Vocal Fry is Not a Crime

Once upon a time there was a new feature in language called vocal fry. It sounded a little like a cracking or growling sound and was generally an unconscious way of speaking. For some odd and utterly non factual reason, this feature of language became associated with young women, which meant that everyone and their brother and their uncle and their dog felt the need to comment and inform young women that it was bad, hurting them, and making them less hireable.

No one knows why the way young women talk is such a big deal to so many people (in particular old, male type people). Especially since vocal fry is also common among young men, actually causes no damage to the vocal chords, and has been around for quite some time, and is actually a totally normal feature of speech that most people use on a regular basis. So why the hate on women for using the speech pattern?

Well as with many things, this is another trend that you can add to “things we hate young, mostly upward mobile women for” because it seems that the only reason people dislike it is because it’s associated with the ladies (and a side helping of misunderstanding the nature of language change. Language changes. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Move on). Everything from leggings (sluts without pants!) to uptalk (why do you talk like you’re so uncertain you stupid girl!? Oh wait, most British people also use uptalk? Ignore that, it’s bad when you do it) to feather tattoos on your ribcage (trashy! so trashy!) is deemed horrible when young women do it. And yet there are all sorts of other people who engage in these same behaviors that don’t receive the same repercussions. In fact, there’s little evidence that any of these things cause any actual harm or problems to anyone (except that some people keep bitching and whining about them).

I’m really over the concern trolling of people who want to tell young women what to do, who say they’re just looking out for the well being of teens and young adults. Nope, sorry. There is absolutely nothing wrong about behaviors that you find kinda annoying because they’re different. And the oh so weird coincidence that many of those behaviors are associated with teen girls? Huh…might just say something about you.

So get over it. I’m vocal fryin’ dawgs.

I Am Out Of Fucks To Give About Teenage Girls

I’m going to list a few things and I want you to think about how you feel about those things. Twilight. The word “like”. Moscato. Constantly being on a smartphone. Frappuccinos. Rom coms. Excessive eye shadow. Crushes. Gossip. Queen bees. Valley girl voices. YA fiction.

If you’re like many people you probably rolled your eyes at a number of these things. They might have come across as juvenile or vapid. Excessive. Unnecessary. Self centered. Stupid. This was a list of things that I associate with teenaged girls. It’s not uncommon for teenage girls to be a stand in for all that we dislike about the world. We use them as shorthand for immaturity or self centeredness or an obsession with looks and popularity. Most particularly when we want to imply that someone is attention seeking, we tend to associate them with teen girls (either directly or by saying they’re acting “high school”, which really tends to mean “high school girl”).

Now to some extent we brush off all teenaged experiences. Teen boys tend to get pigeonholed as lusty sex addicts, and when we want to talk about stupid choices it’s a go to to mention the teenage years. But there’s a special derision in American culture for the teen girl, that chattering, high pitched voice, bleached blonde and straightened hair, and the uniform of Uggs and leggings for pants.

Teen girls are considered far more youthful than boys, more frivolous. Where boys are sexual and/or aggressive, girls are air headed. And yet teen girls are considered the epitome of femininity: once you hit about 21 you’re starting to get past your prime as a woman. We idealize young women’s bodies and then dismiss all their preferences, abilities and thoughts, so that the best thing a woman can be is at a stage in her life when we don’t take her seriously in any way.

It’s far too easy to veil our sexism under the guise of criticizing teen culture. It’s far too easy to say that Twilight is stupid without thinking about why young women are interested in it, what it does for them, or how it interacts with larger culture. It’s too easy to dismiss vocal affectations as annoying, obnoxious, or stupid sounding when there is nothing inherently worse about them than any other vocal pattern (ask a linguist!). Let’s stop and think for a moment: what’s actually wrong with wearing leggings for pants (and cut the slut shaming before you answer)? What about speaking with a high pitched voice? Bleaching your hair? Reading about romance? Of course the answer to all of these questions is a resounding nothing. Sure, some of these things might be affectations or putting on airs as a way to fit in, but if high school is not the period during which you experiment with different versions of self, then what is?

As Dianna Anderson points out, many times we act as if we’re criticizing things for being youthful or overly simple (in this case YA fiction), but that oftentimes the things we criticize have as much variety and depth as any supposedly “adult” version (e.g. sweet wines or internet speak). Further, she notes that oftentimes there is a huge category that gets lumped into one negative stereotype because it is associated with women (in this case, YA fiction encompasses a huge number of books in a wide variety of genres and styles, but because it tends to have more female authors and to be geared towards women, it is dismissed).

Sure there are things that deserve our criticism that happen to be marketed towards young women (see the aforementioned Twilight series). But too often we just criticize things because they are for young women, as if it’s a crime for teenage girls to have tastes that aren’t All Serious All The Time. And beyond simply being unnecessary criticism, it also plays into sexist notions of women as vapid, bubble-headed, juvenile, and stupid. It tells us yet again that women have to perform femininity but when they do they’re not as good as men.

Screw that. Young ladies? Like what you like. Go drink a damn frappuccino, giggle a lot, paint your nails in bright colors, and read whatever the hell you want. There is nothing wrong with being young and female.


The Sexualization of YA Fiction

Most people think of teenhood as a time of raging hormones and awakening sexuality. “Experimentation”, “hormonal” and “out of control” are things we tend to associate with young adults and sexuality. Young adult fiction seems to have picked up on these associations and has one-upped its adult counterpart in terms of obsessing over sex and sexuality. I have read a lot of young adult fiction. I prefer it to adult fiction in many ways, and when I was in high school I was a voracious reader, often going through 5 to 10 books a week. Throughout all of these books I can think of perhaps two that did not involve a sexual relationship, and I would approximate that 50% or more circulated around sex and sexuality. Even those that only peripherally involved a relationships often culminated in sex. If you limit yourself to young adult fiction aimed at women, sexuality suddenly takes completely control of nearly every book.

I certainly think that discussing sex in books about and aimed at teenagers is appropriate. For many teens, sex is a part of life. There’s certainly nothing wrong with sex, nor do I think we should keep teens in the dark about how sex works or the potential pitfalls of sexual relationships. What does seem inappropriate is to center sexuality at the heart of every story about being a teen. Certainly many teens spend a lot of time thinking about sex and exploring their sexuality, but not every human being feels the need to become sexual at that age or at all.

I’m going to use my current read as an example. I’m in the middle of the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. I’ve enjoyed a great deal of it, particularly the explorations of bioethics, dystopian futures, and different conceptions of virtue. But for some reason in the midst of a book that is about self-exploration, family, human nature, and good and evil, the main character finds herself with a sexy times boyfriend. Personally I feel this adds nothing to the plot and feels out of place in the middle of the very serious relationships she has with others. But because the main character is a young adult, she has to have a sexy sexy boyfriend and passionate descriptions of hot making out and his pecs.

No one can exactly pinpoint what the point of literature is, but most people would agree that part of it is to capture the human experience. There are so many experiences that surround being a teen, growing up, learning to be an adult, finding independence, determining one’s values. While there are some classic young adult novels that circulate around these themes (Hatchet, Call of the Wild, Huck Finn), many new YA novels seem to forget that it is possible to write a rich and full experience of being young without including sex, and that many young people are looking for themselves in nonsexual characters.

Authors have made an effort to include gay characters, but it would be wonderful if there could be a single asexual character in young adult fiction. If that’s asking too much, perhaps even a character who simply isn’t interested in sexuality. That may seem like a foreign concept to some people who are convinced that teenhood is a time when everyone is controlled by raging hormones that lead them to make out with anything that moves, but I actually knew a few people when I was in high school who just never expressed an interest in dating or sexuality. It wasn’t a problem and we all simply accepted it. Perhaps if we didn’t continue to disseminate the idea that all young people want sex all the time, more people would be content to focus on other aspects of their personality.

Generally, YA fiction tends to portray sexuality as a choice between morality and impulses, or just as a natural and fun part of life. If YA characters choose to abstain from sex, it’s often because they are religious.  In real life, there are lots of reasons not to have sex as a young person. You may not be interested, you may not have a partner, you may be uncomfortable with your body, you may not feel confident enough, you may not feel mature enough or emotionally ready, you may not feel that your partner respects you enough…the choice to engage in sexuality is complex, but for some reason the options in YA fiction seem to be “TOGETHER AND SEXY” or “single and depressed/repressed/religious”. Oddly enough YA fiction generally seems to overlook someone making out with their partner and then deciding they’re not comfortable with that, or someone setting boundaries with a partner simply because it’s their body and they get to decide what to do with it.

Many, many YA novels culminate with a kiss or with sex. It’s the peak of a relationship or the plot. Two friends become closer and closer until BAM their feelings come unleashed and they make out furiously. The end. Unfortunately that’s not really what relationships are actually like. The beginning is not the peak (and if it is then it’s likely to be a sad and unpleasant relationship). Even in romantic relationships, there is so much more than the kissing or the passion or the fire. There’s the really shitty bits where you try to navigate what it means to not be able to make someone happy, or how to balance your interests with theirs, or what happens when they’re depressed or have hard things in their life. All of those nonsexual parts are just as important. Some of the most beautiful parts are also nonsexual. The strong focus on kissing! and boys! and sex! really undermines how awesome some of the other parts of learning about relationships can be.

There also seems to be a dearth of literature that explores friendships as important relationships. Sure, there’s a lot of literature that’s aimed at teenage girls that involves lots of gossiping and rivalry between girls, but it’s nearly all circulating around a boy rather than things like shared interest, or mutual care. By centering romantic relationships at the heart of every story we tell our young adults, we’re really robbing them of models for other important relationships.

For those reading YA literature, know that there is more out there for you, there are more possibilities than a monogamous, sexual life. You are not defined by a desire for sex or physicality. There are more stories to tell.