Over the summer, you might have read about vocal fry; that’s the kind of deliberately croaky voice demonstrated here by my favourite sit-com teenager, Dalia in Suburgatory. Recent coverage of vocal fry has all the features of typical media stories on language and gender, and is a great example of why we should be sceptical when reading mainstream media coverage of linguistic issues. Reading and analysing mainstream media coverage of linguistic issues is, of course, something A2 students will need to do in your exam; you’ll also need to create your own piece for your intervention coursework.
First, newspapers will pick up on a recent bit of linguistic research, or maybe something they've seen mentioned on Twitter or YouTube. Journalists are particularly keen on using headlines which express a clear and simple difference between men and women, so they will either reduce complex, nuanced findings to simplistic ‘men do this/women do that’ headlines like this, or base an article around a flawed bit of research like this. The wonderful Deborah Cameron outlines this process at length in her snappily titled blog post (which btw would make a great style model for your intervention) ‘How to Write a Bullshit Article About Women’s Language’.
In the case of vocal fry, it seems that reporters noticed a story in the academic publication ‘Journal of Voice’. Enterprising journalists realised they could write a story that combined celebrity click-bait with a ‘men-and-women-are-different’ story and so produced headlines like this featuring tabloid darlings like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears. There was even more mileage in the story when media outlets realised they could use the story to lecture women about how they need to speak more like men, and to blame their failure to do this for inequalities in education and the workplace. Even feminist writers in respected, ‘serious’ newspapers got in on the act, presenting the story as a rallying call to young women; stop talking like a weak and feeble girl!
Never mind the fact that the original research only looked at young women, and so provided no evidence that only young women use vocal fry. Never mind the easily demonstrable fact that men use vocal fry too, as shown in this brilliant post. Never mind the fact that the original research only looked at young women, and so provided no evidence that only young women use vocal fry. Never mind the fact that vocal fry is only seen as a sign of weakness when women use it.
The lesson here is not to take media coverage of women’s language (or, indeed, any linguistic issue) at face value. Instead, do a bit of digging and reading around. And if you want a different perspective on women’s language, you can always rely on Professor Cameron.