This essay was adapted from Hysterical: A Memoir, by Elissa Bassist, out September 13, 2022, from Hachette.
Everyone hates the sound of a woman’s voice. The “nominal problem is excess,” wrote author Jordan Kisner in The Cut in 2016. “The voice is too something—too loud, nasal, breathy, honking, squeaky, matronly, whispered. It reveals too much of some identity, it overflows its bounds. The excess in turn points to what’s lacking: softness, power, humor, intellect, sexiness, seriousness, coolness, warmth.”
And that’s just for white women. There’s also “too Black” and “too blue collar” to be credible and audible.
I began hating the sound of my voice at five years old, when I was ride or die for The Little Mermaid, the 1989 Disney classic about a teenage fish-princess who had everything but wanted more, so she signs away her best-in-the-world voice for long legs to pursue a boy with a dog. For ten thousand hours I memorized each song, and each song was my gospel. Especially the banger “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” in which the octopus witch Ursula sing-splains how human men aren’t impressed by conversation and avoid it when possible. I wanted to sing full-throttle like Ariel and then stop speaking for a boyfriend like Ariel had. I would not blabber or gossip or say a word! Besides, at five I had my looks, my pretty face, and I would never underestimate the importance of body language.
Anyone who grew up watching TV shows on a television in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s grasped at least three things: Men have a voice. Women have a body. Mentos are “the Freshmaker.” I was born the year the original Ghostbusters premiered (1984), and whenever I turned on something—TV, VHS, radio—the male voice was talking, coming out of everywhere as the mouthpiece of humanity, the soundtrack to existence.
For the next four decades I workshopped my voice to create the persona I wanted. Or the persona I thought I wanted. Or the persona I thought everyone else wanted. Even now, as a teacher and almost-famous writer, I must still speak in a world where a woman’s voice is both too much and never enough. So I started investigating why that is, and how I and other women found ourselves in this cage in the first place.
“An analysis of prime-time TV in 1987 found 66 percent of the 882 speaking characters were male—about the same proportion as in the ’50s,” writes Susan Faludi in her tome Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Recent analyses by Martha M. Lauzen, a professor of film and television at San Diego State University who has tracked women’s employment in filmmaking and television since 1998, shows the percentage likely hasn’t really budged. Men even talk the most in rom-coms, billed as “chick flicks” made for women and starring stick figures known as women.
My mom and stepdad have a television hooked to cable in every room in the house. The three of us watched TV together during dinner, in a loud silence, and watched TV separately after dinner. Before bed the upstairs televisions switched to late-night TV talk shows, which men have hogged since the invention of television in the 1940s, and men’s jokes were the last thing we heard before falling asleep.
At dinner we were glued to Entertainment Tonight or TV news that starred white men who barked at each other and a few blonde bombshells. (Brunette women did not address the public about current events.) Then, like now, mostly men reported the news, and the news stories were mostly about men and were backed up mostly by men as experts and sources, anointed as thought leaders to tell us all the truth. Star news anchor Chris Cuomo might have reported on the heyday of executive producer Harvey Weinstein, which legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin would then corroborate.
If and when news outlets did talk about women, it didn’t seem as if they had anything nice to say. In my thirties my Democrat parents said in unison, “We don’t like Hillary Clinton,” repeating the cable news they ate for every meal. In the 2016 and 2020 election cycles, female presidential candidates received less overall coverage than men and more negative coverage than men, and much of the criticism came down to voice and how men can and should raise their voices but women need to calm down. During the 2020 vice presidential debate, not only did then senator Kamala Harris repeat (have to repeat), “I’m speaking,” but also moderator Susan Page let Mike Pence speak longer, interject more, ignore her, and moderate the debate himself by asking his own questions. As Politico reported: “She repeatedly tried and failed to get Pence to stop talking, saying variations of ‘thank you’ or ‘thank you, Mr. Vice President’ 22 times over the course of the evening, to no effect.”
“In group settings men are 75 percent more likely to speak up than women,” says Dr. Meredith Grey in season 12, episode 9, of Grey’s Anatomy. (If you’re anything like me, then everything you know about the medical establishment, gender dynamics, and hooking up you gleaned from nineteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy.) In “The Sound of Silence,” Dr. Grey (who is assaulted and beaten to the point of being physically unable to speak in this episode) stands in front of a group of interns and asks a question. The male interns take up most of the room and raise their hands to answer. Not one woman raises her hand. Each looks scared to speak. This scene could be any classroom or meeting or drinks with heterosexual cis men, who, per evidence ad infinitum, are actually “too much” because they speak the most and the loudest and the longest; they say what a woman is on the verge of saying or repeat what a woman just said (but with more confidence or rudeness); they take more credit and interrupt more (but call it “cooperating”), then perhaps apologize, sincerely or not, and justify themselves, at length.
Meanwhile, women use their voices to help men use theirs. Sociolinguist and professor of linguistics Janet Holmes cites research in her 1998 essay “Women Talk Too Much,” anthologized in Language Myths, that “men tend to contribute more information and opinions, while women contribute more agreeing, supportive talk, more of the kind of talk that encourages others to contribute.” Melissa Febos in her collection of essays Girlhood, writes, “A trans woman friend of mine recently explained to me how the technique for training your voice to sound more feminine has a lot to do ‘with speaking less or asking more questions or deferring to other people more.’” The discipline of desirability is also the discipline of submission.
As a kid I believed women just didn’t talk that much. Or shouldn’t. Or couldn’t? This is because of a feedback loop: Boys talk more than girls in three-quarters of Disney’s princess movies—and boys speak more than girls in the classrooms, and men speak more than women in work meetings.
But once I grew out of The Little Mermaid and my fantasy of silence and sailing away from my family as a royal child bride, I had a new ideology about a girl’s voice: It should sound like a boy’s.
In fifth grade to be a tomboy was the tits, and to be “cool” was to be “down” with what boys said and liked. The secret code to being one of the guys—whose approval I sought because the universe said I needed it—was to suppress or erase all signs of girlhood. To graduate girldom, I watched South Park and memorized Pulp Fiction, wore Umbros and Adidas, read R. L. Stine and Mark Twain, listened to Dre and Snoop, leveled up in math classes (aka boys’ classes), wallpapered my room with posters of sports I wasn’t allowed to play, camped outdoors and peed standing up while camping, liked guys who’d liked Green Day before Green Day sold out, talked in drag and cursed like a dickhead, and masked my true tastes, point of view, and attitude to align with boys’ tastes-POV-attitude.
I kept experimenting. In middle school I reverted to being a girly drama queen—but also depressed because my voice was so nails-on-a-chalkboard, so full of so many feelings there was no room for anything else; it sounded like a tampon if a tampon talked. I realized I’d made a huge mistake, so in high school I joined the speech and debate team, and once more made every effort to talk like the boys, because when boys talked, everyone listened. Boys’ talk let them be understood, and their voice existed for only themselves. Even today’s automated speech recognition technology, like virtual assistants and voice transcription, is more likely to respond to the white male cadence. About voice recognition in cars that don’t recognize women’s voices, one male VP of voice technology suggested women fix their voices “through lengthy training” to “speak louder” and to “direct their voices towards the microphone.”
After school I’d talk to myself in the mirror in my own “lengthy training,” rehearsing a chiller but louder and lower voice, a voice that was sensible and cocksure and won video games and masturbated into a sock.
I wasn’t born into the wrong body. I was born into the correct body in the wrong world.
In this world Margaret Thatcher took voice-lowering lessons to deepen her pitch to sound firmer and more powerful and as if she had a cold and a penis in order to be taken seriously. Elizabeth Holmes appeared to fake a baritone to attract investors and scam them. A National Public Radio cohost told me that several radio women take voice-lowering lessons and that producers tweak women’s timbre and enhance their bass on air—all due to listeners’ complaints. Since the male voice is the voice of every generation, a lot of us find ourselves speaking with it (the average woman today talks in a deeper voice than her mother and grandmother), re-tuning our voices to put us in league with self-described gods.
With my less-feminine voice I became speech co-captain and spoke at graduation, about The Simpsons and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by male author Robert M. Pirsig, and was the sole girl to be nominated for the end-of-high-school superlative “Most Likely to Be Successful” (I lost to a boy). At last, I had a voice; it just wasn’t mine.
When asked about “the heroine’s journey,” Joseph Campbell, the originator of “the Hero’s Journey,” purportedly said, “Women don’t need to make the journey. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”
My male high school speech coach coached me to wear my hair curly during male-dominated competitions. “It’s sexier,” he said in an empty school hallway. I hadn’t yet realized I was the place that people are trying to get to.
I realized this in college.
In college I underwent yet another transformation, like a second cycle, but instead of evolving from girl to woman, I changed from subject to object, from person to place. A deeper voice didn’t fly—it was in an unfuckable octave, and men couldn’t hear me (again) or, it seemed, didn’t care to.
So, I grew another. At parties I spoke in a combination of high pitch, vocal fry, uptalk, and broken sentences that curled. A “sexy baby voice.” Men liked this voice. It was horny yet nonconfrontational. It was defenseless and signaled that I must be protected and coddled and burped. Actual research shows that this higher voice coming out of a female body is perceived as more agreeable and much hotter. Vocally and weight-wise, infancy is apparently a woman’s sexiest time. The anti-voice is so adored that voice assistants like Siri and Alexa default to feminized voices based on retrograde stereotypes of subservience.
“I’d blush if I could,” Siri says to sexual commands, while Alexa responds flirtatiously when verbally abused. (“Men Are Creating AI Girlfriends and Then Verbally Abusing Them” is a recent headline about “chatbot abuse.”) Artificial-intelligence-powered voices don’t yet have the porno mode that comes standard in real women, in me, which was part of my college realization.
I got good at changing my voice, as if it were outfits. But it felt like a curse, almost, the way the legs of my voice could spread or shut, the way I could sound helpless and open to suggestion and to being walked all over and ignored everywhere but the bed and the crib.
“Sorry to interrupt,” a student, a male student, my male student said to a female student in the class I was teaching as an adult woman thirteen years post-college. After he interrupted her, he corrected her opinion, and she and I exchanged identical just-punched looks.
“When a woman does speak up,” Dr. Meredith Grey continues in voiceover in the same Grey’s Anatomy episode, “it’s statistically probable that her male counterparts will either interrupt her or speak over her.”
I called out my male student, in my nicest tone of voice, and the next day he emailed me for calling him out. He “just wanted to take a quick second” to tell me why he interrupted “that other student.” “There was a reason for it,” he wrote. He “felt like we were getting dragged off topic quite a bit,” and he “could feel that we were really slipping behind schedule.” A former student had told him “how much fun it was to do the pitches and I wanted to make sure we had time for that.” In the next paragraph he concluded, “So that was why I [interrupted]. I was trying to help you. But it obviously didn’t come off that way, so I apologize.”
I didn’t reply, didn’t point out that he’d come to class thirty minutes late, didn’t ask why he didn’t take notes and instead smiled at me for three hours, didn’t correct him about how we weren’t off track because people are allowed to talk in class, didn’t remind him that I can teach my own class by myself, and didn’t yell at him— a white guy—about his pitch, a satire about slavery. Saying or doing any of the above, my colleagues and I agreed, would’ve made things worse because it would have provoked him to send more emails.
Right now women are being interrupted—or undermined or spoken for or misinterpreted—in classrooms across the world, if they’re lucky to be in one. “It’s not because [men are] rude. It’s science,” Dr. Grey says about interrupting women. “The female voice is scientifically proven to be more difficult for a male brain to register.” It isn’t only because of systemic sexism that women are hard to hear; it’s science.
Except it isn’t. The fictional Dr. Grey’s scripted dialogue is pseudoscientific and likely based on the oft-quoted study “Male and Female Voices Activate Distinct Regions in the Male Brain,” conducted by all men using all male subjects and described as men versus women arbitrarily (it could have been described in any number of ways, like lower pitch versus higher pitch). Whether women are harder to hear (we’re not), or people just don’t want to hear women (it’s this one), the onus is on women to be heard.
Before teaching and after a lifetime of moving my voice up and down into the impossible “right register” to be heard, I became afraid of my voice, like the fictional women surgical interns in Grey’s Anatomy. My fear of speaking could be understood as a personal dysfunction, or it could be understood as a generalized response to women being interrupted or censured for speaking, such that a woman’s fear system perceives any and every act as a fight waiting to happen and to prevent.
Because, of course, men do more than interrupt us. Homicide and rape statistics show that a woman should fear her voice—there’s even the term “rejection violence” for the specific phenomenon of abusing, stabbing, shooting, raping, gang-raping, murdering, and mass-murdering women for saying no. And the unrecorded statistics of violence against BIWOC and LGBTQ people imply that marginalized groups should be even more afraid of their voice and, as Tressie McMillan Cottom writes in Thick, be more obliged to “screen our jokes, our laughter, our emotions, and our baggage” and “constantly manage complex social interactions so we are not fired, isolated, misunderstood, miscast, or murdered.”
I started seeing a therapist about my voice, and about how I had begun to silence myself compulsively. I asked my therapist, “Is there therapy for women with Patriarchy? I’m asking for every friend I have.” I was asking also for myself, a woman who couldn’t pronounce the two-letter word “no” and who gave men whatever they wanted. And I was asking for my creative writing students, who, if they’re women and they do speak up in class, it’s to disclaim their writing and lived experience, as though their free speech and their license to live and to comment on living is in perpetual question, as though their writing is our millstone and their perspective is beside the point in a class they paid to participate in, a class where I beg women to ask questions because I’d have to be begged if I weren’t the instructor.
There isn’t therapy for patriarchy, so far. Whenever my therapist and I came to these conclusions, we’d look blankly at each other and shake our heads until our time together was up.
“Nothing will come of nothing,” says the dad King Lear to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, in words written by male playwright William Shakespeare. “Speak again,” he tells her. How, exactly, to speak again? How to do what women have been conditioned not to do? How to go against every instinct and societal directive in a world that prefers a woman’s death to her opinion?
Author bell hooks had to change her name. “One of the many reasons I chose to write using the pseudonym bell hooks,” she wrote in Talking Back, “was to construct a writer-identity that would challenge and subdue all impulses leading me away from speech into silence.”
French feminist writer Hélène Cixous thought that to reclaim their voices, women must reclaim their narratives: “Women must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal,” she wrote. “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” I needed to put myself into text to put myself back into the world.
And to bring back my voice from the dead—to say what I wanted without fear of disaster or error, and without a frantic, overwhelmed lurching, and aside from whatever would happen, or wouldn’t—first I needed to get back to “no.”
My therapist had me practice by messaging “no” on dating apps—to get used to it and get in the habit, to drop the carefulness that looks like agreement when I do not agree, and to not give in to the inclination (the pressure, the imperative, the survival mandate) to indulge a man just because he’s a man.
“Hey Elissa, keeping busy?” a man on Bumble (or Tinder or BeLinked or Fuck, Marry, Kill or one of a thousand other dating apps) messaged. I thought, No, but feared being rude, and because of the potential for rejection violence, I feared rude’s attendant outsize fear of being murdered.
“Lean into your fear,” my therapist prompted me. She wasn’t talking about Sheryl Sandberg’s mission in Lean In. She meant that whenever I questioned my words, I should reiterate “lean-in statements” to practice having a non-compulsive response and to agree to my fear and doubt instead of fight or flee or freeze or fawn.
I reread “Hey Elissa, keeping busy?” and typed, “No,” then hesitated.
“You must be willing to feel some discomfort,” the clinician said in a ruthless manner.
I leaned in. Maybe I am rude. Maybe I will be murdered for being rude. Then I tapped the paper-airplane icon and my “No” appeared on the screen.
The next thirty seconds I was in turmoil sitting with uncertainty—I said the wrong thing, didn’t I? DIDN’T I? Did I?—and trying not to bail by coping mechanism. Because that’s what I had to do, what I did do and would do infinite times, like a redwood tree that must burn to grow.
“Hey! are you into films? Have you seen the new joker movie?”
“Elissa! Hello! Tell me, would you rather be a master of all instruments or be able to speak any language fluently?”
“20 questions! You have to give honest answers and you can’t repeat any questions the other person asked. Deal?”
“20 answers! No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.”
“We should meet up tonight”
“I’m not ready to meet up yet”
“Merci Elissa, okay I understand when do you think you will be ready?”
Each time I said no, it was the end of the world, until it wasn’t. With every no, my anxiety and rage dissipated, and I could almost feel distress purify through repetition.
“No” is still slippery. But when it’s accessible—and it’s more and more accessible—I feel as if I can do anything. Like trust myself.
Speaking again is not easy, but it’s simple. “It’s risk,” my therapist tells me.
Risk “no.” Risk being unlikeable and being perceived as unreasonable, and risk being called a fucking bitch. Risk “being a bitch.” Risk “bad” words. Risk mistakes and risk being corrected and risk losing those who won’t forgive. Risk refusal. Risk acknowledgment. Risk trouble. Risk the question. Risk demanding care. Risk a voice that doesn’t demure, a voice that is difficult, unaesthetic, charged, forthright, sappy. Risk it, or risk living a half-a-person life.
Copyright © 2022 by Elissa Bassist. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, NY, USA. All rights reserved.