Why You Hate Women’s Voices
Speaker 1: That’s it. That’s it.
Speaker 2: Welcome to the Waves, Slate’s podcast about gender feminism. And this week, women’s voices. Every episode you get a new pair of women to talk about the thing that we cannot get off of our minds. And today you’ve got me. Daisy Rosario. I’m senior supervising producer of Audio here at Slate. Today, I’m very excited to be joined by author Elissa Bassist. She is the writer behind a new book called Hysterical, which talks all about her own personal experience with losing and finding her voice. And in the process of writing that book, she did a lot of research on women’s voices, which she presents in the book as a series of essays. So I’m very, very excited to talk to her. After the break, I’m going to be joined by Elissa Bassist.
Speaker 2: Today I am joined by Elissa Bassist, who wrote this incredible book, Hysterical, which is many things, which is part of what is fantastic about it. It’s a memoir. It’s a bit of a medical mystery. It is a history of women’s voices and not just literal voices, but communication and the way we communicate. And so we will be talking to her today about women’s voices. I am so excited to hear her actual voice. Elissa Bassist, Welcome to the Waves.
Speaker 3: Thank you so much for having me.
Speaker 2: I just have to say, I loved this book. It’s it’s really fantastic. And I’m almost too excited in that way that I get when something is so good that it gets all the synapses firing. I could talk to you about so many, many parts of this book, but I would love to just hear from you a little bit about how it came together, because it is a story about something that genuinely happened to you, combined with incredible research, you know, historical research, sociological research, media research, I mean, just so many different things. So can you just give our listeners a sense because they absolutely need to pick up this book? We’re not even going to touch a 20th of what I loved about it. But yeah, let’s give us give our listeners a little bit of an idea of kind of how you came to this process with this book.
Speaker 3: So the book took me 11 years only to write. I started it in 2010 and I started it because Cheryl Strayed told me to. She told me to write like a motherfucker. So I was like, okay, I’ll do it. I actually couldn’t do it for many, many years. So I had wanted to write a book my whole life, but I didn’t think I had anything to write about and I didn’t think anybody would care. And of course, this was a lot of internalized misogyny. Thank you.
Speaker 3: All I could do was write about my obsessions, and I was really obsessed with television and media as a fan and as someone who felt really misrepresented by it. So that’s where I started. And then I also was very obsessed with all my ex-boyfriends and all my ex bosses.
Speaker 3: And then years into the writing process, I got sick and I gave up writing forever because I had a new goal, which was just to survive. And I didn’t plan on writing about being sick until. Years later, and I only felt motivated to do it because I was obsessed again with how doctors had treated me. And I saw so many overlaps with how doctors, boyfriends, bosses, society, media, every entity in the world responded to me and how I responded to them and how I worked my voice and distorted my personality in order to appeal to them, to be loved by them, to be saved by them. And it was at my own expense.
Speaker 3: And a part of solving my medical mystery had to do with my voice. No spoilers. And how I was unable to speak up for myself. Everything that I was repressing and how I caught myself feeling more scared of hurting a doctor’s feelings than dying.
Speaker 2: And I think a lot of women will relate to that sense. Just to give anyone listening enough of a back story that they that they can follow what we’re talking about.
Speaker 2: You had an experience which I related to deeply, and I’m sure many, many women also relate to, which is that you you had a lot of physical ailments. You’re having pains. You were having, you know, discomfort. You were having all of these different things. I mean, there’s so many words for what you were experiencing because it’s not just the physical pain, but you would go to doctors and they’d run tests and they wouldn’t find anything. It would be inconclusive and they would tell you, oh, it’s probably nothing. Or, you know, and I have an autoimmune disease. So like many people with an autoimmune disease, I also went to doctors for many years who either told me it was nothing or diagnosed me with what they thought was the simplest explanation. And then whatever the treatment was for that would invariably do nothing at all. And they’d kind of tap out. And then I would go find yet another doctor to start the process with again.
Speaker 2: So even though, you know, we’re not getting into the specifics of your ailment, I think many women in general can relate to that feeling, to that experience, and also of softening your language and your expression of your pain and and trying to make it so that. You don’t sound like too much.
Speaker 3: Exactly. I was so concerned with annoying them, pushing them too far so that they would ghost me. And many of them did. I was embarrassed about being in so much pain. I underrated my pain so I wouldn’t frustrate or confound these doctors whose job it was to heal me. At the same time, they weren’t listening to me. I wasn’t listening to myself, and I was my own lowest priority.
Speaker 3: And I went to over 20 medical professionals and amateurs, and most of them said nothing was wrong with me and looked at me like I was air quotes crazy and that it was all in my head. And they often referred me to a psychiatrist and gave me a prescription for anxiety or depression. And oddly enough, that was part of the problem because this experience, as every experience living in a patriarchy is demoralizing, depressing, anxiety inducing, traumatic.
Speaker 2: Elissa mentioned that Cheryl Strayed told her to write like a motherfucker. If that sounds familiar, please definitely go check out the Slate plus segments because we’ll be talking more in-depth about that. But again, I want people to read the book. And what we want to talk about right now is women’s voices specifically. I mean, part of again, what I enjoyed so much about this book is that you really used this experience as a jumping off point to learn so many details about so many things in terms of how women communicate. And obviously, as someone who is frequently on podcasts and and works behind the scenes on podcasts, this is something that has come up for me a lot as well. I will definitely tell you that it is true. The number one email or comment that comes in at every place I have ever worked has been some kind of criticism of the voice, the actual voice, the quality and the timber and the delivery of various women’s voices.
Speaker 2: So your book goes so much more wonderfully in depth, but you’ve learned a lot about just this topic in particular through the writing of your book. So I’d love to hear from you a little bit more about what you learned. There was even a mention in your book that that you said that an NPR co-host told you that a lot of the women in their industry would take lessons to kind of bring their voices down.
Speaker 2: And I’ve I’ve worked quite a bit in public radio. It’s definitely not something that I witnessed, but that’s not something that I witnessed. In the sense of seeing women literally go sign up for things, but watching women as they would prepare themselves behind the microphone to try to get their voices deeper. Or if I think about the direction that I’ve watched people give to women when they are recording their voices, I mean, all of this, it just tracks. I mean, what are some of the things that you were really surprised to learn as you studied this in particular?
Speaker 3: So it started from a place of me wondering why I hated my own voice and why that felt instinctual, to distrust it, to be annoyed by it. To think no one wanted to hear it. And then also, as a listener, I feel very annoyed by women’s voices. And I had to question why, why? And it felt so much just like a repeated anger and hatred that I had absorbed from a lifetime of listening to men narrate everything. Because I’ve been a tool aholic since birth. I have. I’m used to the male voice and not the female voice.
Speaker 3: And then I started doing research and I found starting with like Margaret Thatcher, and I’m sure it went before her, she took voice lowering lessons in order to be taken seriously. And we see this also in Elizabeth Holmes, who warped her voice in order to attract investors. And I had a friend of a friend who works at NPR, and I spoke to a few NPR radio hosts who all concurred the hate mail they received about their voice only and how they took voice lowering lessons in order to avoid hate mail. But you can never avoid it.
Speaker 3: And and this trend has been true since the invention of radio, where men spoke. People did not like when women were on the radio. They sounded stupid and their opinion. And this was their opinion. It’s not that women sounded stupid. They thought women sounded stupid. There was like that important, important note of differentiation. We just don’t trust the female voice. We don’t believe it has any authority or expertise. We are seeing now like we believe we’re approaching equality or some people believe this because we see a few more women on screen. We hear a few more diverse voices on the radio.
Speaker 3: But by and large, the statistics are still so skewed. Women, especially women of color, black women, Asian women are so rarely the protagonist of news stories unless they’re being murdered or raped. We just. So often hear deafening silence when it comes to women’s voices, their stories, their experiences, their politics, everything about them. And when we do hear from them, it’s grating, it’s nasally, it’s too high, it’s too much. We can’t stand it. We don’t want to hear it. And like the vitriol people feel is so strong.
Speaker 2: It’s incredibly strong. You can really see the way that it comes through. You may have caught this tweet from Jane Lynch a few months ago. I love women. I am a woman. Our voices are higher than men’s voices. Women’s voices can get into the annoying area if it gets too high. If you’re doing a podcast, consider lowering your pitch a tad. If you think I’m being sexist about this, then I don’t know what to do with you. Like, just because you are saying this thing doesn’t make it automatically not misogynistic because you are yourself a woman.
Speaker 3: Right. It’s just something she had internalized and was repeating without interrogating it. And she truly believes that women need to work harder to be heard and no one else needs to work harder to listen to women in a more diplomatic way. We just put so much on women to change and adapt and so little on the audience to not give us death threats.
Speaker 2: I also would say I’m someone who has received I’m making air quotes that you can’t see. I’m someone who has received compliments on my voice. But one thing that I noticed, I think, is someone who also was more behind the scenes because I do a lot of guest hosting, but I don’t usually just host a show is that I started to realize that a lot of these came in in a very like. I prefer her voice to these other female voices that you’ve had in the past. And you know, it even happened pretty recently.
Speaker 2: And something I work on here at Slate, and I think for me, if it wasn’t that I already had experienced as a kid the kind of like, Oh, you’re smart in a way that I don’t expect for like an Afro-Latina kid for poverty to be. I would have maybe taken those as real compliments. I would have taken these things about my voice as actual compliments.
Speaker 2: But what I saw immediately to me was this is not really a compliment about me. This is you finally had something to point to that made you feel better about saying you didn’t like the other thing. And I feel like that just happens so much with women, whether it’s our voices or just the way that we express ourselves in different ways. Which again, is one of the things I love about the book. It’s not just about your literal voice, it’s about the way that we communicate and how even, you know, the Internet has complicated all of that because it’s given us so many places to communicate in different ways. But I feel like that ends up being part of it, is that, you know, then women also get played against each other in this.
Speaker 3: Yes. I mean, I’m like nodding my head so vigorously to everything you’re saying. Like the outlier compliment is something I chased for so long to be like, you’re not like other girls. You’re actually more like a dude. And I tried to change myself and my voice and my outfit and my demeanor and everything about my personality so that I would get those outlier compliments, which was just another form of girl hate crime, women hating and so on.
Speaker 3: And yeah, now we have social media where no one has to listen to our voice, but they can hate our words and our opinions and our thoughts and our feelings just as much. And like, to me, social media has always felt like this long con of give us the tools to communicate and then ask us to please get raped for communicating and then to see how much we hate on each other is so upsetting. Like we don’t even, like, need sexist men. Almost. Almost.
Speaker 2: We’re going to take a break here. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about how the fear of scrutiny over our voices silences women in ways that we didn’t imagine.
Speaker 2: Welcome back to the Waves. I am here and overly excited to be talking with Elissa Bassist. And we’re talking about her new book, Hysterical and how society treats women’s voices, both literal voices and their ability to be heard in general. There are multiple things in your book that I highlighted, and one of the lines that I loved because it hit me like a ton of bricks, was being socialized as almost like being gaslit into mental illness. And that’s how it feels when you’re watching, you know, kind of women attacking each other by using the logic of misogyny or kind of the, you know, outright culture of misogyny that we’ve grown up in to kind of use against each other.
Speaker 2: I remember having a conversation and like 2016 it was more 2017. It was after Trump was already in office. But I was having conversation with some friends about politics, as you do at a bar. We’re chatting and I remember, you know, talking to someone about how much I had learned about Hillary Clinton and kind of realizing that in the era I had grown up in. Like, I did have some legitimate critiques, but that there also was a lot of misogyny that I had digested without realizing it and was just kind of spitting back out the way that you do when that’s what you know. And I remember he said to me, like, I think I can tell the difference about whether I like about whether I just like, dislike her policies or whether I dislike her for misogynist reasons.
Speaker 2: And then the other person we were hanging out with showed up and so we got cut off. But what I wanted to say in that moment was I can’t trust that I do that myself. So how can I trust you to do it, dude? Like that is something that I have to actually still question about myself constantly. And I’m someone who comes from, you know, many different backgrounds that are, you know, not the main. And and yet I still have to check myself on these things constantly. So how can you sit there and just tell me that you definitely don’t have to be worried about these things, that you know exactly where the differences lie.
Speaker 3: My number one fantasy is to hear from a white man what you’re saying, which is I don’t know, and I suspect I’m a part of the problem and that I suspect that I don’t know everything. I think I know just like just allowing that you don’t know definitively and that you have been subject to forces beyond your control that have shaped you indelibly because it’s the air that we breathe. And I just wish more people would cop to the fact that they have all these biases and then we can have a conversation and then we can actually change and then things can actually get better. And I’m so proud of myself that I can listen to a woman and be like, I hate her voice and then be like, Why do I hate it? I don’t hate it. It’s the people have told me to hate it.
Speaker 2: You know, I’m sure that there’s probably somebody listening to this right now even that is like, these are great points. But I still hate how Kim Kardashian speaks. You know, like, I still hate vocal fry or things like that. I mean, I will say, you know, I know I’m going to say like a lot in this, you know, recording and things like that. And those are things that I’ve worked really hard to let go of. You know, I’m like, we’re making conversational shows. I want things to sound the way conversation sounds. People do not speak that cleanly and, you know, without pauses and things. And yes, if they go on too long, will clean them up a little bit to make it nicer for the listener.
Speaker 2: But ultimately, I just feel like, you know, the standards that we hold each other to are also so defined by like, where are we doing this? How are we doing this? Like, what is acceptable in this circumstance that won’t be acceptable in another. And the fact of the matter is me saying like doesn’t actually mean that I haven’t done all the things that I’ve done. I’m not going to stress myself out anymore, trying to not say like sometimes when that is a thing that people say in normal speech.
Speaker 3: And if you stop saying like he would in some essence be censoring yourself, you would just be policing your own self to the point where you would probably just stop saying certain things because you’re afraid of saying like in between. Like, that’s what happened to me is in order to be the perfect speaker, I stopped speaking because I was so annoyed with myself, and other people expressed to me that they were so annoyed with me that I was like, The solution is to stop talking. And then that ended up making me sick. And that’s not the solution.
Speaker 3: And you’re right about the level of certainty. We know Kim Kardashian’s voice is annoying because we have so many descriptors of what makes a woman’s voice bad, but we don’t have the same number of. Descriptors for what makes a man’s voice bad. We don’t scrutinize it like we do a woman’s voice. We don’t call out their tics, we don’t call out their cadence issues. We only focus on women’s voice issues like exclusively. And we could talk all day about vocal fry up, talk and everything. But like, what’s a what’s what are the words for what a man does? I can’t think of one.
Speaker 2: Wow. Yeah, I think. Right. We would automatically go towards some of the same things that we use with women’s voices, and that would probably also be in a way to paint it as that being part of the issue with that person’s voice. His voice would be weak, maybe.
Speaker 3: I think men also do devil’s advocating. I think that’s something we can call out. Opining. Pontificating. They can sound too nasal. I feel like we celebrate them for it, like we celebrate. Ira Glass. Many of us celebrate Tucker Carlson for some reason, like he still has a show. Like they can be as annoying as they want to be, and they still will get paid millions and have a broad audience.
Speaker 2: Honestly, Alissa, I could talk to you about this all day, but we do have to wrap up. I guess my last question for you would be because people get go read this book, go by. Hysterical is recently released. It came out in September. Go get it. What is the big thing that you’d wish that you could tell women or even just like fam presenting people honestly about their voice, you know? What do you want people to know from everything that you’ve learned?
Speaker 3: I think for us it boils down to risk, and we need to risk speaking up for ourselves. And I say risk because it’s something I learned in therapy where our fear systems are so out of whack and for very good reason, because we are constantly threatened, or at least there’s the threat of violence. We live with that and our every interaction. So our fear system is highly attuned that anything we say or do could get us in trouble. So it becomes a matter of retuning your fear system.
Speaker 3: So risk being perceived as a bitch. Risk being perceived as annoying. Risk being perceived as bossy, bitchy, nasally, whatever anyone would call you. Risk them thinking that just so you can say what you want to say and stand up for yourself. Added advocate for yourself. Have other people hear you as opposed to muting yourself to make other people comfortable? Because a lot of times what we’re risking will not come to pass.
Speaker 3: And so often when I tell myself. Risk upsetting this very step by asking a question. Usually that person is not upset by me asking a question that I needed to ask. Like, does this have an element that I’m allergic to that will kill me? And we’re just so afraid of being annoying that we risk our lives, we risk our health, we risk our preferences. We forget that we’re a person and an interaction, too, and that potentially annoying someone else is not a big deal. And it’s okay to risk their potential annoyance if it’s in favor of your comfort, your sanity, your needs, your once. So I wish we would risk more and prioritize ourselves more.
Speaker 2: I love that. Elissa Bassist Hysterical could get that now. Elissa, thank you so much for joining us on the waves.
Speaker 3: Thank you.
Speaker 1: Daisy That’s.
Speaker 2: That’s our show this week, The Waves. It’s produced by Cheyna Roth Shannon Palus is our editorial director. Alicia Montgomery is vice president of Audio. We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate.com. The waves will be back next week. Different hosts, different topic, same time and place.
Speaker 2: Thank you so much for being a sleep plus member. And since you’re a member, you get this weekly segment. I do want to talk about this kind of just fun factoid of the fact that you are, you know, the person that Cheryl Strayed wrote, The Dear Sugar response to that led to the right like a motherfucker saying that you could get it on a mug. So many things if you’re not familiar with Dear Sugar. It was the advice column that Cheryl Strayed wrote for The Rumpus.
Speaker 2: Eventually, they put out a book that was just a bunch of all of the columns and her responses. When I went through a very painful breakup, that book was just next to me on the shelf for months, and boy, that one was so helpful because it just you can just pick it up and open to any page and you’re like, Ah, yes. One of my many existential fears is being acknowledged in beautiful prose. But I think that’s just a that’s a very cool fact. And it also sounds like this is probably a message that you got at a time that you needed it. I mean, tell us a little bit about what it is to kind of be a famous letter writer, if you will.
Speaker 3: Yes. Ten years ago, I wrote a letter to an anonymous online advice columnist to what was at the time a widely unread online magazine. And I worried that I quote, wrote like a girl and that no one would read my writing. But at the same time, my main problem was I didn’t couldn’t write and I wanted to die because I couldn’t write a book. I was very 26 at the time.
Speaker 2: And also relatable.
Speaker 3: Tiny, beautiful thing. Yeah. Tiny, Beautiful Things then became a bestselling collection, a Broadway play. Its 10th anniversary is this year. And they’re doing Sheryl is doing a reissue of the book the same year that my book came out. I love that. And on the day my book came out, I broke my right like a motherfucker mug on accident. Not in a ritual.
Speaker 2: Oh, my goodness.
Speaker 3: And I was like, It’s because I don’t need it anymore, right? I did it. I love it.
Speaker 2: What a beautiful, full circle moments.
Speaker 3: Yes, It was awesome to get her advice. And then not to follow it for a long time because I just had to be a very depressed person and get help and go through my late twenties and waste a lot of time and figure a lot of shit out and grow up. Virginia Woolf said something like, No one under 40 should write a book.
Speaker 2: Oh yeah.
Speaker 3: And I love that. I put so much pressure on myself to be a WonderCon wunderkind. Yeah. Yeah. And to. To be a published author. A 26. And that expectation was paralyzing and depressing. And you just can’t get any work done when you expect that of yourself. And I needed the 11 years that ended up taking me to do all the research to figure out how to write. I feel like writers need to not go to MFA school. They need to go to something like med school. But for writing where you are in an eight year program and you’re an apprentice and you’re a resident and like you really need all that time to learn how to be a writer.
Speaker 2: Yeah, to just do it. To just have to do it constantly.
Speaker 3: Absolutely all the time and to be so bad at it. Like my mantra sort of became right, like an idiot because I just needed to write and to learn how to write and to get out of my own way and to not expect genius. And only once I mastered writing like an idiot could I then move on, graduate to writing like a motherfucker.
Speaker 2: I mean, it’s funny because that also, if I’m remembering her advice to you, that also plays out very similar to how her own response was to you, where she talks about how long she sat with something that she knew she needed to get out, and that ultimately when she did finally write the things she wanted to write, she kind of realized that she could not have actually written it sooner because all of those other things were part of that process. And so it feels like, yeah, like you’ve, you know, kind of still ended up you kind of were using the advice even though you said you didn’t use it for a while. It’s like like you kind of work in the way that doesn’t feel great. Yeah.
Speaker 3: I was using other advice. She had some incredible other gems in the letter that I wish were on mugs, which is like surrender to our own mediocrity. And she would rather write a book that sucked than not write a book. And she told me that I was like, too high up and too down low. I had a high self-esteem problem and a low self-esteem problem, and neither are places where we get any work done. And she called me out for being a writer who doesn’t write. I was not writing. I was complaining about writing, which felt like writing, but I was not doing any work. I needed to work and I needed to work hard. And it was going to be difficult and challenging, and I didn’t want that. I thought it should come easily and nothing that’s good ever comes easily.
Speaker 2: This is true. Unfortunately, it is true.
Speaker 3: I know. I was told I was like, it’s not true. I was like, orgasms. Yes, true. What else? End of list.
Speaker 2: But I mean, for me at least, it does, actually. You know, it ties back to the larger topic we’ve been talking about, because the thing is, if a woman does start sticking up for herself and speaking out, it’s going to feel awkward. It’s going to not feel good. It might come out too sharp at times. There might actually, because there are ways that you could be expressing these feelings that are more unkind than they need to be. And I think, you know, you got to let yourself learn how to do it so that you really are expressing your voice properly when you need to, because it’s not you’re not going to automatically be good at it if you haven’t been expressing yourself. So not just getting over kind of that fear of being annoying, but like you actually probably you probably will be annoying. It’s like you you might overstep a few times, but but better for you to like learn how to do it overall than to just continue to suffer in silence.
Speaker 3: Well, fucking up is a part of it. I love knowing I will fuck up. I will not be perfect. I will make a ton of mistakes, I will embarrass myself. I will be bad. Like just knowing that as opposed to I should be perfect. And if I’m not, go kill myself. Like it’s just so unreasonable to have those expectations and it it makes you totally shut down. But if you know. That you’re going to mess up. And it’s just a part of doing anything, especially when you’re doing a big effort.
Speaker 3: Like I watch Grey’s Anatomy and I love that every time a patient dies, the lesson is always patients are going to die. Like, as you’re saving a lot of lives, people are going to die and you’re not going to be fired for it. You’re not like, This is a learning lesson for you. And it’s if this is fiction. So I can talk about people dying with such nonchalance, but it’s just like, yeah, when the stakes are high, you’re not always going to do a perfect job. And that’s just a part of doing anything worth doing and being misperceived and being and pissing people off and not winning everyone over.
Speaker 3: And I used to think like Steve Martin thought, which is be so good that no one can deny you. But he is old white man Steve Martin, and I love him, but he has that luxury where he can be infallible or he can make a mistake and still be infallible. He can make a ton of mistakes and still be seen as infallible. But like most other people don’t have that luxury. Like we can’t be so good that no one can deny us because people will hate us, whether we’re good or not. So we might as well just do whatever we’re doing.
Speaker 2: Well, again, you have to check out a list is incredible book hysterical. It is memoir. It is medical mystery. It is incredible research about the way that women speak both verbally and in written form and across social media. I mean, it’s just so many things. It’s a fantastic read. So thank you again, Alissa, for joining us. That is Elissa Bassist and her book Hysterical. Go get it right now. And thank you for joining us for Sleep Plus segment. Alissa, thanks for being here.
Speaker 3: Thank you so much. Stacy.
Speaker 2: Thank you again for being a sleep plus member. We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the Waves at Slate.com.