Of all of the lasting images and sound bites from the Democratic National Convention and from Secretary Clinton’s historic acceptance speech, it does seem a bit out of proportion to read and hear so much about her vocal pattern. But is it sexist? Is it unfair?
No it is not.
Let me state right at the outset that I believe the metaphoric glass ceiling to not yet be shattered. I believe that women do have to be that much smarter, stronger, tougher, steelier, and several other “ers” in order to enjoy achievements equal to men in our culture. Overt and institutional sexism are both very real, and I have witnessed them in my own profession as I observe how keynote speakers from both genders are regarded and received. But that is a topic for another post.
Both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are the subject of thousands of hours of televised programming. My wife made fun of me for TIVOing all three of the major cable news networks and staying up well past midnight each night to observe the profound differences in coverage. They had this in common: with so much television time to eat up, they all indulged in large degrees of minutiae. Each one of them consumed many minutes discussing style over substance and Clinton was by no means the only object of these observations. It was deep into the analysis when Fox News analyst Brit Hume said “she has a habit of breaking into kind of a sharp, lecturing tone.” And it wasn’t until after they summarized Donald Trump’s message that all three networks observed how angry he seemed. (MSNBC observed it sooner than Fox or CNN did, but that too is a topic for another post.) It is inevitable that television commentary is going to focus on how the candidates sound, not just on what they say — there are just too many hours to fill.
But now let’s talk about the word most often used to describe Hillary Clinton’s vocal characteristic: shrill. The dictionary definition is “high-pitched and piercing,” the corresponding verb is “to shriek,” and make no mistake, it is not complimentary when used to describe the candidate’s voice. But this is not a sexist observation. While the word has become (okay, pardon the pun), a dog whistle of sorts, that is not fair to the word. It is just a word that describes the characteristic.
Clinton definitely needs vocal coaching, and were the campaign to hire me, I am certain that I could help her with this deficiency, just as I offered to help her with her slides back in 2008. She speaks from her throat too often, not her diaphragm, and when under stress or excitement, that tendency becomes exaggerated. And because she is a woman, this behavior results in a higher-than-normal pitch — beyond the comfort zones of most people.
There is a counterpart criticism for men — that they use their lungs to move too much air when they speak with emotion. They bellow. You will rarely hear that word used to criticize women, and that is a product of the science of physique. When public speakers speak in ways that are not comfortable to their audiences, women usually shriek and men usually bellow. These are simply the words that best describe these particular behaviors. If you would like to seek out or coin a more gender-neutral word that describes the annoying tendencies on the parts of all public speakers, I’ll be pleased to use it. Until then, these two are the best we have.
Each of the major-party candidates needs to be better trained in using a microphone, as they both tend to raise their voices to be heard above audiences, even though audience din stands no chance against a suitable public address system. When this happens, Clinton sounds shrill and Trump sounds angry.
For what it’s worth, Clinton’s vocal problem is easier to resolve than Trump’s — he speaks that way in all but the most intimate of settings and I suspect it is too ingrained to coach out of him. But Clinton knows how to speak from her belly; she is capable of lowering her register and speaking in a more measured tone. Her finest convention moment was her response to Trump’s claim that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. She turned directly to the camera, took a full breath, and from her abdomen and in a controlled tone and tempo, said “No, Donald, you don’t.”
I tend to distinguish between one’s tendency and one’s permanent characteristic, so I’m not even sure how accurate it is to refer to Hillary Clinton as shrill. I would sooner use the term to describe MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, because he always speaks that way. I have to fast-forward over him, but I’ve heard Clinton speak from her lower register enough to know that she can do it effectively and avoid the common criticism that has followed her.
So, yes, Clinton has a tendency to be shrill. No, it is not sexist to say so. No, it is not unfair for commentators to report on it in the xxth hour of non-stop campaign coverage. And above all, it could be easily resolved with a bit of targeted coaching.