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In a World Where Everyone Has Vocal Training

Actor Lake Bell has been making the press rounds promoting her new indie movie, In a World ..., about a female voice over actor whose gender (and father) have kept her from achieving the same level of success as her male peers. Bell plays Carol, a goodhearted vocal coach that finally stumbles into success, despite industry sexism, when a producer with a point to make hires her to be the first female voice to begin a movie trailer with the iconic phrase "in a world ...".

Lake Bell
Lake Bell at the MFF promoting "In A World.."

All of the actors in the film—not just the ones who play voice over artists—use their voices to amazing effect in creating character and telling story. Bell, who studied theater at the Rose Bruford College in London, says she has always been hyper-aware of voices, accents, and languages. She's on a mission now to stop the spread of what she calls the "sexy baby voice virus:" a combination of a high pitch, vocal fry (a kind of creaking caused by restriction of breath and tension in the muscles around the larynx), and uptalk (sending the pitch of your voice up at the end of the sentence).

Though linguists disagree on whether we can say for sure that vocal fry and uptalking are more common among young women or whether we just notice it more with them, voice professionals and social critics identify the trend as beginning with the Valley Girls of the '80s and being more common with young women than men. Bell contrasts this to previous vocal trends, such as the way actors talked in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, which included both women and men, and posits that women are diminishing themselves by speaking in this way.

When young women use this voice, it's most often with each other. I talked to Nancy Houfek, the Head of Voice and Speech at the American Repertory Theater/Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, who said that members of social groups often adopt similar manners of speaking. While it's possible that uptalking and vocal fry will spread so much that everyone will speak that way in order to fit in, right now it mainly signifies belonging to a particular demographic subset.

Surprised that there are young feminists who talk that way? Don't be. Though uptalk can make women sound vapid, it doesn't mean that they are vapid.

While Bell has been widely lauded for making an explicitly feminist film, she has also been accused by young feminists whose voices fit Bell's description, of demeaning women who talk that way. Surprised that there are young feminists who talk that way? Don't be. Though uptalk can make women sound vapid, it doesn't mean that they are vapid. Similarly, vocal fry is not necessarily the result of being insecure, but it is caused by restricting your breath and tightening up, and that conveys insecurity to people outside of the shared culture of that demographic subset.

Bell's irritation with young women's voices is a result of her training: It comes from the knowledge that women are physiologically capable of sounding different and that in many situations—such as a job interview, debate, or public forum—sounding different would help them come across as more powerful, confident, and grown up. She's less demeaning women for talking that way and more encouraging them to make full use of their instruments in situations where it would be to their benefit.

Interestingly, Bell isn't saying that women need to sound more like men. In fact, in the film, her character explicitly says that women need to sound more like women instead of little girls. Nor is she saying that women should never use vocal fry or uptalk. Many successful singers use vocal fry quite effectively, and uptalk is a great way of using your voice to lead your listener into the next thought. (Houfek cites Senator Elizabeth Warren as a master of this.) But our voices are one of the primary instruments of self-expression, and if we want to convey the full range of our thoughts and feelings in a wide variety of given circumstances, we'd better know how to use that instrument to it's fullest potential.

In a World .. makes a compelling case for vocal training as part of both conservatories and undergraduate theater programs. Though the film's overt use of voice acting is rare in Hollywood, even in movies where the voice work is subtler, the difference between actors who know how to use their voices to create character and those who do not can be profound. In the theater, vocal training can be the difference between booking or not booking a job. And I share Lake Bell's perspective that even non-actors can benefit from voice work. As Nancy Houfek put it:

Being able to use your voice and your breath without tension makes you sound more confident, more relaxed, and more connected to what you are saying. The words have more power and will land with listeners more effectively. And this is a human thing, not a gendered thing.


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Up talk is not all bad. I've been thinking (and writing) about how this vocal tic actually reflects a desire on the part of the speaker to connect with and receive validation from the listener. It connects with Meisner listening in the repetition exercise, Mamet's "the test of the action is in the other person," Patsy Rodenburg's "Second Circle," and the "respectful listening" meaning of "Achtung" as explored by Adrian Piper. Ervin Goffman also wrote about this kind of thing in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. I call it "Transaction."

Of course when taken to an extreme it signals weakness and an unbalanced neediness. The up talk speaker is insufficiently individuated; unable to assert and defend a heroic narrative that can stand on its own without verification and validation from the outside.

Agreed. It's always funny to me that students use a lot of uptalk in daily life but have a hard time applying it to Shakespeare, where you need it at the end of a verse line that's not the end of a sentence. Maybe as the tendency spreads it will become natural to them.