everyday socialization processes. As they become aware of the norms of their culture, children unconsciously train themselves to perform gender in accordance with social expectations. They’re also taught to do this by others’ feedback on their performance. The girl whose teacher repeatedly tells her to speak more quietly, or the boy whose peers deride his ‘gay’ pronunciation of certain sounds, are both learning lessons about what kinds of voices should go with what kinds of people.

What feminists need to keep in mind, though, is that the ‘should’ in that last sentence is a cultural injunction: it doesn’t refer to some immutable natural law. Like other norms for gender-appropriate behaviour, the norms that regulate gendered vocal performance can be criticized, resisted, and changed.

‘This is a voice’ is at the Wellcome Collection in London until the end of July 2016.


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