Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Gender of Sound

[I want so badly to post on Sarah Palin’s rhetoric, and Barack Obama’s, Hillary Clinton’s, John McCain’s, and Joe Biden’s. What might we say about how we listen to them, about our part in judgment? Don’t have time for that today. So you get this.]

The following is the first page and a half of the last chapter of Glass, Irony, and God by translator and poet Anne Carson. She knows history and culture too, you know. Please stop reading now if, well if you don’t; well, as a blogger friend writes today “(Warning foul language).” Now this too from me: (Warning body-part language). I don’t mean to offend anyone with any words, and my apologies to Carson (and Praxagora and Aristophanes) for the way this has to look on a blog post. Here goes:

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 highpitched 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. If you hear a man talking in a gentle or high-pitched voice you know he is a kinaidos (“catamite”). The poet Aristophanes put a comic turn on this cliché 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.”

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 chords by his testicles functioning as loom weights. 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 not a confusion of vocal quality and vocal use. This therapy was not on the whole recommended to women or eunuchs or androgynes, 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. 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. 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 colleage 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.” 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. . . .

[UPDATE: Another related post by Jim Aune]


Daniel Olson said...

Interesting post. I remember reading about a study that examined the pitch of Larry King's voice as he interviewed different people. It said, if I remember correctly, that he tended to use a higher pitch with guests that he viewed as more authoritative or that he had more respect for and a lower pitch for guest that were less authoritative or that he had less respect for.

Another related tidbit. A while ago, I went to a Renaissance music concert where the lead soprano soloist was a man singing falsetto. He had a good voice, but I was uncomfortable the whole time he was signing. It was not an all-male choir, and right or wrong, I felt like a woman should be singing the soprano part. However, I enjoy men signing high in other music genres, such as r&b or rock. Maybe it is similar to what Charlotte says about Palin, "in the mainstream culture Palin can get away with traditionally masculine interests like hunting and fishing because her affect and appearance are so feminine."

Daniel Olson said...

singing not signing

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks Daniel. I'd not heard of the fascinating study of Larry King. And I appreciate your examples in music preference. You're exactly right in comparing what Charlotte wrote on Palin's "affect and appearance" influencing judgments about the Governor to what Ann Carson wrote about the judgments of the gender of sound.

Daniel Olson said...

More details about the Larry King study:

"Upward and downward convergence was demonstrated in a popular American TV talk show, where the presenter, Larry King, was found to change the pitch of his voice as a function of his guests' status (e.g., he would converge towards President Clinton). Conversely, guests of King that were held in lower social regard (e.g., Vice-President Dan Quayle) would accommodate more to Larry King that he would to them." (Gregory & Webster, 1996). pg. 297, Explaining Communication by Bryan Whaley and Wendy Samter

Here is a link for the study done by Gregory & Webster: A nonverbal signal in voices of interview partners effectively predicts communication accommodation and social status perceptions Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1996 Jun Vol 70(6) 1231-1240