An anti-feminist pandemic, a personal bugbear, an abhorrent psychological phenomenon? Sexy Baby Voice has cemented its place within the modern day, and seemingly, all we can do is recoil in horror. But what is the deeper meaning of impersonating children around men, and what does it say about those who comment upon it? Kate Demolder writes.

"I like my pigtails. My uncle says they're sexy," purrs Abby Flynn, a freshly-hired comedy writer in a now-infamous scene of NBC's multi-award winning 30 Rock. As Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) attempts to coax Flynn out of her chipmunkian brogue, Flynn retorts, exclaiming: "The whole sexy baby thing isn’t an act," she says, all spandex hotpants and marshmallow faux fur. "I’m actually a very sexy baby."

The concept of women conveying messages by way of learned practices is not new. In fact, its roots are based in power. Henry Higgins is to Eliza Doolittle as climbing the ladder is to women halted by ceilinged glass.

But one such vocal aspect catapulting into the zeitgeist in recent years is that of Sexy Baby Voice, most notably experienced by way of reality dating show contestants looking to find love – or if all else fails, lust – on the small screen.

One such instance is that of regional manager Jessica from Netflix’s Love Is Blind. The 34-year-old is a wildly impressive woman; highly educated, well employed and traditionally beautiful, yet Jessica’s pivot to stardom isn’t based on her credentials.

The Chicago-native’s impression on viewers centred around the inclusion of a wholly curated vocal fry – taking the pattern of 'uptalk’ or upward inflection – only when in the presence of men. The shift is jarring and uncomfortable, slotting the viewer into the role of voyeur at one’s displeasure.

"No one knows I’m in Mexico," Jessica directs in a straight-to-camera confessional, her voice full and Illinois-deep. "It’s tripping me out!" Cut to her cradling a man, his arms around her as they look out to the sea. "I love hearing the waves crash on the beach," she tells him, her voice now lilting, high-pitched and fried. "That’s, like, my favorite thing in the world."

Musically, it’s pitchy. Conceptually, breathy and kittenish. It lies somewhere between Madonna and Whore, yet its roots are aurally devastating. So what is the basis of speaking with the schwas and diphthongs of a coquettish infant – and why are women still doing it?

It’s unknown when Sexy Baby Voice first gained global awareness, but in the English-speaking world, it’s widely considered that actress and director Lake Bell brought it to the fore. Female voices lend themselves to misperception, she claims.

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"There is a pandemic that is rampant in this country," she says in a 2013 Conan O’Brien segment, promoting her new film In A World... "And it’s the Sexy-Baby Vocal Virus," she remarks, in a heliumed leap, assuming the position of a sultry, newborn bird. "It’s festering through this nation and it could be our great demise."

A vocal technique at best and mating ritual at worst, the voice is used, according to Bell, by women who wish to appear younger and more ‘adorable’ when speaking to men. Bell is famously critical of this type of voice, believing it portrays the speaker as "a submissive 12-year-old trying to be a sex object".

Sitting alongside ‘uptalk’, ‘vocal fry’, and LA socialite, a number of celebrities have berated the practice, most notably for its subservience to men.

But what’s even more labyrinthian still, is that it works.

According to a 2013 study, men prefer women with higher-pitched voices because it signals that the woman has a small body size (!). Likewise, women reportedly prefer men with low-pitched voices, signaling a larger frame.

Most women will relate to this, knowing that there has always been a value placed on girlish femininity, which comes from the history of women having significantly less social power than men, but why is the idea of it so pervasive when women have harnessed their status and sexuality for power for decades?

"I think one of the reasons is that that voice is often used in more private and intimate settings, one’s that you don’t usually see on television – but these sort of shows [Love Is Blind, Love Island] provide us with settings in which we can hear them at length," Anne Karpf, Professor of Life Writing and Culture at London Metropolitan University and author of 'The Human Voice' recently told Louise McSharry on her 2FM show.

"The fascinating thing about the voice is that, in it, you hear so much about what femininity is today and how people feel they ought to be," she continues. "Because this woman [Jessica] has a perfectly normal, rather nice voice when she does the testimonial, and suddenly she goes into what’s being called the Sexy Baby Voice – it’s almost like she’s trying to make herself smaller than what she is in order to make the man feel bigger.

"These aspects are not created anatomically – they are to do with how femininity is constructed. They’re how we perform being women. So that voice is a created voice and tells us something about how she feels she has to be as a woman. In sexual relationships, the idea of a purring sexuality still for many women involves somehow diminishing themselves and making themselves powerless."

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Karpf’s book details how the human voice is far less anatomically determined than we think. We use our voice to denote status, power, wealth, she says, wholly affected by society. Women’s voices, as a whole, have actually deepened over the last 40 years, something she has attributed to women entering the workplace and attempting to assimilate men’s voices in more egalitarian countries.

Many of us hate hearing our voice played back to us, which Karpf says is because we are used to hearing our own voice through our bones (which makes it sound less high-pitched) rather than unfiltered through the air.

But Karpf believes our voices embarrass us because we hear in them the things we hoped to have edited out. Like a Freudian slip, they tell people things about us we would rather they didn’t know. "We feel betrayed by them," she says.

"If she heard that voice played back to her, she would probably be squirming with discomfort," says Karpf.
We also hold multiple voices, she continues. "The voice I’m using now is different from the one I shout with when I’m angry."

This perhaps rings truer with women than with men, as the female voice has brushed up against authority since the dawn of time. Women’s voices have almost always been viewed in relation to the sexual desire they’ve evoked in men rather than the beliefs or desires of the woman itself," she says. And so we arrive at Sexy Baby Voice, allowing women to portray themselves as powerless and the man, in turn, as powerful.

Women have traditionally felt intimidated by the power of their voice too, opting, sometimes subconsciously, to alter its appearance to be more powerful or to ask for protection. It’s a society-based intimidation, one that previously banned women from speaking in churches in case their voices caused impure thoughts for men and deemed women too emotional for news reading.

For women, the desire to commit to ‘baby-talk’ can also be entirely self-protective, often playing into the societal pressure to protect a man’s ego. Paris Hilton famously revealed that the voice used during The Simple Life and her mid-aughts era of relevance was entirely put on, as she found it financially advantageous to do so.

"Often, extremely bright women have huge difficulty using their voice. They are terrified to use the full force of it. I’ve rarely encountered a man with that same problem," Karpf says.

As the season wears on, Jessica slowly dissipates from 'Sexy Baby Voice' when around men, allowing her comfort to engulf her need to feel small. We see this happen in shows like Love Island, too, where women alternate between natural voices and high-pitched inflections around those they want to evoke sexual feelings in.

2021 Love Islander Kaz was berated online for her attempt at flirting via high frequency child-like intonation, but what does our reaction to this say about us?

It’s misogynistic, Karpf shares. "We should instead step back and ask why she feels she needs to do that. Why, in 2020, does a woman still think it’s sexually appealing to make herself sound like an infant?"

Men don’t, by half, experience the same pressure to curate every minutiae of their appearance, so tearing a woman down for making use of the only power she feels she has at her dispense is a double-edged sword.

While it may appear jarring – most especially at a time where it feels women are steadily gaining ground in a man’s world – to rebuke self-protection in that way is simply directing hate at the wrong person.

So, what’s a tiny, sexy girl to do?

"As it is, most women have such a long to-do list of self improvement," she says, "and on the whole, I believe in women accepting themselves as they are. But one thing I would say is a really, good, powerful voice is a voice that is free. That is full of vitality and moves all over the place, that we’re not locked in one place.

"One of the ways we can become more powerful in our voices," she continues, "is using them more fully and knowing we don't just have one voice, we have dozens of them. It’s about power and freedom and vitality, allowing your real spirit to be reflected in your voice."

In essence, Karpf suggests we be ourselves, in every way our selves can be and allow others to do so. But as day dawns on another year of reality television-based Sexy Baby Voice chat, the key finding here is to realise that we don’t know what’s going on behind closed larynxes, and we likely never will.

For the old saying goes; if someone wants to emit the sounds of a toddler, let them. Because when the topic of conversation really is Sexy Baby Voice (an oxymoron if one ever existed), who are we to say what’s wight and what’s weally a diffewent pwobwem awtogethew?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ