Unstable starlets and little-girl voices

Are exaggerated displays of female weakness comforting to men? What about women?

Published June 18, 2007 10:53PM (EDT)

Jezebel tipped us off to two interesting takes on ways that women put on shows of helplessness. The first is an NPR Marketplace report on, um, women who, like, put on a little-girl voice and end sentences like this? In the segment, Sheila Wellington, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, says that she's noticed more and more female students with childlike voices. "They're little-girl voices that project, 'Take care of me, be sweet to me, I'm vulnerable, I'm weak,'" she said.

Those little-girl voices are sometimes carried into the work world and, understandably, can create serious career roadblocks. On the other hand, if a woman comes off as too authoritative, "that kind of undercuts our expectations for femininity, or for a woman," says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. As for why some women opt for a giggly, high-pitched, Minnie Mouse intonation, Wellington thinks her students are aiming to distance themselves from feminism, because of its association "with man-hating harridans."

But, Naomi Wolf -- who I can't say I usually agree with -- has an interesting take on why women take on the role of shrinking violet. In yesterday's Washington Post, Wolf addresses Hollywood's helplessness narrative, starring (say it with me, now) Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith. High-profile train wrecks aren't anything new, it's just that there's a current fascination with starlets' unhinged behavior. "Periods of tremendous positive growth in women's roles and opportunities always generate a counter-reaction that comes in the form of images," she says.

Wolf argues that there's a cultural belief "that women's vulnerability equals the guarantee of receiving a reliable supply of their love and care." At a time when women are becoming more powerful and taking on all sorts of roles previously reserved for men, "the broken, out-of-control ingénue -- who clearly can't manage without lots of help -- is reassuring," she writes. "And, I'd say, seductive."

Of course, women find these images comforting, too. And this is where Wolf's argument is most daring: "Yes, it gives many of us the thrill of feeling morally superior," she says. "But it's also a way to tap into a yearning for regression and irresponsibility -- even a fantasy of not being so competent, of letting it all go to pieces and having someone else clean up the mess -- that millions of us generally have to suppress as we make our way successfully through the daily checklist and get it all done."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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