Lake Bell and Jackie Kennedy

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I was a guest yesterday on Radio Times ("What language says about who we are and where we live", 3/6/2014), and the host, Marty Moss-Coane, brought up the movie In a World, and Lake Bell's assertion that "There is a vocal plague going on that I call the sexy baby plague, where very smart women have taken on this affectation that evokes submission and sexual titillation to the male species".

Here's an example of Lake Bell's imitation of the "sexy baby" voice:

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It would sound like this, and, like, we would just have this way of speaking. And it's not necessarily that I'm, like, stupid. It's just that what I'm saying makes me sound less than. And so, for me, I find that – like I can't have people around me that speak that way, and mainly because I am a woman, and I grew up thinking a female voice and sound should sound sophisticated and sexy and a la Lauren Bacall or Anne Bancroft or Faye Dunaway, you know? Not a 12-year-old little girl that is submissive to the male species.

There are several features in her imitation — high pitch, phrase-final rises, saliently non-standard vowels, and a somewhat harsh voice quality. Of these features, it's mainly the high pitch that connects to the idea of "a 12-year-old little girl" — the odd vowel qualities actually seem to imitate the lower resonance frequencies that are characteristic of male speech, and the phrase-final rises would not have been thought to be 12-year-old-girl-like if the speaker had been, say, George W. Bush.

In a couple of blog posts last year (Sexy baby vocal virus", 8/15/2013; "Biology, Sex, Culture, and Pitch", 8/16/2013), I tried to push back against the idea that female/male vocal polarization is something new, a "virus" spreading among young women today. Humans have both a substantial biologically-based sex difference in pitch,  and also a long-standing cultural amplification of the biological difference — in fact, the genetic differences involved are probably the evolutionary residue of many millennia of cultural polarization.

And on the Radio Times program yesterday morning,  I also suggested that we should be careful about aligning authoritativeness with lower pitches, since this necessarily privileges male speakers over females.

Yesterday afternoon, Carolyn Marvin pointed out to me that Jacqueline Kennedy combined a strikingly girlish voice with a very effective air of calm authoritativeness. For an example, listen to this 1961 interview with Sander Vanocur:

A characteristic exchange from early in the interview:

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And the closing Q&A:

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Jackie's vocal self-presentation would not, I think, have gotten her very far in a voice-over audition. But maybe that should change.





  1. Dave K said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

    This discussion of "sexy baby voice" reminds me of this scene from 30 Rock, in which Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is berating Abby Flynn (Kristin Milioti) for talking like a "sexy baby":

    In real life, Milioti's voice is kind of deep for a woman, like Lake Bell's, but her character in this episode does an exaggerated version of Bell's sexy baby voice.

  2. Bobbie said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

    I'm struck by how similar the recorded voice of Jacqueline Kennedy sounds to that of Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn starts at about 4:30, and again at 9:00.

  3. Y said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

    Two things strike me about the Jackie Kennedy clip: the breathiness, and the accent. The breathiness is relentless, and comes off as well-practiced and purposefully feminine-sounding. That is a quality completely missing from the Lake Bell voice, and comes off as the opposite of the passive 'baby'. On the other hand I can imagine the accent, non-rhotic and with approximant /l/'s, might enhance the 'baby' impression for some, though it does not do so for me.

  4. Roger Lustig said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 11:46 pm

    Marty Moss-Coane, please!

    [(myl) Sorry -- slip of the fingers, fixed now..]

  5. Gene Callahan said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 11:53 pm

    What IS Kennedy's accent? She seemed to have spent her early years in NY, but she says, e.g., "bootiful."

  6. Deirdre said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 11:47 am

    This reminded me of nothing more than of Jessica Rabbit

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    After Jackie Kennedy's appearance on Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person," I wrote a newspaper column in which a group of grownups are gushing about her until a child interrupts by saying, "She sounds just like Marilyn Monroe."

  8. M. Apodaca said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

    I remember many of us thought Jacqueline Kennedy's voice affected and false.

    [(myl) I still think so. But I find Don LaFontaine's (professional) voice "affected and false", too.]

  9. Victoria Simmons said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 11:46 pm

    She sounds very much as if she has been forcibly lady-fied–perhaps at the Southern school she attended.

  10. Tom Curry said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 11:41 am

    I'm struck by her lisp & her somewhat aristocratic [Miss Porter's School] accent but also by her use of the pronoun "one" which we hear less & less these days — as when she says, "To get a catalogue, one must get a curator."

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