Shocking news: “scientific research” shows that Hillary Clinton sounds like … a perfectly average middle-aged woman. Unfortunately, her voice being “average in pitch and loudness for her age and gender” also necessarily means it is not average for a candidate in a presidential race.
There are numerous questions to be asked of this type of research. Why, for example, are we looking for pitch and loudness when we know full well that prosody and timbre play a much larger role in people’s attribution of various traits to voices and speakers? And why should Hillary’s voice deserve such scrutiny in the first place? Why is her relatability predicated upon her particular practices of enunciation and breath?
As Jordan Kisner has noted, Hillary joins a long line of women whose voice has been reviled the moment they had the temerity to speak in public. “The public sniping at women’s voices”, Kisner points out, “reflects a deeper cultural anxiety about whether they have a right to speak at all”.
And yet, it’s not as if we do not hear and appreciate strong female voices in other contexts. The powerful sounds of divas across genres, from Beyoncé to Damrau, are perfectly audible, and their competence, authenticity and femininity are beyond question … as is their right to raise their voices. Crucially, however, these divas don’t aspire to the role of president. They are queens. Rather than adopting the neutrality of the political voice, which has to speak to and for all, has to speak of rationality and the good of the nation, has to speak of utter command over one’s faculty and emotions … they passionately embrace the visceral pleasure they can draw from their throats and elicit in their audience. But doing so almost immediately also elicits feelings of delectable confusion and of delicious fear that are intimately tied to the physical nature of the voice and its place of production. As Wayne Koestenbaum points out in The Queen’s Throat,
it is difficult to avoid noticing that the spookily genderless voice box has been clothed with a feminine aura. And it is difficult to know what to do with this information.
The hidden nature of the embodied voice sits uneasily in the identity of the political speaker, who has to exude ideological ‘transparency’, and therefore the voice’s age-old association with the feminine is scary, especially when launched from a female throat. And thus Hillary does not sound to us like a president, she sounds like a queen. Powerful and strong, but also volatile and vengeful. It is perhaps no coincidence that the more florid descriptions various pundits have provided of her speech could just as well serve as snide reviews of a performance of the Queen of the Night aria. It is “shrill”, “sticks in your ear like an ice pick”, “makes me envy the deaf”.
But if we, as her audience, are culturally incapable of hearing the female voice as the vehicle of presidential speech, and always hear royal coloratura instead, then maybe queens’ voices are the place to look for comparison and aspiration for the female politician.
Queens, after all, by virtue of being heirs to an empire, or by commanding their own pop-empire, are naturally prone to vocal greatness. In 1857, speech therapist James Hunt described the sound of Queen Victoria’s voice in parliament as follows:
Her Majesty is gifted by Nature with the power of managing her voice properly, and in the delivery of her speeches on the opening or closing the sessions of parliament, speaks in so clear and distinct a manner, that not a syllable is lost throughout the crowded expanse of the House of Lords. From how few of her hearers could the same important qualification be expected? Not from one in twenty!
Clear, distinct and well-enunciated, the Queen’s voice revels in its unique status, as a sound that stands out in a sea of masculine murmurs.