A week or two ago, in a sleepless spell in the middle of the night, I happened upon a radio program in which an intelligence woman was interviewing a female Professor in an area of science and they were joined by another smart woman, there to add her views, comments and opinions. All of them were conversing in ‘sexy-baby-speak’ and the incongruity, the irritation and the sadness overwhelmed me. I began by loosing concentration, couldn’t ‘get’ what they were discussing at all and ended by switching off, wondering, as I had been doing for some time, what it’s all about, this funny voice thing. I had understood that it was about disempowerement, but what is so bothering is that young women seem pushed into making this choice. I turned to our old friend Wikipedia and explored some links. Here’s what I discovered –
“If women always sound like they’re asking for approval or agreement, they seem less sure of themselves,” says Mary-Ellen Drummond, a communications consultant from Santa Fe in California. Someone in the same line of business, Diane DiResta (author of Knockout Presentations: How to Deliver Your Message with Power, Punch and Pizzazz), is still more categorical.
“I believe it is also an outgrowth of our politically correct society where people tiptoe around their beliefs by monitoring their language,” she says. “Uptalk is a form of this politically correct language. It’s as if a person’s tentative tone allows them to retract the statement if it is met with criticism or disapproval. People are afraid to take a stand.”
And she agrees that it’s a menace to women trying to clamber the corporate ladder: “Uptalk robs them of credibility and authority. It is especially disempowering for women.”
“Vocal fry is also believed to serve the same linguistic function – to make the speaker sound more authoritative. I like this school of thought because it holds a much more positive view of young women in understanding that they’re actually really inventive and progressive in their use of language, rather than unintelligent and superficial.
Instead of holding age-old sexist biases against young women, it actually seeks to understand the underlying functions of their communication styles.
The speech patterns at issue are described as sounding “like Minnie Mouse on helium”, or a “mousy squeak [with a] handful of gravel tossed across the very top of the register”. Actress Lake Bell described the style as an amalgamation of “valley-girl voice” (characterized by “upspeak“) and high pitch.
“Sexy baby voice” is controversial in the context of discussions about gender equality and related issues. Bell and others have argued that the use of “sexy baby voice” is problematic because it demeans the speaker, who appears as a “submissive 12-year-old trying to be a sex object”, or because its use in film and television, as a tool of sexual manipulation, exploits contemporary culture’s “fetish for adult sexuality wrapped in adolescent packages”.
Other commentators questioned the purpose of critiquing the use of the speech pattern, asserting that “picking at the vocal quirks of your own gender is just as much of a nuisance as harping on the bodies that belong to them”. Phonetician Mark Liberman wrote that it was not clear that the discussion about “sexy baby voice” referred to any identifiable speech style, instead of to a “long list” of vocal features people objected to in female speech. He also noted previous discussions about similar female speech patterns in earlier decades, such as a controversy about “uptalk” in the 1990s.
And an educator writes –
“If, as Lake Bell asserts, baby voice is learned, it can be unlearned through practice, positive reinforcement, and more practice. However, before tackling the symptom, I wanted to get at the root of the problem. I turned to psychotherapist and author Katie Hurley. She explained that younger children tend to use this form of vocal regression to cope with anxiety, when they are feeling overwhelmed or battling intrusive, distressing emotions and thoughts. For older children, she said, “it can stem from low self-esteem or is used to seek attention from peers and/or adults.”
What’s it got to do with adoption? My guess is that you will find many young female adoptees, disempowered by their losses and their situation, exhibiting those losses and traumas in the use of ‘sexy-baby-speak’. Please let me know if I’m wrong. I look forward to hearing from you….