‘I Feel Pretty’ and the long history of ‘sexy baby’ voice on screen

Michelle Williams is an unexpected scene-stealer in this weekend’s “I Feel Pretty,” but take a closer listen — the Oscar nominee’s vocal performance contributes to an ongoing conversation about gender and voice.

Williams plays cosmetics CEO Avery LeClair in the STX comedy, a model of feminine perfection styled within an inch of her life and suffocating under the pressure it brings. The character serves as an ideal for Amy Schumer’s self-loathing protagonist, but also a lightning rod thanks to her insanely high-pitched voice.

This tone infantilizes her character no matter how serious the conversation she’s conducting as a businesswoman.

“She is the object of ridicule because of her unfortunate voice,” Williams said during her press tour for “I Feel Pretty” this week.

Williams handles the affectation like a pro, playing up her own saccharine sounds for laughs, but Avery LeClair is the latest in a long line of “sexy baby” types that invite derision and spark debate.

“In the past seven years or so, there’s been so much attention paid to the female voice. From vocal fry to the baby voice. There has always been a cultural anxiousness about gender and voice,” Karen Tongson, an associate professor of gender studies at the University of Southern California, told TheWrap.

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'I Feel Pretty' premiere
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WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Amy Schumer atttends the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Amy Schumer atttends the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Amy Schumer arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Amy Schumer atttends the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Amy Schumer arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Emily Ratajkowski arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Emily Ratajkowski arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Emily Ratajkowski arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Michelle Williams arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Michelle Williams arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Meghan Trainor, wearing MILLY: Italian Cady Flared Pant in Black, atttends the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Meghan Trainor atttends the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Meghan Trainor attends the premiere of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Busy Philipps attends the premiere of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Busy Philipps attends the premiere of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Gillian Jacobs arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 17: Sasheer Zamata arrives at the Premiere Of STX Films' 'I Feel Pretty' at Westwood Village Theatre on April 17, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
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The most popular example of the sexy baby voice comes from a 2011 episode of “30 Rock” that centers entirely around the phenomenon. Cristin Milioti plays a guest writer on the fictional sketch series created by Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon — she is scantily clad, pridefully promiscuous and constantly coming on to men in the workplace. And, of course, her voice hits the highest registers possible.

In an NPR interview the same year, Fey recalled the real-life incident that inspired the episode. It was from a college acting class.

“This beautiful, voluptuous little tiny actress had one of these tiny voices. She was doing a monologue, and one of my acting teachers, he very gently said, ‘OK. I want you to do the monologue again, and I would like to use your adult woman voice,'” Fey told Fresh Air host Terry Gross.

The actress dropped her pitch and spoke in her true voice, Fey said, “and all the other women in the class looked at each other like, ‘I knew it!””

Tongson said the “30 Rock” episode “essentially presents those anxieties, particularly for feminist-identified and working professional women — that they are subjugating themselves to certain expectations around femininity and softness. If someone is speaking in a higher tone, it diminishes authority.”

Examples are everywhere. On the highly-bingeable Bravo series “Imposters,” Israeli actress Inbar Lavi offers a masterclass in voice work as she plays a con woman always assuming new identities. One of those is a ditzy, cleavage-baring assistant trying to romance her boss. In his presence, she speaks in the register of a toddler.

During Kristen Wiig’s time on “Saturday Night Live,” one of her most popular recurring characters was a vampy redhead named Shana. Her shtick was a combination of sexy baby voice and the transatlantic accents of Hollywood’s golden age, who used her exaggerated manners to command the attention of men in any given situation.



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Kristen Wiig through the years
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Kristen Wiig through the years
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 09: Actress Kristen Wiig attends the 'Bill' premiere after party during the Toronto International Film Festival 2007 held at the Blowfish on September 9, 2007 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Darryl James/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 16: (L-R) Saturday Night Live cast members Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler attend the American Museum Of Natural History's Annual Museum Gala, November 16, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 05: Actress Kristen Wiig arrives at the premiere of 'Ghost Town' during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival held at The Visa Screening Room at the Elgin Theatre on September 5, 2008 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by C.J. LaFrance/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 15: Actress Kristen Wiig attends a special screening hosted by The Cinema Society and Brooks Brothers with Bombay Sapphire at The IFC Center on September 15, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 16: Actor Bill Hader and actress Kristen Wiig arrive on the red carpet of 'Adventureland' held at the Mann Chinese 6 Theater on March 16, 2009 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 29: Actress Kristen Wiig arrives at the 62nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 29, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 03: Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis during the 2010 New Yorker Festival at Acura at SIR Stage37 on October 3, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 24: Actress Kristen Wiig attends the opening night of 'the Book of Mormon' on Broadway at Eugene O'Neill Theatre on March 24, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 26: Kristen Wiig speaks onstage at the First Annual Comedy Awards at Hammerstein Ballroom on March 26, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Actress Kristen Wiig arrives at the 63rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE on September 18, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 08: Actress Kristen Wiig attends the New York Times TimesTalk during the 2012 NY Times Arts & Leisure weekend at The Times Center on January 8, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 15: Actress Kristen Wiig arrives at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29: (L-R) Actresses Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy speak onstage during the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Actress Kristen Wiig arrives at the 2012 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter at Sunset Tower on February 26, 2012 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 05: Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm attend the after party for the Cinema Society & People StyleWatch with Grey Goose screening of 'Friends With Kids' at the The Top of The Standard on March 5, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Actress Kristen Wiig attends the TIME 100 Gala, TIME'S 100 Most Influential People In The World, cocktail party at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 24, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images for TIME)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: Kristen Wiig attends the Marc Jacobs Spring 2013 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at N.Y. State Armory on September 10, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Marc Jacobs)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 13: In this handout photo provided by NBCUniversal, Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell on stage to present the Best Actress - Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical award during the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel International Ballroom on January 13, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Actress Kristen Wiig attends the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards with presenting sponsor Lacoste at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for CDG)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 18: Actress Kristen Wiig speaks during a Twentieth Century Fox presentation to promote the upcoming film 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 18, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 15: Kristen Wiig and Jimmy Fallon during a taping of 'Late Night With Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center on July 15, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 05: (L-R) Kristen Wiig, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor and Adam Scott attend the Centerpiece Gala Presentation Of 'The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty' during the 51st New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on October 5, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 24: Kristen Wiig arrives at the 'Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues' Australian premiere at The Entertainment Quarter on November 24, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 08: Actress Kristen Wiig attends IFC Films' 'Hateship Loveship' screening hosted by The Cinema Society and Montblanc after party at The Skylark on April 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
Actress Kristen Wiig arrives on the red carpet for the 66th Emmy Awards, August 25, 2014 at Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, California. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. Brown (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 05: Actress Kristen Wiig attends the 'Welcome To Me' premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 5, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Actress Kristen Wiig and actor Bill Hader attend the premiere of Roadside Attractions 'The Skeleton Twins' at the ArcLight Hollywood on September 10, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 11: In this handout photo provided by NBCUniversal, Presenters Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader speak onstage during the 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Actress Kristen Wiig and dancer Maddie Ziegler perform onstage during The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the STAPLES Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for NARAS)
SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 21: Actress Kristen Wiig attends the 2015 Film Independent Spirit Awards at Santa Monica Beach on February 21, 2015 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 04: Kristen Wiig attends the 'China: Through The Looking Glass' Costume Institute Benefit Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Variety)
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“Look earlier in culture at ‘My Fair Lady,'” Tongson said. “We’re talking about how accents mark class. It informs your identity in so many different ways. Whether its a type of accent, tone, the words you choose. It can really mark where you belong in a social order.”

This vocal scrutiny is not just limited to scripted content. Two months ago, Jimmy Kimmel devoted an entire segment on his late-night show to call out a contestant named Krystal on “The Bachelor.” He crowned her as having “the most annoying voice in ‘Bachelor’ history,” and played a supercut of her cooing exaggerated greetings.

Hiiieeeeeeeeeeee.

Reality kingpin Kim Kardashian West’s tendency to drop from sky-high registers to a groggy low — known as “vocal fry” — is also the subject of internet mashups and hot takes.

Consequences get higher outside the safety of philosophical musings and observations in entertainment. Real women often change or mask their voices in everyday situations, sometimes to damaging effects, Tongson said.

“Women in professional situations speak much lower than their actual tambour. I worked with a speech therapist because I was having vocal module issues … I was speaking much lower in the classroom than what my natural vocal box was built for,” Tongson said.

“That has to do with associating with deeper voices and authority.  It’s a common problem. Speech therapists I’ve worked with said it’s a completely common issue for women and it can damage people’s voices and create physiological harm,” she concluded.

We pray no Michelle Williams were harmed during the making of “I Feel Pretty.”

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