When I was fifteen, my form teacher, to punish me for my ‘unladylike shrieking’ in the school corridor, made me write out a quotation from King Lear a hundred times in my neatest handwriting:
Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
Never mind that Lear speaks the lines over Cordelia’s corpse. The episode came back to me recently when I saw Lake Bell’s film In a World..., about a female voiceover artist struggling to break into the male-dominated movie-trailer scene. Bell’s character, Carol, makes a reasonable living with coaching work – there’s a memorable scene in which she tries to teach Eva Longoria (playing herself) to do a Cockney accent – but the voiceovers for Hollywood blockbusters (like reading the football results on the radio in the UK) have traditionally gone to men, mostly with voices like the late Don LaFontaine.
Against the odds (and some stiff competition including her father), Carol is eventually chosen to record the voiceover on the trailer for The Amazon Games. When she corners a studio executive in the toilets at an awards ceremony to thank her for the opportunity, the executive explains that the movie is aimed at Twilight fans, and that by picking Carol’s voice, she was trying to empower a whole generation of young women to start using theirs.
At the end of the movie, though, Carol is running classes to help women improve their voices, lowering the tone and slowing them down to help them ‘be taken seriously’. So much for the promise of empowerment. The idea that there’s a right and a wrong way for a voice to sound isn’t only applied to women – William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith are both said to have consulted a voice specialist while trying to cling to the Tory leadership – but how often is a male politician or celebrity described as ‘shrieking’ or ‘screeching’? Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons from a coach recommended by Laurence Olivier because her natural tone was too ‘shrill’. The notion persists that if your voice isn’t ‘soft, gentle and low’, what you’re saying is somehow less worthy of attention.