This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
After hearing what I thought was a powerful lecture from a very impressive young woman, I sat down with some colleagues and talked about how informative, wonderfully nuanced, and commanding I thought this young woman was. One colleague responded, “I could not stand to listen to her. Her voice was annoying.” Puzzled and wanting to know what was so annoying about this voice that seemed pretty non-distinct to me, I pushed back. Another colleague chimed in, “It’s the upspeak.” I rolled my eyes. He continued. “When you raise your voice at the end of a sentence, you sound unintelligent. If you are unintelligent, why should I listen to you?” I continued to push and go back to her content that proved her intelligence, but I was fighting alone. It may have been because I was the only woman at the table. It might have been because, like many women, I have fought for too many years against people who tried to change the way I speak. For today’s younger women it’s upspeak and vocal fry. For older women, it was being too soft-spoken or too high-pitched. Black women have been critiqued as too loud and those with non-American accents have been told that they are inarticulate. All of these are code words for telling someone that they do not sound like the hegemonic norm.
… we cannot help girls claim their metaphorical voice if we do not appreciate their literal voice… So, when we work with youth for presentations during service or in plain conversation, we need to be careful to discern what feedback helps them claim their voice, and what squelches their voice, forcing them to adopt another voice not their own.
The pieces reported and written about the current trends or upspeak and vocal fry range from “it’s the worst thing ever” to “get over it.” Yet the notion is consistent that these trends hurt young women’s careers because they are not taken seriously unless they speak a certain way. I must admit that I am surprised that so many news stories have been dedicated to the way young women speak. I think these trends will go the way of the valley girl and in twenty years we will be talking about something else. But the fact that so many news stories and think pieces are written about it, and the one common thread is that women that speak this particular way are seen as unintelligent so much so that it is hurting their job prospects—this becomes another way to police voices that sound “other.”
This is certainly not new. For decades, people on TV have had to learn to sound like a generic American with no distinctive geographical accent (completely ignoring the fact that an American accent is a geographical accent in and of itself). As someone from an immigrant community, I watched and listened as many people tried to change their own speech. When I moved to the continent from a US territory, I learned to pronounce things differently if I didn’t want to be demeaned for having a “cute little accent” as people metaphorically patted me on the head. I did this even though I thought that an American accent sounded less articulate with certain words, since it failed to pronounce all of the syllables. I learned quickly that it wasn’t about being more articulate or more intelligent; it was about morphing into something others deemed acceptable. The goal of the TV newscaster, for example, is to sound like a white American male from Middle America. That, after all, is the voice of intellect, success, and acceptance. In the same way, accents have historically been used to discredit “the other.” The fight against vocal fry and upspeak is a fight to discredit young women.
So, then, what is the role of the youth minister trying so hard to help girls and young women find their voice, when they are being told that their voice is problematic? For we cannot help girls claim their metaphorical voice if we do not appreciate their literal voice. You may be thinking, “Wait a minute. Doesn’t working with girls mean helping them fix problems they may have?” Absolutely. I am not suggesting that there is no place for voice correction. I have been the recipient of great voice and presentation coaching as I went to a seminary that saw presentation of the preached word almost as important as the content. And as a speech and debate teacher and coach, I have helped develop the public voice of young people. Both of those experiences have taught me the importance of discerning when I am helping someone find their best voice and when I have crossed the line and am giving them a generic voice that is not their own. The speech classes I took were a double-edged sword for many people, but mostly for women and people of color who did not fall into a classic understanding of preaching—you know, the classic school that did not have women and people of color in it. So, when we work with youth for presentations during service or in plain conversation, we need to be careful to discern what feedback helps them claim their voice, and what squelches their voice, forcing them to adopt another voice not their own.
The Bible shows us that God speaks in many ways. God uses nature, animals, and other human beings to bring forth God’s message. But if we are convinced that authority can only sound one particular way, we may miss the voice of the Divine. I am reminded of the Elijah story. While Elijah waited to hear from God, God chose not to speak through a great and powerful wind that tore the mountains apart nor the earthquake nor the fire. God chose to speak to in a gentle whisper. The moral of this story is not that God will always speak in a gentle whisper, but that God will speak in ways that may be different for us. If we are open to listening, we may hear the most profound sermon from a young woman with upspeak, vocal fry, or any other way of speaking that may seem different.
Rev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.