Lately it seems everyone’s got an opinion about women’s speech. Everybody has been getting his two cents in about vocal fry, up-speak, and women’s allegedly over-liberal use of apologies. The ways women live and move in the world are subject to relentless scrutiny, their modes of speech are assessed against a (usually) masculine standard. This is increasingly true as women have entered previously male-dominated fields like industry and politics.
In his essay “On Speech and Public Release,” Joshua Gunn highlights the field of public address as an important arena where social roles and norms are contested, reshaped, and upheld. Gunn argues that the field of public address is an important symbolic arena where we harbor an “[ideological] bias against the feminine voice,” a bias, that is rooted in positive primal associations with masculinity (and the corresponding devaluation of femininity, the voice that constrains and nags—the mother, the droning Charlie Brown schoolteacher, the wife).
Gunn contends that masculine speech is the cultural standard. It’s what we value and respect. The low pitch and assertive demeanor that characterize the adult male voice signify reason, control, and authority, suitable for the public domain. Women’s voices are higher pitched, like those of immature boys, and their characteristic speech patterns have a distinctive cadence that exhibits a wider range of emotional expression. In Western cultures, this is bad because it comes across as uncontrolled. We associate uncontrolled speech - “the cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp” - with things that happen in the private, domestic spheres (both coded as feminine). Men are expected to repress passionate, emotional speech, Gunn explains, precisely because it threatens norms of masculine control and order.
The notion of control also relates to the cultural ideal of eloquence. Language ideologies in the U.S. are complex and highly prescriptive, but not formal or explicit. They are internalized by osmosis, from early observations of adult language use, criticism from teachers (i.e., telling little girls not to “be so bossy” and boys to “act like gentlemen”), and sanctions imposed by peers. These norms become most obvious when they are violated. When men fall off the “control and reason” wagon, they suffer for it. Gunn recalls Howard Dean’s infamous 2004 “I Have a Scream” speech, in which Dean emitted a spontaneous high-pitched screech of joy after he rattled off a list of planned campaign stops. The rest, as they say, is history. Women face a different dilemma—how to please like a woman and impress like a man. Women in the public sphere have, historically, been expected to “perform” femininity and they usually do this by adopting a personal tone, giving anecdotal evidence, using domestic metaphors, and making emotional appeals to ideals of wifely virtue and motherhood.
Gunn arrives at the conclusion that “eloquence” is, essentially, code for values associated with masculinity, saying, “Performances of femininity are principally vocal and related, not to arguments, but to tone; not to appearance, but to speech; not to good reasons, but to sound. This implies that the ideology of sexism is much more insidious, much more deeply ingrained than many might suppose.”
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