The XX Factor

How Upspeak Can Bring You Down

Tracy Flick references have abounded lately, Meredith . The New York Observer has a piece in which the famously strident character is likened to Sen. Kristen Gillibrand ( a common comparison Emily Bazelon referenced on DoubleX earlier this week ). The article is trying to explain why helicopter-taking, pedicure-getting Harold Ford Jr. is considered a serious contender for Gillibrand’s seat and why her poll numbers are so mediocre. But the piece ends up mostly as a dig at her voice, which the Observer gets a trained sociolinguist to describe as totally Valley Girl : “Ms. Gillibrand often employs a ‘rising intonation pattern at the end of declarative clauses that lay people tend to associate with teenage girls, a tendency that gives way to a classic trigger of linguistic profiling.’ … ‘In general, she speaks in a much less formal register than one expects from a senator.’ ” Ford, meanwhile, is relatively silver-tongued and gives an aura of having gravitas in person, apparently-at least far more than he does in print .

Gillibrand is 43, not 17, with a JD and an Ivy League degree. She also came of age in the ‘80s, when “upspeak” seemed to bubble its way into the American dialect. Can we really fault her for her voice?

Maybe! In response to the discussion on the DoubleX Facebook page about Clay Shirky’s argument that women need to become better at selling themselves , reader Gay Maxwell noted that while older women might have a problem with the very concept of self-promotion, younger women, despite being ready to put themselves forward , can unwittingly undercut themselves through poor presentation. They need self-promotion “training” because “they’ve all learned to place a question mark at the end of their sentences when they speak.” It’s hard to declare that you’re the woman for the job when you’re asking us, um, if you’re the woman for the job? Riiight?

My dad gave me a hard time in my teens about upspeak, mostly because he was a little shocked in the ‘90s when he began encountering smart young female lawyers who talked like nervous teenagers. Upspeak didn’t play well in court, and I’m glad he pointed that out. Telling your teenage daughter to project confidence in all situations is feminist parenting, though it might come across as surface-level sexist to harp on the patterns of speech of “lady lawyers,” (or “lady pols” or really, any situation in which “lady” is affixed before a profession). Maybe it’s unfair that a distinctly female pattern of speech signals inexperience or a lack of gravitas. And it might seem shallow to emphasize presentation over substance, but that’s the way the world works, lots of the time.

So why can’t Gillibrand rid herself of the Valley Girl cadences? After the devastating Observer piece, I’ve no doubt her handlers will herd her off to a Henry Higgins. But I’ve got one theory as to why she never tried to train the ditz out of her voice before: It’s a defense mechanism against the accusations of pushiness . Talking like a teenage girl makes you seem a little softer, and for a hard-driving woman who knows she’ll be taken to task for aggression or arrogance, perhaps keeping the upspeak lets you dodge some of that criticism, even as it opens you up to a different kind.

Photograph of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand by Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images.