A contestant’s way of talking to men on Netflix’s dating show Love is Blind has provoked a fierce reaction. But should we be so quick to judge?
Poppy Noor – The Guardian
‘We should instead step back and ask why she feels she needs to do that. Why does she feel it’s the most attractive way of being?’ says sociologist Anne Karpf. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
The new Netflix show Love is Blind – in which people fall in love and get engaged without seeing each other first – has sparked many questions. These include: shouldn’t these people be in therapy? If looks don’t matter, why are they all so hot? And: what is up with Jessica Batten’s sexy baby voice?
I can’t take credit for that term: it was actually coined on Twitter last week, and written about since. “Sexy baby voice” may sound like an oxymoron, but it is in fact an affectation that a lot of women use. Just look at the clip in which Batten is first shown to be very capable of speaking in a normal adult voice, before just a moment later sounding like she has a tampon in each nostril.
But is sexy baby voice really, truly a thing? Why would a woman opt to sound like a tiny scared creature? What exactly is sexy about sounding like a baby?
Sociologist Anne Karpf wrote an entire book about the human voice and how it is far less anatomically determined than we think. We use our voice to denote status, power, wealth – and it is affected by society. Women’s voices have deepened over the last 40 years, and are more similar to men’s voices in more egalitarian countries.
Many of us hate hearing our voice played back to us, which some say is because we are used to hearing our own voice through our bones (which sounds less high-pitched) rather than unfiltered through the air. But Karpf believes our voices embarrass us because we hear in them the things we hoped to have edited out. Like a Freudian slip, they tell people things about us we would rather they didn’t know. “We feel betrayed by them,” she says.
“If the contestant heard that baby voice played back to her, she would probably be squirming with discomfort,” says Karpf.
We all hold multiple voices – one for our boss, our parents, our partner and so on. We switch between these, sometimes at will, sometimes unconsciously, to appear more powerful, to ask for protection and so on.
For women, the desire to “baby-talk” can be especially strong because of societal pressure to protect a man’s ego. “Often, extremely bright women have huge difficulty using their voice. They are terrified to use the full force of it. I’ve rarely encountered a man with that same problem,” Karpf says.
Women’s voices have always been contentious. Karpf reminds us that women were once banned from speaking in church in case their voices caused impure thoughts in a man, and they were thought to be too emotional for newsreading.
“Women’s voices have always been seen in relation to the desire that they’ve evoked in men rather than the desires of the woman and what she wants to express,” she says. And so comes sexy baby voice: “Babies don’t possess social power, economic power, or sexual power.”
So are we all being sexist for judging women who use a baby voice? “Yes, I think we are, actually,” says Karpf. “We should instead step back and ask why she feels she needs to do that. Why does she feel it’s the most attractive way of being?” A man doesn’t have the same pressure to counter himself, or to seem smaller for fear of coming off too assertive, she says.
But don’t we women have a right to be annoyed at Batten, for making women look like silly babies? “It makes sense that we feel a duality of emotion towards it. On the one hand, we know it’s not someone’s fault. But we also feel she is complicit because [speaking that way] maintains the existing order of power.”
But the fact we’re even discussing it is a sign that change has come quickly, says Karpf. “This voice would have passed unobserved 20, 15 even 10 years ago. That it’s [caused such a stir]suggests it’s not the default feminine voice any more,” she says.