Culture & Society

Gendered Vocal Chords: Does Voice Have A Sex?

One part of the human body that directly expresses control is the voice. However, neither the popular nor the academic narrative gives enough regard to how patriarchy exerts its control over women through voice.

Sonal Varshneya I Etching On Paper I 15' X 15' Each (7 Panels) I 2019

An in-depth understanding of the significance of the materiality of the voices we speak with, as well as their role in both subjective and intersubjective experience, comes from a feminist phenomenological analysis of voice, which is grounded in both the feminist understanding of the role of voice in identity, agency, and the creation of meaning, as well as the phenomenological thematisations and theorisation of phenomenal, lived experience.

The body has been conceptualised throughout a significant portion of the history of Western philosophy as merely one biological object among others, a component of a biological nature from which our reasoning faculties distinguish us, as well as a tool to be directed and a potential source of disruption to be managed. Women's bodies can unintentionally become locations of control when they are regulated. The neoliberal body project marginalises specific body types, making women who participate in activities that go against popular health narratives exposed to judgment and exclusion. In simpler words, the body, especially for women, has served as an instrument to exert patriarchal management and regulation in terms of behaviour that defines roles and status.

The body further goes on to be the only explicit entity which is equated with the worth of a woman’s existence. In this context, the body acts as a ground for gross rights violations, and women are perceived as victims of males and subjected to the appropriation of bodies. The most severe manifestation of this sense of control was when the bodies of slave women were used as another person's actual property. 

The female body is under continual pressure to fit into predetermined social and cultural norms and comply in adherence to the same. It continues to be a place where power is exercised while being constructed differently in various circumstances. One part of the human body that directly expresses control is the voice. However, neither the popular nor the academic narrative gives enough regard to how patriarchy exerts its control over women through voice. Voice is the basis for the sex or gender determination of an individual. Humans are classified as belonging to one sex or the other by the people around them based on their primary means of communication, which is their voice, which may be considered a secondary sexual trait. 

Even though some people whose gender identification is different from the sex they were given at birth are pleased with their voices, others long to change the way they sound, frequently when they switch from one gender presentation to another. Voice gender perception may be viewed as a combination of higher-level cognitive processes and the extraction of low-level perceptual features. If we look more closely, we can also infer that ‘voice has a sex’ or that it represents a person's gender. In daily life, this knowledge of the connection between sex and gender concepts is frequently taken for granted. We give meaning to the endless classifications we have made, referring to soft and melodious sounds as being feminine and repetitive and powerful sounds as being male. 

In this sense, voice holds great value in determination and categorisation. Due to this very value, voice also acts as a factor in producing the gender differentiation of the human voice. It can provide significant sex information about its owner. Women are typically supposed to speak in a quieter tone than men. It is crucial to remember that the woman expresses her autonomy and agency primarily and instinctively through her voice. This makes it understandable how the patriarchal society has institutionalised the control of voice as a target. This idea is reflected in the observation of how most people have an unfavourable opinion of women who are loud and outspoken. This fosters the notion that women should be gentle and obedient, and this very expectation is reinforced through a woman's voice. 

Voice differences between men and women are related to intricate, interdisciplinary concerns. Although it would appear that low-level pitch analysis would be necessary for voice gender recognition, several lines of study indicate that this is not the case. It has been established that categorical voice gender perception, or the need to access a gender model or representation, depends on timbre perception. It is apparent from the text above that voice can persuade to a great extent. Male voices have an authoritative, convincing quality that can validate any action or piece of information. Robin Lakoff argued in her seminal 1975 book ‘Language and Woman's Place’ that women consistently use language to support their inferior social standing, including linguistic frameworks that give them little control over their words. Since then, a wealth of research has demonstrated that the linguistic distinctions between the genders' speech output are negligible and context-dependent.

The appropriate tone of voice that women are supposed to maintain greatly influences their body language. A lady who relaxes with her legs spread widely is condemned. Therefore, there is an association between nonverbal behaviour and power to demonstrate that there is a direct link between the nonverbal behaviours a person employs and the power they acquire during encounters. An individual can project power, for instance, by adopting open-body postures, which causes them to act and appear more strong. Recent studies have concentrated on the dominant-subordinate relationship that a voice hearer and a voice might share, with voices being seen as powerful, dominating, and humiliating. In ordinary social circumstances, however, there may be differences in how men and women denigrate and discredit one another. The relationship voice hearers have with their voices may also be impacted by this variance. 

The vocal distinctions between male and female voices have been the subject of research. They were, however, typically guided by monolingual speakers. However, in the scholarly work that focuses on gender discrimination and how power is distributed throughout the patriarchal hierarchy, voice continues to be a relatively under-examined factor. Inequalities and subjugation that women experience constantly are reinforced by the way in which the voice determines roles and status and the overall social and biological functioning of all genders, and how it produces and maintains the functional hierarchy of gender discrimination.

(Tehmeena Rizvi is a consultant with Indian Council for Social Science Research and is pursuing PhD from Bennett University. Her areas of work include gender intersectionality, conflict, and development. Views expressed are personal.)