The “sound-ly” relationship between Speech, Voice and Mannerism
‘Do I Sound Gay?’ is produced and directed by David Thorpe (ThinkThorpe LLC, 2014). The 77-minute film takes on a first-person framework with the self-documentary of Thorpe. To summarise, Thorpe shares that he is over 40 years old and has broken up with his long-time boyfriend. He loses confidence as he is concerned with his voice being gay. Thus, he embarks on a journey in an effort to alter his voice to sound more masculine and explores about the notion of “gay voice”. Thorpe speaks to a speech pathologist, a linguistics professor, Ron Smyth, as well as interviews his own friends, family and celebrities such as Margaret Cho, Don Lemon, Dan Savage, David Sedaris and George Takei. (Thorpe, 2014)
Thorpe reads out the opening credits which made an impact to bring out the film’s title when audience wonders if his voice does sound gay at that instance. Thorpe takes on a quirky and casual way to bring up an unspoken, yet heavily stereotyped topic in America. In Molly Eichel’s review from philly.com, she mentioned that “his film is really about his identity.” (Eichel, 2015) I agree to this statement only to a certain extent. ‘Do I Sound Gay?’ has presented various issues that exist within the gay men community. A lot of gay men share the same concerns as Thorpe. However, rather than identity and voice, I think that speech, voice and mannerism should be the main theme of the film. Stephen Holden from The New York Times thought likewise too. (Holden, 2015) Indeed, as agreed by Andrew Barker from Variety (Barker, 2015) and Phillip Oliver from Media Source Inc. (Oliver, 2016), the documentary film is rather unorganised and the ending seems too abrupt. Yet, it is understandable that many questions brought up are far too complicated to be discussed in depth in such a light-hearted film. Thus, ‘Do I Sound Gay?’ serves more to reflect than to solve the current issues faced by the gay men community in America. I will elaborate on the various themes highlighted in the film below.
Firstly, the film reflects that gay men have sexual desires for masculine men. A “manly voice” is one criteria that attracts them. Savage makes a witty remark that “A masculine voice, … is the lingerie of Gayland,” (Barker, 2015) Sedaris also says that his ideal man would not sound like Hugh, his current partner of many years. Such desires in turn, creates discrimination within the gay men community when searching for a partner. Thorpe believes that his “gay voice” makes him unappealing, but why would gay men have such fetishes? In the film, interviewees say it could be the “Stockholm syndrome”. Effeminate gay men may have developed attraction to the voices of those who bullied them, which in most cases would be the masculine straight men. The reasons can vary in diversity since everyone has their own preferences. However, with the couple examples of Takei and Sedaris, the film concludes with a powerful message that we should love ourselves and others for who they are.
Secondly, Thorpe’s unacceptance or repellence of the “gay voice” may not be just a fear of being unappealing to other gay men. Having just broke up, it would be normal for Thorpe to feel lost or empty. That is when the self-doubt kicks in. This lost in self-confidence can be especially stronger among gay men, since it might not have been easy to find a partner whom they can get along well with. Thus, being single makes Thorpe feels lonely (Manganas, 2017), insecure and unaccepted. It is as though no one is there to approve of him and his sexual orientation anymore. With reference to the “Stockholm syndrome”, gay men may have fetishes for “masculine voices” because they want to feel accepted by those who have once denied them. Thus, it is not just about desires, but also their internalised homophobia (Holden, 2015). Sedaris shares that he felt good, yet guilty, when someone could not tell that he is gay. Hence, no matter how much they appear fine, gay men still have that lingering insecurity or trauma of being unaccepted by the society.
Thirdly, the film explores people’s stereotypical understanding of the “gay voice”.
The perception could have been formed from how gay men have been depicted in the media. Films have portrayed gay men as vicious characters for a long history. They speak in effeminate voices, with articulated speeches (Taylor, 2015). Thorpe also brings up television personalities such as Paul Lynde and Liberace, who were never out of the closet but were clearly unique in the way they spoke (Mayer, 2015). Perhaps to balance the bad impression and make gay men more acceptable in mainstream media (New Statesman, 2015), these celebrities used such flamboyant speeches as camp humour. Over the years, under the influence of media and the hostile environment, gay men may have adopted this exaggerated way of speech to protect themselves, to either sound sophisticated or humorous (Murray, 2015).
Fourthly, the film has identified our voices as part of our identity construction. Therefore, people would mistakenly stereotype voice for someone’s sexual orientation. Yet, when we make a speech, we use our voice in cooperation with our mannerisms to put a message across. Thus, our mannerisms, which is the way we talk, affects our identity construction too.
However, we must understand that we cannot change our voices ultimately. By change, I meant naturally. Our voices can change “artificially” if technology or surgical aids are used. As taught in speech or singing classes, the sounds of our voices are determined by the size of our vocal cords. This physiological condition explains why people have unique voices due to their own vocal range limits. People with wider limits can stretch and change their voices extremely, in terms of pitch and volume. Smyth’s research shows that women have higher formant frequencies than men due to physiological and biological reasons (Smyth & Rogers, 2002). Men can raise their formants by manipulating articulatory position. Thus, why do gay men tend to talk in higher-pitched voices which results in the “gay voice” stereotype? Is it natural or intentional?
This would link us to the mannerism of a speaker, which is heavily affected by the model a person uses to learn speech.
How an individual makes speeches depends on who they model after or take influence from (Taylor, 2015). Thorpe’s friends are provided as examples where Guy A grew up being surrounded with women, is deemed to have a “gay voice” but is straight. Guy B grew up with his bunch of athletic brothers is deemed to be masculine but is actually gay. Hence, this shows that a person’s speech is affected by external factors, and not necessarily linked to their sexual orientation (Shane). However, this assumes that men and women do speak differently in the first place. In the Western societies, women tend to have the careful end of the continuum while men end casually (Smyth & Rogers, 2002). Gay men may have a role model whom they look up to since young, a female “idol” from their family, friends or celebrities. Thus, under the long-term or heavy influence of their “idols”, gay men tend to speak effeminately.
As such, the above explains how a person’s speech can change in accordance to the environment they are in. Thorpe’s friend shares how he has to “tone down” his “gay speech” while being in a heterosexual working environment. Closeted gay actors practised speech exercises to “man up” their voices for straight audiences too (Teitel, 2014). These are forms of identity concealment through code-switch. However, this does not apply to gay men only. People in general do this to fit in to their surroundings. Cho and Lemon share how they have to code-switch while working in a white environment, since they are respectively from Asian and black families (Barker, 2015). When Thorpe was younger, he code-switched when people bullied him for talking effeminately. Thereafter coming out of the closet, Thorpe’s friends noticed that his speech became “camped” as though he was advertising about being gay. However, was Thorpe really “camping”? Or was he relieved from his “straight man speech” (Teitel, 2014), and is finally embracing his hidden true effeminate way of talking? I would think that it is the latter. Although his break-up makes Thorpe doubts himself again, he is able to find confidence and accept himself eventually at the end of the film.
In conclusion, like what Takei mentions, ‘Do I Sound Gay’ is an interesting film for “pioneers in our time of changing societal perceptions of what it is to be gay”. There is no “gay voice”, but just the ignorant stereotype of people. Rather than focusing on the aspects of voice, the real issue lies in the model and speech.
Barker, A. (10 July, 2015). Film Review: ‘Do I Sound Gay?’. Retrieved from Variety: http://variety.com/2015/film/reviews/film-review-do-i-sound-gay-1201537895/
Eichel, M. (17 July, 2015). ‘Do I Sound Gay?’: Smart doc about speech and identity. Retrieved from philly.com: http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/movies/20150717__Do_I_Sound_Gay____Smart_doc_about_speech_and_identity.html
Holden, S. (9 July, 2015). Review: ‘Do I Sound Gay?’ Examines a Manner of Speaking. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/movies/review-do-i-sound-gay-examines-a-manner-of-speaking.html
Manganas, N. (2017). Narratives of Loneliness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives from the 21st Century. In O. Sagan, & E. Miller, The new gay loneliness? (p. Chapter 18). Routledge.
Mayer, S. (December, 2015). Do I Sound Gay? Sight & Sound, 71-72. Retrieved from British Film Institute.
Murray, N. (7 July, 2015). Do I Sound Gay? Retrieved from The Dissolve: https://thedissolve.com/reviews/1708-do-i-sound-gay/
New Statesman. (13-19 March, 2015). Defying gravity: Ryan Gilbey is uplifted by the London LGBT Film Festival. The Critics, 58.
Oliver, P. (1 June, 2016). Do I Sound Gay? Library Journal, 64. Retrieved from Media Source Inc.
Shane, L. T. (n.d.). Interview with David Thorpe. Retrieved from Lester Thomas Shane: http://www.lesterthomasshane.com/interview-with-david-thorpe/
Smyth , R., & Rogers, H. (2002). PHONETICS, GENDER, AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION*. University of Toronto.
Taylor, E. (9 July, 2015). A Documentarian Wonders: ‘Do I Sound Gay?’. Retrieved from NPR: https://www.npr.org/2015/07/09/420909126/a-documentarian-wonders-do-i-sound-gay
Teitel, E. (24 November, 2014). GAY MEN, AN AUDIBLE MINORITY? Maclean’s The Columnist, 12-13. Retrieved from Rogers Media Inc.
ThinkThorpe LLC. (2014). Retrieved from Do I Sound Gay?: http://www.doisoundgay.com/
Thorpe, D. (Director). (2014). Do I Sound Gay [Motion Picture].