Naomi Wolf and the vocal fry: The accepted voice of authority shouldn't sound only like a white male

It’s my great pleasure today to disagree with both Naomi Wolf and her critics.

This whole vocal-fry thing is not about holding women down.

Or rather, it’s about so much more.

Last week Wolf penned a misguided address to young women in North America and Britain: To be successful, she wrote, we must change our voices.

No more uptalk (adding a question-mark sound to a statement). No more “like.” No more “breathiness” or run-on sentences. And no more vocal fry (the staccato distortion that sounds like an idling motor).

That last one has had a popular year. This American Life did a show on it, prompted by piles of hate-mail from listeners who can’t stand to hear women reporters.

Wolf argued in the Guardian, rather incoherently, that women should not be judged by how they sound, but since they are — and since it may be ruining their careers (a modern woman’s most sacred possession) — women should try to sound better.

She even argued that young women put on wispy voices out of insecurity, and if they only use their “own voices,” then “huge, good changes follow.”

Asking women to change is very un-feminist thinking from a popular feminist, Wolf’s critics have pointed out .

I agree. Except they, too, are missing the point.

The policing of voices isn’t a feminist issue. It’s a general, equal-opportunity tool of oppression.

It’s done to all sections of society deemed improper, either by way of gender, class or race.

In the U.K. — a linguistic buffet — class and the posh, “proper” English accent has long dictated the BBC’s sound. It’s more diverse these days, but just last year, a viewer deemed one BBC reporter’s northern English accent a “terrible affliction.”

In America, it’s a matter of race. Writing for NPR earlier this year, Chenjerai Kumanyika discussed making his voice sound less black for radio.

There is an accepted way to speak with authority. It involves a relatively low register, no immigrant accent and no slang. It sounds very male, very white and very upper class. All must rise to it, or be silent.

I’m not above its allure. I’ve secretly criticized women’s voices and wondered why some speak so softly.

But sexism, racism and classism are no excuse for tuning out others. Maybe once our media sounds as diverse as our streets, we’ll stop thinking that authority sounds like a white man.

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