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Men Who Complain About Women’s Voices Can Get In The Bin

Surprise, surprise -- Sam Newman doesn’t like New Zealand’s female prime minister’s accent.

While the rest of the world is united in admiration of her leadership in the face of tragedy, Jacinda Ardern’s “grating” accent is getting on Sam Newman’s nerves.

When Newman expressed his questionable view on Twitter yesterday, a backlash quickly ensued. The controversial ex-footballer tried to backpedal -- a smidge -- with a follow-up tweet assuring his followers that, “To be clear, this had nothing to do with her sentiments. It DID have to do with the ghastly accent NZ’s have cultivated.”

But his opinion of the prime minister’s voice was clear: Newman wasn’t a fan.

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Of course, he’s not the only man to take umbrage with the way women talk. In a letter to The Age’s Green Guide supplement, Peter from Heatherton explains that he has tried to like ABC’s breakfast television satire Get Krack!n but just doesn’t get it. It’s not him that’s the problem -- he has “a healthy if not irreverent sense of humour”. The problem is that Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan’s “shrill” voices are just too “painful to listen to”.

"Shrill" is also how Donald Trump described Hillary Clinton, in between his calls to “lock her up”. Tellingly, it’s not a term you ever hear used to describe men.

The two definitions provided by the Cambridge Dictionary reveal a lot about what we think about outspoken women in the public sphere: 'shrill' can describe a “loud and high sound that is unpleasant or painful to listen to” or express disapproval of “a way of arguing or criticising that seems too forceful”.

After Jacinda Ardern delivered a powerful speech urging that the Christchurch shooter not be given notoriety, Sam Newman called her accent 'grating' and 'ghastly'. (Image: AAP/Getty)

Perception of voice is an issue that impacts women’s careers. Female sports commentators have long been on the outer in male-dominated sports. When Vicky Sparks broke the grass ceiling and became the first woman to call a World Cup soccer match in the UK in 2018, it wasn’t the quality of her commentary that she was criticised for -- it was her feminine voice.

The Washington Post reported that retired professional footballer Jason Cundy said of Sparks’ debut: “I prefer to hear a male voice when watching football. Ninety minutes of hearing a high-pitched tone isn’t really what I like to hear. And when there’s a moment of drama, as there often is in football, that moment needs to be done with a slightly lower voice.” Cundy later apologised, but his comments revealed the widespread prejudice against female voices that exist in some quarters of the community.

SBS television presenter Lucy Zelic copped online abuse for -- of all things -- correctly pronouncing footballers’ names during the same World Cup. Critics called her determination not to mispronounce or anglicise surnames as “annoying” and “insufferable”.

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These are all examples in the long history of men policing women’s speech. In Ancient Rome, the prevailing view was that “women should be seen and not heard,” writes classicist Mary Beard.

Two millennia later, Margaret Thatcher famously deliberately pitched her voice lower in order to be taken seriously as a leader. Some also claim Julia Gillard, whose voice was endlessly criticised and parodied, adopted a lower pitch when she became prime minister.

But who can blame them, each the only woman to have ever led her respective country, when women’s speaking voices are regularly dismissed as annoying or lacking authority.

Many complaints about women’s voice relate to tics like vocal fry and uptalk. A dislike of vocal fry isn’t just a gender thing -- it’s generational. According to feminist author Naomi Wolf, who is in her 50s, vocal fry is one of a series of mannerisms that she says undermine young women’s authority. Vocal fry, she writes, makes young women sound like “ducks quacking”.

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But maybe for some people, the real problem is that women -- especially young women -- are talking at all. It isn’t accent or pitch or vocal fry that critics find annoying or grating or lacking authority -- it’s the person who’s speaking that they truly have the issue with.

Criticising how we say something diminishes what’s really important -- what’s being said. In Sam Newman’s case, his complete disregard of Jacinda Ardern’s eloquent and compassionate speech because he doesn’t like her “ghastly” accent may reveal more about his character than it does about Ardern's -- or any woman's -- vocal idiosyncrasies.