Decent people, as a rule, do not comment upon traits that are beyond other people’s control. Height, nose, gait — all off limits.
This rule gets tricky when it’s not clear whether a trait is intrinsic, or is a bizarre affectation, specifically chosen, and deeply revealing of some aspect of personality or culture. Donald Trump’s hair, for example — it needed to be discussed. In the context of vanity, in the context of delusion, in the context of pressures related to baldness and masculinity.
Which brings us to the question of Elizabeth Holmes’s voice.
Holmes, 35, is an erstwhile Silicon Valley CEO, at one point the youngest self-made female billionaire in the United States. Her company, Theranos, purported to revolutionize lab testing, via diagnostics that required only a simple finger prick. She was selling health, and everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Betsy DeVos to Henry Kissinger to George Shultz bought in.
Then, the whole thing turned out to be a scam. The technology didn’t work. Holmes was charged with nine counts of wire fraud, and the company’s downfall is recounted in a popular podcast, a book, a series of investigative articles and, as of this week, an HBO documentary titled “The Inventor.”
And in the middle of all that, Elizabeth Holmes has . . . an unusua l way of speaking.
A deep, back-of-the throat baritone, with a surfer inflection, a dash of seasonal allergies, a touch of robot — just Google it, okay? It’s become a whole thing. Online, some listeners decided Holmes had drawn inspiration, vocally and criminally, from Mira Sorvino in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” Others were more succinct: “She talks like a tuba.”
“Elizabeth Holmes’s Fake Voice Is Actually Just ‘Stupid Man’ Voice,” postulated a writer from Jezebel, who pointed out that Holmes sounded like a “Saturday Night Live” cast member doing a skit about a moron. “Inside Edition” ran a segment on her voice. The Cut published a deep analysis into whether this could possibly be how Holmes actually talked and determined it couldn’t. Higher-pitched snippets of Holmes speaking have occasionally surfaced online, and acquaintances claim her voice changed dramatically when she became famous.
Experts then rang in about whyyyy someone would possibly invent such a thing. “She thought it would achieve the desired effect of making her seem like a Silicon Valley visionary,” synthesized Cut writer Katie Heaney.
Reading Heaney’s piece and the Jezebel piece and hundreds of baffled sleuths online, I felt as if we were all wrestling with the same question: How do you discuss a woman’s weird voice and make sure you’re not just calling it weird because she’s a woman?
Elizabeth Holmes is an alleged fraud and scam artist who, if she’s found guilty of even half the charges against her, deserves a lot of prison time. But faking a voice? Let’s talk about that.
Remember a few years ago when certain culture consumers began an ongoing obsession with “vocal fry”? It’s a guttural quality which, frenzied observers insist, is perpetuated by young women and needs to be stopped. This week, New Yorker radio host Helen Rosner posted an instructional email she’d received from a male listener. “Please consider working with a vocal coach,” he wrote.
Before that, columnists fretted about “uptalk,” wherein speakers end statements with a rising intonation, which makes sentences sound like questions: My name is Jordan? Detractors again claimed it was something only young women did, and also (and thus?) it needed to end.
Of course, there was a reason young women used uptalk, as linguists would later point out. It’s not only a more inclusive, inviting speaking style, it’s also a reaction and counter-response to another frequent charge levied against women: She’s yelling at me.
Of course, there was a reason young women might employ vocal fry. Making your voice guttural is the opposite of making it breathy, and breathy women’s voices are also viewed as wrong — childlike and insubstantial. Male radio hosts such as Ira Glass and Howard Stern are also vocally fried, as Rosner noted, but the phenomenon is still seen as a female problem.
Anything high is too screechy; anything low is too butch. Anything soft lacks confidence; anything loud is your shrill mother-in-law.
It’s entirely possible for women to have melodic, pleasing voices, of course. They just have to be reincarnated as Patricia Clarkson.
Here’s another way of putting it: The 2020 field of presidential candidates has given us a wealth of female voices. So if you don’t like Kamala Harris’s voice, and you don’t like Elizabeth Warren’s, and you don’t like Kirsten Gillibrand’s, and you don’t like Amy Klobuchar’s — and if you’re observant enough to realize that none of them have voices that are at all similar to each other — then maybe it’s not their voices you have a problem with.
So here comes Elizabeth Holmes, who appears to be performing a deep, low voice. In considering her manner of speaking, I thought of vocal fry, and uptalk, and Margaret Thatcher taking speech lessons so that her voice would sound more authoritative, which ended up meaning “more masculine.”
It’s hard to separate Holmes’s crazy voice from her crazy acts. It’s important to make it clear that this woman comes across as delusional at best and felonious at worst. People are probably interested in her speaking style because, like Donald Trump’s hair, it seemed to reveal something about her alleged personality. Her fakeness, her deception, her commitment to a grand facade.
But she was also an attractive younger woman who had mostly surrounded herself with older, powerful men. She was allegedly running a scam, and that scam required her to be seen as authoritative, competent and visionary, in a world with a historically limited definition of what “authoritative and visionary” looked like.
Elizabeth Holmes is baffling. But of all the weird things about her, the weird voice is the one that actually makes the most sense.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.