Sitting on a bar stool onstage in the Kennedy Center’s Atrium recently, Rachel Wenitsky spread her arms wide and opened her mouth. High-pitched, off-tune, she belted out part of the song “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s “Moana”:
I know everybody on this island
Seems so happy on this island
She held out the last syllable in a prolonged shriek. The audience laughed and applauded, but one man in a back row quietly booed. “Horrible voice,” he muttered.
But that’s the joke. On “Mouth Time!,” the podcast of the satirical online magazine Reductress, Wenitsky, 28, plays Dikoda, a ditsy social-media obsessive who speaks in a fried-out nasal whine. Wenitsky and her co-host, Nicole Silverberg, 26, who plays the rich girl Quenn in high-pitched Valley Girl-speak, trade absurd beauty tips, romantic advice, and political opinions in a parody of the gossipy exchanges on podcasts such as Cosmo’s “Happy Hour” and Glamour’s “Hey, It’s OK!”
Like the Reductress site, the podcast is both an absurdist burlesque of women’s media and a snarky feminist take on the news. But the hosts of “Mouth Time!” also take aim at the ways in which our culture polices women’s voices.
“We’re just two girls who share what our heads are thinking by moving our mouths,” Quenn and Dikoda declare at the opening of each “Mouth Time!” episode (or “eppy”), before improvising a series of nonsensical sounds.
Vocal tics such as uptalk, or a rising inflection that makes declarative sentences sound like questions, and vocal fry, a low, creaky register, inspire countless laments that young women make themselves sound less professional in the workplace. Numerous studies have found that these vocal patterns are not exclusive to women, but women who have them seem to draw particular ire. The popular public radio show “This American Life” receives frequent complaints about the voices of its female journalists.
“I know there’s pressure to hire females,” a listener wrote to the show’s host, Ira Glass. “But do you have to choose the most irritating voices in the English-speaking world?”
And during the election, pundits spent countless hours analyzing the voice of the most-heard woman in the world. The Atlantic devoted a video to a scientific dissection of “Shrill-ary’s” voice — finding, of course, that the presidential candidate speaks at an average pitch and register for her age and gender.
Complaints about women’s vocal tics, Silverberg and Wenitsky believe, often mask frustration at the idea of women voicing their opinions. So rather than attempt to cover up those tics, they exaggerate them. “By leaning into [those voices] completely, we ask you to take us seriously even when we’re giving you every reason not to,” Silverberg said.
Both Silverberg and Wenitsky grew up with a taste for the ridiculous — Silverberg in Arizona, and Wenitsky in New Jersey. For both, the absurdity of the patriarchy seemed like natural fodder for that sort of humor, though bits about “women’s issues” are often dismissed as niche or inappropriate.
“We’re taught not to talk about things like tampons because it’s cheap or boring or tacky,” Silverberg said. “Well, sorry, but I have a tampon in my vagina for more than a quarter of my life. I do that more than I see my parents.”
After Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo founded Reductress in 2013, Silverberg and Wenitsky joined the staff and found an outlet to explore exactly such topics. Wenitsky often took aim at the outlandish (and sometimes dangerous) sex tips offered in women’s magazines with headlines such as “8 Sex Positions that Will Blow His Mind and Destroy His Penis,” and Silverberg parodied self-deprecating self-help with articles such as “How I Learned to Stop Hating My Body and Start Hating My Horrible Personality.”
Reductress editors envisioned “Mouth Time!,” which first aired in 2016, as a way to explode such parodies into a “fever dream,” Pappalardo said. In each episode, Silverberg and Wenitsky (who took the place of original host Anna Drezen after she left to write for SNL) riff with each other and a guest, usually another comedian. (Disclosure: At the Kennedy Center, it was The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi.)
Their alter egos are fully developed: Quenn’s boyfriend is a surfer-model, and she’s mad that he won’t pick just one profession. Dikoda graduated from the Heidi and Spencer Pratt Institute of Social Media, where she majored in memes and minored in likes. “There’s just a lot of stuff that we’ll improvise and it becomes a bit,” Wenitsky says. “And all of a sudden you’re telling the audience that Jill Stein is your stepmom.”
Quenn and Dikoda are the women who have actually taken magazines’ sex advice and beauty tips. “If these women actually did exist, they’d be incredibly unwell,” Silverberg said.
But just because they have some ridiculous ideas — they think the Statue of Liberty is a tree — doesn’t mean they don’t have anything important to say. In a recent episode released during the House’s health-care fight, the hosts (Catherine Cohen subs in for Silverberg) lampoon both the news and wacky health trends:
“If the government takes away your health care, we’re going to have to work super hard to be naturally healthy.”
“We’re going to have to use crystals to cure our cancer.”
“And for stuff like lupus.”
“There are just too many preexist-y condit-ys that count, and all of them can be cured with crystals.”
“Cough in the winter.”
“A pleasant disposition.”
“And of course, having a vagina. Having a vagina is the most terrible preexisting condition.”
“There is no cure.”
“You can seal it up with cotton candy. Lindsay Lohan did that.”
Quenn and Dikoda react to real-world events with childlike naivete, but land on sharp insights. “A basic tenet of improv is that you always play at the top of your intelligence,” Wenitsky says. “[Quenn and Dikoda] are idiots, but because they have all the knowledge that we have, we can satirize what’s going on in the world.”
Reviews on “Mouth Time!’s” iTunes page mostly commend that satire. But there are complaints about “vocal fry,” “nasal voices,” and pitches “making my ears bleed.” Those comments apparently flooded the site after Reductress released an ad for the podcast. Reading them was hurtful, Wenitsky says, but on the next episodes, she and Silverberg exaggerated their voices even further.
“We’re obsehhhhhhsssssed . . .” one bit begins.
“Obsehhhhhssssssed . . .”