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Hey, Audiobooks, That’s Not What Women Sound Like

Jessica Woodbury

Staff Writer

Jessica Woodbury's professional life has taken her to prisons, classrooms, strip clubs, and her living room couch. After years as a Public Defender in the South, she now lives in Boston with her two small children. Cursed with a practical streak, she always wanted to pursue music or writing but instead majored in Biochemistry because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. These days she does absolutely nothing with science or law and instead spends too much time oversharing on the internet. She has a soft spot for crime novels and unreliable narrators. And the strip club gig was totally as a lawyer, she swears.  Blog: Don't Mind the Mess Twitter: jessicaesquire

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I average a little over one a week, thanks to my commute. Like a lot of audiobook listeners, I have very strong opinions about what makes a good reader. Depending on the reader and the production, an audiobook performance can range from a one-man play with voices of all kinds to a mellow reading that’s almost too monotonous. The reader matters, but how they read matters more.

And there’s one kind of reader that I can no longer tolerate: the male reader who “puts on” a female voice. You know the one I’m talking about.

When he speaks as a male character he has a variety of tones and cadences, he has higher and lower voices, he lets you know who’s speaking based on how he talks. But when he speaks as a female character, he has just one voice. It is high, sometimes in falsetto, it is nasal, and it is the absolute worst.

First of all, the practical issue here is that in this kind of performance, every female character sounds the same. They are completely indistinguishable. So while men speak we can know who is talking before the character name is given. But with women? Good luck, if you aren’t told who’s talking, you won’t be able to figure it out.

But more troubling is the inherent sexism of this performance choice. The female voice is different and other-ing. The high pitch is supposed to tell us that it is feminine, along with other signs including a nasal timbre and/or a breathiness that isn’t present in the male characters. It’s clear that the most important thing we can know about this character is that they are female. Taking on this voice, limits their ability to play with the voice, to emote fully, to create a full character.

The female characters have less range. Their voices are unnatural. They become inferior characters in the telling of the story.

Oh, and have I mentioned that women don’t actually talk like that? I have never thought to myself in the middle of this kind of performance, “Oh, did they just bring a female actor in to read that? Because it sounds SO much like a woman!” You’re not fooling anyone, instead you’re hurting your portrayal of the character.

The opposite problem can happen with female readers, moving their male voices to an unnaturally low register. I haven’t seen it happen nearly as much, but it’s also a problem and it lessens the quality of the performance.

Perhaps it is the reader making this choice, perhaps it is the producer. It’s hard to say. But clearly there are still plenty of audiobook production teams allowing readers to read this way.

Here is what I would like: read women’s voices just like you’d read men’s voices (and vice versa). Focus on creating a character, figuring out how they talk, what their mannerisms are, and how they sound. Take pitch out of it. Stop worrying about making it sound like a woman, because you’re clearly failing. Instead, make it a person. Make it a character. And if it’s so important to you, then make their voice just a couple notches higher than the reader’s regular narration, just like you’d make another character’s voice a couple notches lower but well within the reader’s comfort zone.

I want to get lost in a book. And this may sound crazy, but I can lose myself in an audiobook conversation even if there isn’t a vocal signal that a character is male or female. Believe it or not, I care more about what the person is saying and who they are and what this universe is than I care about if the voice sounds gendered enough. Sometimes there are things that matter more than gender.