Vocal fry: Exploring the controversial stereotypes

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The sound of a woman speaking with vocal fry immediately invites prejudice. (Graphic Illustration by Lauren Liu)

Lillian Fu and Amishi Chandra

Vocal fry — when someone drops their voice to their lowest register and fry their vocal cords — is commonly associated with the Valley Girl accent, made prominent by celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry and Hannah Simone. There is a great deal of scrutiny surrounding the speech habit, but upon further inspection, much of it is characteristic of the misogyny-riddled criticism that falls upon female-dominated habits and activities.

When a person speaks, their vocal cords naturally close to create vibrations as air passes between them, and these vibrations produce the sound of a person’s voice. In contrast, people relax their vocal cords, taking in a low amount of air to produce slower vibrations and a low, creaky sound when using vocal fry.

Vocal fry’s first prominent appearance was in Britney Spears’s 1999 song, Hit Me Baby (One More Time). The sound was heavily criticized when it first appeared, and it is currently an emblem of the Valley Girl stereotype, a negative caricature of ditzy and materialistic upper class girls from California. 

Regardless of whether or not they actually fit this stereotype, the sound of a woman speaking with vocal fry immediately invites prejudice. Anything she tries to communicate is sabotaged by that initial perception.

“Words themselves actually only contribute about 7% of the content or the message conveyed,” said Nicole Tsent, Lynbrook speech and language pathologist. “About 38% of the message is conveyed through vocal elements which relate to tone, rate of speech, how loud you speak and intonation.”

Although most often associated with women, vocal fry is also common among men. For example, male rock singers like Kurt Cobain and Mick Jagger are well known for using vocal fry in their singing. But while the creaky voices of young women evoke an image of superficiality and low intelligence, the gravel tones of their male counterparts suggest a sense of manliness and authority. 

One reason for this may lie in the difference between the ways men and women use vocal fry. A study done by the Centenary College of Louisiana discovered that men who used vocal fry employed it about 25% of the time, while women only used it in 10% of their speech. Men tended to use it more consistently through each sentence, while women used it mainly near the end. Furthermore, the already deeper pitch of male voices make their dips into their lowest register less perceptile than the dips in higher pitched female voices. As vocal fry is more easily perceived in women, the trend becomes associated mainly with females.

Another reason for the difference in societal perception of male versus female vocal fry may be the double standard imposed on women. Double standards based on gender are numerous and often systemic in modern society; for example, the sexual double standard between men and women objectifies women while simultaneously condemning them for expressing sexual liberty. Men, on the other hand, are applauded for their promiscuity. Vocal fry may be another manifestation of this inequality. Women who use vocal fry are seen as shallow or weak of character, while men who follow the same trend are seen as confident and individualistic.

“I don’t think anyone should be criticized for it,” senior Bhuvana Mukkalama said. “And we shouldn’t set standards that men need to have this kind of voice and women need to have this kind of voice to be taken seriously or to be found attractive. I just think people should be able to be happy with their voices without having to change it.”

This difference in reception reveals how society may expect more of women while making allowances for men. In general, image matters more for women: Their physical presentation, everything from clothing to makeup that enhances their attractiveness, invites harsh judgement from all angles while simultaneously being crucial to their acceptance in society. From their professional to private life, appearance plays a substantial role in how well women are received, while men are not held to that strict of a standard.

Style of speech is just another factor of appearance, and similarly, it is judged in the same way.

“No. 1, the first thing we look at is appearance,” Tseng said. “Then, speaking ability in the sense of, ‘Does a person speak with pitch, tone or rate that is appealing and able to be followed and understood?’ is definitely second.”

However, vocal frying sometimes may not be a conscious choice, like in the instance of social mirroring. Listening to key figures who use vocal fry can lead a person to imitate their behavior unconsciously. In fact, a majority of people who use vocal fry do it unintentionally, and people generally only use it to sound more laid back and authoritative like these celebrities.

“I noticed that Kim Kardashian talked funny at times,” Mukkamala said. “But she does it to the point where it just becomes normal to hear and she’s identified that way. I do it purposely, like if I’m trying to be funny.”

For many young women, speaking with vocal fry is simply a form of self expression picked up from the public figures they follow. The scrutiny and bias that this choice garners is wholly unwanted and largely rooted in the misogynistic values present in current society.