It may seem empowering to believe that women can move through the world free from oppression if they just dress, talk, and act in the “correct” ways, but trying to curtail your life to win men’s approval is itself a form of oppression.
If there’s one tenet I cling to as a feminist, it’s that women did not create sexism and are not responsible for ending it. It’s not our job to accommodate sexism by changing the way we speak, act, and dress in order to be more palatable to the men who have power over us. But on Friday, in a disappointing essay for The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Naomi Wolf, a feminist writer whose books I own and love and who should really know better, argues otherwise—and stumbles into one of the biggest pitfalls of modern feminism.
In her piece, titled “Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice,” Wolf argues that by using speech and vocal patterns like vocal fry and uptalk, young women undermine themselves and “trivialize their important messages to the world.” She encourages young women to take voice lessons in order to train themselves in more authoritative ways of speaking.
There are a couple of problems with her argument, one of which, of course, is that young women are not the only people who use these speech patterns—they’re just the people most likely to be penalized for doing so. Ira Glass pointed out on This American Life that the show receives countless emails railing against women who use vocal fry, but Glass himself, who also uses it, has never been criticized for doing so. Indeed, he has one of the most popular and beloved voices in radio. So let’s dispense with the inaccurate and irrelevant claim that young women aren’t taken seriously because they use uptalk and vocal fry. Uptalk and vocal fry aren’t taken seriously because they’re used by young women.
Wolf’s essay displays the flaws that have come to characterize a certain facet of contemporary feminism—one that acknowledges disparities in the way men and women are treated, but blames those disparities on women. Centered on teaching women how to avoid sexism on an individual level rather than attempting to eliminate it systemically, this approach has been described as “lean-in feminism” after Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, but I like to think of it as “stop-hitting-yourself feminism.” Just like a younger sibling isn’t the one controlling her own hand when her big sister smacks her in the face with it, the misogynistic double standards that keep women from advancing in their careers aren’t within those women’s control.
Anything that young women start doing en masse will automatically become stigmatized. This includes linguistic innovations (since, as The Atlantic pointed out in 2013, young women tend to be at the forefront of new developments in language), but it also applies to everything from popular music to fashion to espresso beverages (how many people do you know who roll their eyes when they hear “pumpkin spice latte”?). It’s not because any of these things are inherently bad, vulgar, or wrong; it’s because the people doing it are stigmatized, considered trivial and unimportant, and that stigma is transferred to anything they do or say.
This year, so far, the scapegoat is vocal fry—if only young women would stop speaking in those creaky voices, they’d achieve so much! A year or two ago it was uptalk. Before that it might have been too much makeup, or breathy voices, or saying “like,” or wearing skirts that were too short or too long, or not asking for raises, or apologizing too much. Next year it might be pausing for too long between sentences or plucking our eyebrows too thin, but make no mistake, there will be another reason not to take young women seriously. And all these complaints are just ways of avoiding the obvious, infuriating truth, which is that a lot of people, especially older men, fundamentally don’t take young women seriously.
It may seem empowering to believe that women can move through the world free from oppression if they just dress, talk, and act in the “correct” ways, but trying to curtail your life to win men’s approval is itself a form of oppression. As long as women keep trying to play the game according to men’s rules, the goalposts will keep moving. Some women will still be successful working within the system, but they will be the exceptions, held up as role models to many more women who have no hope of achieving the same. The only way to victory for all women, not just a select few, is through the dismantling of sexist institutions and mindsets.
Wolf says that “a study…found that this speech pattern makes young women who use it sound less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable”—but to whom? Surely these judgments don’t occur in a vacuum. Why aren’t we interrogating the sexism of the study’s participants, rather than presenting it as a code to live by? Blaming young women for being seen as “less hireable” strikes me as a watered-down version of blaming a sexual assault victim for wearing revealing clothing. Rather than encouraging young women to pay for voice lessons to retrain the way they naturally speak, perhaps we should be pushing the corporate world to provide more inclusivity training and unlearn sexist double standards.
Wolf quotes several young women in her piece, suggesting that they deliberately engage in speech patterns that undermine them because they are afraid of being perceived as too pushy or aggressive—a completely valid fear for women in the workplace, but one that Wolf dismisses as irrelevant. She says of one woman that “it was not her job to placate her elders,” but while that may not be a woman’s job, it’s often an unspoken expectation that women are penalized for not living up to. This is one of the biggest problems with stop-hitting-yourself feminism: the failure to acknowledge that when it comes to gendered expectations, many women are in a double bind. If you fit common stereotypes about women, you’re unprofessional or weak or a pushover. If you don’t, you’re rude or domineering or a bitch. Being ostracized by colleagues because they find you unlikeable can be just as professionally devastating as being ignored by them because they find you timid. Once again, the only way to win is to change the rules of the game.
With (presumably) the best of intentions, Wolf has stumbled into the respectability-politics trap of assuring women that sexism, or at least one particular kind of sexism, would disappear if women just stopped acting so much like women. But men who are predisposed to think less of their female colleagues will always find excuses to do so; if it’s not vocal fry, it will be something else. For women, overcoming sexist preconceptions is basically a game of whack-a-mole. Any time you think you’ve defeated one, another pops up.
Young women are not intentionally making life harder for themselves. Sexism makes life harder for young women. You can use vocal fry and still have a “strong female voice.” We don’t need to change the way women speak; we just need to teach men to listen.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.