Frisky Rant: Vocal Fry Isn’t Holding Women Back, Misogyny Is

Young women: femininity is powerful. Your speech patterns are powerful. The slang and vocal patterns of teenage girls are so powerful that they’ve been dissected and analyzed by linguistic scientists: uptalk, vocal fry, even the “Valley Girl” stereotype all point to specific speech patterns utilized by some women. A piece published in The Guardian yesterday argues that vocal fry is “hobbling” young women. That is false. The assertion that masculinity or male patterns of speech are superior is what’s really “hobbling” young women.

In her piece, Naomi Wolf argues that vocal fry is restricted to “young women” and that using this pattern of speech is antithetical to a “strong female voice.” The examples she gives include the Kardashians — the sisterhood are arguably the fountainhead of the speech style — Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Scarlett Johansson and Zooey Deschanel. Wolf goes on to argue that speaking in that style is holding women back in the workplace. But if that’s the case, perhaps she should examine the business habits of the examples she chose.

I don’t really need to enumerate the enormous empire of the Kardashians, cemented just this week with a powerfully sex-positive Complex cover story centered on Khloe Kardashian. Britney Spears is in the middle of her massive Piece Of Me residency in Vegas that just got extended. Zooey Deschanel founded and runs her own cultural website called Hello Giggles that has a strong emphasis on diversity and LGBT issues and publishes thoughtful, funny and feminine writing for an eager readership. Plus, there’s also her acting and singing credits. Katy Perry is literally one of the most successful businesswomen in the world. That California guuuurl took her Valley accent all the way to the top of the Forbes 500 list — she’s the third highest-earning woman in the world this year.

If this is really about money and power, Wolf chose her examples poorly. Their frequent use of vocal fry is not holding these women back, in fact, they’re at the top of the game. If we’re going off self-advocacy, all of these women frequently speak up for themselves, skewering Wolf’s stereotyping. Perhaps America’s patriarchal culture still devalues their art as lowbrow, but that isn’t stopping them from dominating our capitalistic system. Instead Wolf seems to argue that these are examples of women doing the wrong thing, expressing the wrong form of power. That’s because the power they’re expressing is feminine, not negative. It’s founded in sexuality, emotion, reality TV, giggling, ringlets, wide-eyed, quirky humor. The locus of their power resides in feminine expression without a hint of what society considers masculine.

Wolf writes that women don’t possess enough self-advocacy, and often underrate their own skills and abilities; that their ability to effectively vocalize their self-worth is what’s holding them back in jobs and other merit-based positions. At the same time, she writes that she experiences a “cordial hatred” toward women who speak with vocal fry, and imagines a cohort of other women who feel this way as well. There is nothing cordial about hatred, and hatred based on speech patterns is even more nonsensical than the oxymoron she’s coined there. Cordial hatred does not exist. There is nothing cordial about this piece. It is a sternly schoolmarm of an essay; the kind of backwards cultural policing that urges “good girls” to not stay out too late, to not sleep with men on the first date, and to learn how to cook at least one good casserole. Consider that it’s this kind of poisonous self-policing from within our own gender — even famous feminists like Wolf — that holds women back from self-confidence. Consider that what older, more experienced women say to young women has a deeply profound effect, and articles like this, laced with a smug superiority, are what prohibits us from feeling fully empowered.

The reason why I find it so toxic when backwards opinions like these are parroted as feminism is because I used to believe that expressing my femininity made me weak. I bought into this line of thinking hook, line, and sinker. I thought wearing makeup made me weaker. I thought the more “masculine” I was, the stronger I’d become. So I excelled in sports, pursued leadership positions, frowned upon frivolous feminine shows like “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” and pop music. Was I successful? Yes, but I wasn’t happy. I was so judgmental of other women. I was upset when the Katy Perrys and the Kim Kardashians of the world found success and when women who embraced their feminine identity achieved things I couldn’t. Like Wolf, I characterized feminine power as inherently weaker or less pure than traditional masculine characteristics. I worried that my feminine expression would upset or irritate the men in power over me. Thankfully, I was eventually exposed to a different way of being in the world, a feminism that is sex-positive, inclusive, strong, intersectional and centered in an appreciation and love of all female expression. My feminism doesn’t automatically elevate masculine behavior over female. My feminism doesn’t seek to police other women into traditional gender roles.

Another of Wolf’s arguments focuses on an arbitrary, somewhat obvious finding: vocal fry annoys old men! (Heaven forbid.) Wolf argues that older men are often in authority over young women, and how irked they are by vocal fry might stop them from promoting or supporting women. Her assertion that the opinions of old men matter enough for young women to change their vocal patterns in an attempt to please them is so insulting that I almost do feel angry. But I don’t really have to because guess what? Even if older men are in positions of power right now, that’s not going to be the case for much longer. Statistics indicate that women are attending college at an alarmingly higher rate than men, while men are falling behind in higher education statistics too. By the time my daughter gets to the workplace, her bosses theoretically might all be women. Some of those women will have grown up watching “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” and listening to Katy Perry. They will be transgender women, queer women, women of color and women who don’t give a fuck if however they choose to talk, dress and exist annoys older men, or anyone else for that matter.

Whatever loathing Wolf might have for vocal fry, when I read her piece I didn’t feel any “cordial hatred” for her. Instead, I felt sadness. This is hatred of women and their behavior from and by a woman; a sort of self-misogyny that is actually pretty heartbreaking. This kind of self-misogyny is also insidious. One of the saddest things about misogyny is that it is never perpetrated solely by men – women can be just as hateful, just as abusive. The idea that feminine expressions are less valuable is an internalized truth for the majority of people.

Let’s be clear: Vocal fry isn’t holding you back. Neither is lipstick, or cutoff jorts, short skirts or cleavage. Neither are false eyelashes or bikini waxes, combat boots, facial piercings or body hair. No form of gender expression or outward characteristic prohibits a woman from self-advocacy or success. What is holding you back is a society that deems these personal expressions as a reasonable way to measure your worth. If I could get every young woman in the world to believe that, all of Wolf’s sexist wheedling would be rendered useless. Publications that pay writers to dictate this kind of prescriptive, outdated and shaming piece? Those are holding women back.

A mindset that devalues feminine speech patterns and, more generally, feminine ways of being in the world, only reinforces patriarchal structure. Instead of praising men, simply shame women — it’s a stronger and sneakier way to undercut feminine power. Moreover, it reinforces a binary that’s completely false. There are still distinct poles of feminine and masculine roles in our culture, sure, but that distinction is an arbitrary one as well. As this binary disintegrates, we see men who identify more with feminine power and vice versa. Queer and trans identities help expose the binary view of gender for the farce that is and reveal the wider spectrum that exists in reality. More than ever, the locus of power exists solely within the individual and how they wish to express themselves. I am fiercely in favor of working toward a society that honors this individual expression, individual desire and individual portrayal. Articles like Wolf’s expose a fundamental belief in two fixed gender roles. This kind of thinking works against a world that has only just begun to celebrate a multiplicity of gender roles, expressions and behaviors.

To peg vocal fry as something only young women identify with is equally myopic. This author views the world through an ageist, heteronormative lens that’s alarming. It’s even more alarming that this piece ran on a site who so regularly publishes brilliant, inclusive thinkers like Jessica Valenti, Roxane Gay and other writers who are on the front lines of the fight against this kind of combative, demeaning mindset.

It’s worth noting that The Guardian themselves concurrently published a rebuttal to Wolf’s piece. In that piece, writer Erin Riley eloquently argues that a phenomena like vocal fry is just another excuse to ignore women’s voices. But it’s not enough to present these arguments side by side like they deserve equal weight. The Guardian needs to take it one step further by refusing to elevate those who espouse extreme heteronormative views, who assume all gatekeepers will be older men, and that all young women are seeking success among these ranks. Women who build their arguments off hatred toward other women are hurting so many and helping no one. It is irresponsible to publish a piece founded on this kind of catty, sneering logic.

In the very first sentence of her piece, Wolf argues that the patriarchy is inventive. That’s not true — the patriarchy is tired, unoriginal and predictable, and so is she. It’s like, young women who are actually the innovative ones. After all, we were the ones who came up with a whole new way of speaking. One that’s so original it has prompted its own host of research, theories, studies, and finally, haters. What, like it’s hard?

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