The Gender of Sound: Description, Definition and Mistrust of the Female Voice in Western Culture

By Carson, Anne | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

The Gender of Sound: Description, Definition and Mistrust of the Female Voice in Western Culture


Carson, Anne, Resources for Feminist Research


Physiognomics It is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable, moribund, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals, inspired by God. These judgments happen fast and can be brutal. Aristotle tells us that the high pitched voice of the female is one evidence of her evil disposition, for creatures who are brave or just (like lions, bulls, roosters and the human male) have large deep voices.(f.1) If you hear a man talking in a gentle or highpitched voice you know he is a kinaidos ("catamite").(f.2) The poet Aristophanes puts a comic turn on this cliche in his Ekklesiazousai. As the women of Athens are about to infiltrate the Athenian assembly and take over political process, the feminist leader Praxagora reassures her fellow female activists that they have precisely the right kind of voices for this task. Because, as she says, "You know that among the young men the ones who turn out to be terrific talkers are the ones who get fucked a lot" (113-114).

This joke depends on a collapsing together of two different aspects of sound production, quality of voice and use of voice. We will find the ancients continually at pains to associate these two aspects under a general rubric of gender. High vocal pitch goes together with talkativeness to characterize a person who is deviant from or deficient in the masculine ideal of self-control. Women, catamites, eunuchs and androgynes fall into this category. Their sounds are bad to hear and make men uncomfortable. Just how uncomfortable may be measured by the lengths to which Aristotle is willing to go in accounting for the gender of sound physiognomically; he ends up ascribing the lower pitch of the male voice to the tension placed on a man's vocal cords by his testicles functioning as loom weights.(f.3) In Hellenistic and Roman times doctors recommended vocal exercises to cure all sorts of physical and psychological ailments in men, on the theory that the practice of declamation would relieve congestion in the head and correct the damage that men habitually do to themselves in daily life by using the voice for highpitched sounds, loud shouting or aimless conversation. Here again we note a confusion of vocal quality and vocal use. This therapy was not on the whole recommended to women or eunuchs orandrogynes, who were believed to have the wrong kind of flesh and the wrong alignment of pores for the production of low vocal pitches, no matter how hard they exercised. But for the masculine physique vocal practice was thought an effective way to restore body and mind by pulling the voice back down to appropriately manly pitches.(f.4) I have a friend who is a radio journalist and he assures me that these suppositions about voice quality are still with us. He is a man and he is gay. He spent the first several years of his career in radio fending off the attempts of producers to deepen, darken and depress his voice, which they described as "having too much smile in it." Very few women in public life do not worry that their voices are too high or too light or too shrill to command respect. Margaret Thatcher trained for years with a vocal coach to make her voice sound more like those of the other Honourable Members and still earned the nickname "Attila The Hen."(f.5) This hen analogy goes back to the publicity surrounding Nancy Astor, first female member of the British House of Commons in 1919, who was described by her colleague Sir Henry Channon as "a queer combination of warmheartedness, originality and rudeness....she rushes about like a decapitated hen....intriguing and enjoying the smell of blood...the mad witch."(f.6)

Madness and witchery as well as bestiality are conditions commonly associated with the use of the female voice in public, in ancient as well as modern contexts. Consider how many female celebrities of classical mythology, literature and cult make themselves objectionable by the way they use their voice. …

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