A Sirens’ Song

by Abigail Akavia

Two weeks ago, Maniza Naqvi evocatively wrote here on the resonance of a mythological rape in the eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court (“The State of The Rape of Sabines”). Today, I would like to revisit Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, focusing on how the qualities of her voice were put front and center by those who refused to take her actual words seriously. In the Ford-Kavanaugh events, we witnessed, again, how female suffering—the female voice itself as it tells of violence and injustice—is dismissed and mistrusted. And I would like to show that this resonates powerfully with another two of our civilization-forming myths: the rape of Persephone and the song of the Sirens.

During her testimony, disparaging comments on Blasey Ford’s childish tone and her vocal fry appeared on social media; these qualities were, for those responding to it, signs of her untrustworthiness. Such disapproving comments are an example of fairly run-of-the-mill misogyny: a suspicion against what a woman has to say simply because she sounds too feminine. But with vocal fry in particular, there is an interesting inversion of expectations at work that is worth considering.

Vocal fry is a dip into the lower register of the voice, typically at the end of a sentence. It has become notorious in the last decade as a much-maligned characteristic speech-effect of college-aged women. Women who exhibit this kind of creaking low-pitch speech are perceived as less competent, less reliable, and less attractive. A study of the phenomena finds concrete and measurable effects of this perceived unreliability of a vocal fry-er: speaking with a vocal fry can lower one’s job prospects.

In 2015, Naomi Wolf made vocal fry even more notorious when she called on young women to stop using it in an open letter in The Guardian. In that piece, Wolf decries young women’s renunciation of power through their “destructive speech patterns.” She describes the way women consciously adopt certain trends of vocal expression, such as run-on sentences and “up-talk” (a rising inflection, as when uttering a question), in order to be heard more easily by their superiors or elders. There is a vicious cycle here: the tendency to be self-effacing, placating and apologetic, which these speech effects demonstrate, are coping mechanisms against a systemic mistrust of women’s voices—of what they have to say—to begin with. But these mechanisms then become another target for the same system, purportedly proving that women’s voices are untrustworthy.

Yet up-talk and vocal fry seem to me two different beasts: indeed, the women Wolf quotes do not address vocal fry as a conscious choice. And, as far as I can tell, vocal fry is perceived as particularly annoying precisely when it is combined with up-talk, whether or not the annoyed is aware of his combined bias. Both those who are suspicious of women who dare speak, and those who want to empower them to speak up, would claim that making your statements sound like questions is a problem, for it bespeaks a timidity and inability—or fear—to own one’s opinions and assert yourself. This is coded in our most basic communicative proficiency, in how we know language to work: at least in English, an upward intonation conveys uncertainty. Wolf’s exhortation in The Guardian was no doubt meant to be heard as empowering advice, a recommendation to behave authoritatively. She blames our patriarchal culture for making women adopt their destructive speech patterns: “It is because these young women are so empowered that our culture assigned them a socially appropriate mannerism that is certain to tangle their steps and trivialise their important messages to the world.” Wolf does in fact address the systemic misogyny at the basis of such disparaging perceptions of women’s voices, a system that finds ever new and apparently rational ways to upbraid women for, well, speaking while woman. But—as the backlash to Wolf’s letter made very clear—by asking women to stop using these vocal effects, and holding them responsible for inflicting upon themselves the disadvantages associated with these effects, Wolf herself takes part in the essentially misogynistic enterprise of policing women’s voices, thus (at least partly) perpetuating what she is fighting against.

It is admittedly hard to compare one speech trend and its underlying causes with another, but vocal fry seems much less of a conscious and intentional gesture than other speech effects. Researchers of this undeniably recent trend cannot say why it has become popular. But there are speculations as to why so many, particularly older men (particularly those with some measure of power), consider it so annoying. The prevalent explanation is that when the speaker is a woman, the fall into a lower register makes her voice sound less feminine, and that this departure from the social expectation of what her voice should be makes her sound (literally) less appealing. Along this train of thought, the vocal fry in women enacts a claim for maleness and the concomitant authority that might come with a deeper voice—a claim that is perceived as out-of-place and socially illegitimate, especially because it sounds inconsistent with the speaker’s normal voice.

What is particularly infuriating (read: standard) about the sometimes vitriolic contempt with which the voice of fryers is described (examples can be found here), is that this vitriol is reserved for women. While it is probably more common in women, male speakers also use vocal fry (British men apparently do it often). Yet, when a man does it the phenomenon is not perceived as problematic, presumably because his voice goes from manly to more-manly. This has no jarring effect—on the contrary, it may lend gravitas and credibility to his sound, and his words.

Vocal intentionality aside, the difference between urging young women to simply say what they want to say without apology, and asking them to stop using vocal fry, is that the effects of the latter exhortation are much less clear-cut, precisely since the causes of vocal fry are more opaque. In other words, there is a basic and seemingly unanswerable question here: when we tell women not to fry, are we telling them to stop trying to sound manly, or to stop sounding so feminine?

Blasey Ford’s vocal fry was held against her because it was perceived as a mimicry of young women, as an intentional effect she put on in order to sound young, and dishonestly arouse compassion for what she alleges her younger self experienced. Never mind that the stress of giving testimony very likely had an effect on her vocal chords. Never mind that none of these commenters had any encounter with her—any knowledge of her normal voice—outside of this singular event. And never mind that compassion for what happened to her in her teens is a legitimate outcome of her testimony. In addition to sounding female, which is bad enough, the claim was that this femininity wasn’t even genuine. Her voice was read as saying: I am pretending to be a victim by adopting the ultimate female voice.

Credibility is not, never was, an option in this game of speaking while woman. For there is always a double-bind in place: speak too authoritatively and you’re not woman enough, speak too emotionally and you’re too woman. What vocal fry adds to the mix, when it too is weaponized against women, is questions of gender-essentialism and dissimulation. Both gender and the possibility of deliberately misrepresenting it become coded into the very materiality of the voice as a physical trait, as something emanating from the body. Simply listening to what a woman has to say is, of course, out of the question.

***

I have been thinking for a while of the #MeToo movement in terms of a chorus of women, a group that speaks in the first person singular—one of the (many) stylistic peculiarities of choruses in Greek tragedy. Thinking of the expectation (by now a repeatedly frustrated one) that the transformation of a singular story, of a dozen singular stories, of a million singular stories into one collective story would finally make it audible, credible, and authoritative.

And this makes me think of another, different chorus: not one who sings “this happened to me”, as choruses in Greek tragedy often do, so often recounting the horrors of being a woman in the world. Rather, a group who sing “this is what happened… this is everything that happened”: I am thinking of the Homeric Sirens.

Sirens: you probably have in mind some kind of mermaid-like creature, captivatingly beautiful in both appearance and voice. Maybe you also remember how destructive they are, luring seafaring voyagers to the depths. In Homer, the Sirens are one of the hurdles Odysseus must overcome on his way home. The problem: their song is irresistible, but listening to it leads to certain death. Odysseus will not allow this tempting delicacy to go by without dipping his finger into it, so to speak. The solution: ensuring he is tightly tied to the mast of his ship so that he can’t jump off as they pass the Sirens, and plugging the ears of his shipmates with wax so that they are deaf to the enticing song (the credit for the ruse goes to Circe, one of Odysseus’ female immortal benefactors). In this way he gets to hear the Sirens without falling off track, without being derailed—without losing himself in it.

The Sirens sing the everlasting and true story of life. Like the Muses, they know everything “that happens on earth.” The Sirens, who know the names of every single one of the fallen heroes, are doomed to sing forever of the Trojan war: they are a repository of male trauma. Listening to this song means drowning in a sea of particulars, losing oneself in traumatic repetition that becomes the long narrative of life. The Sirens, for all their beauty, represent chaos: the totality of life that is always also jumbled up in death, the longing for an individual story that cannot but be devastated and devastating. What story would they spin in Odysseus’ ears, to lure him in? No tale would be more effective than that of his own heroic exploits, those of the Iliad, and then, surely also his endless trickery, as he tries to survive through the Odyssey. But Odysseus is the singular hero, the one that makes his way successfully back home (which is why we have an entire epic devoted to him). The Sirens singing of Odysseus is one of those loops that could have folded the Odyssey in on itself, but the Odyssey must go on. Odysseus alone, the ultimate individual, the subject of the epic narrative, can survive hearing the tale of his own life woven into fiction. He is Man, logical and self-knowing, the only one who achieves self-recognition in the Sirens’ song—in their voice that is beast-like and otherworldly, that is female. Odysseus moves on, and the Sirens stay in place, perched on a shore littered with the bones and rotting flesh of all the other heroes who did not survive the tale.

In archaic and classical myth, the Sirens are half-woman and half-bird, not fish. They are monsters, and to judge by archaic art, not really beautiful at all. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there’s an interesting retelling of the Siren’s origin myth. Here we learn, surprisingly, that these bird-maidens came to be in the aftermath of the rape of Persephone. In Ovid’s version, the nymphs who were playing with Persephone in the meadow when Hades snatched her away to the Underworld, go running to look for her. They pray to the gods for wings, to aid them in the search after their vanished friend. Their wish is granted, and so they become maidens with wings and feet of birds, but keep their sweet young voices. Their transformation doesn’t help, for Persephone is gone off the face of the earth, her voice no longer heard on land. Persephone’s friends, witnesses of female trauma, are now immortal singers. They have their voices left, which will always mark them as all-too-woman and not-woman-enough, or rather, beyond-human—which is to say, not-man. And even when they become mouthpieces for the song of men, they sing such searing truths that their voices can never be trusted. By connecting the Sirens to Persephone in the way that he did, Ovid points to how female suffering is enmeshed with its silencing, how it itself becomes the representation of the act of silencing, even when what so clearly remains is the voice.
In courageously speaking up, Blasey Ford ended up telling us, yet again, the same thing.

 

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