Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Speech Analysis

George Takei isn't shy about plugging projects he's involved in, which is how I became aware of a documentary called Do I Sound Gay? It's a film made by David Thorpe, chronicling his exploration of the stereotypical gay man's speech pattern, and his efforts to eliminate it in himself.

I was curious about the documentary, wondering if there was any solid research on the "gay accent." I've known gay men who have it and others who don't. I recall a time when I once thought that the guys who have it must surely be doing it consciously, on purpose. I've long since learned that's not the case -- as anyone who watches Thorpe's earnest struggle in this documentary would quickly understand. But where does it come from?

It's probably not surprising to hear that no one really knows for sure where the gay accent comes from. The documentary features interviews with speech experts who believe that -- like all accents -- it's established very young, as a result of the adults whose speech patterns you unconsciously emulate in establishing your own voice. But the insight really doesn't go any deeper than that.

Though that aspect of the documentary is ultimately a disappointment, there is the other element -- Thorpe's attempts to alter his own speech pattern. This does lead to exploration of how the gay voice is perceived. (Here's where George Takei, and other out celebrities, are interviewed.) Many people look down upon it, consciously or unconsciously thinking less of those who have it. Many others embrace it as a status symbol, and regard Thorpe's quest to lose his "accent" as a sign of secret self-loathing about being gay.

One thing seemed clear to me, watching the film. I didn't see Thorpe's desire to change his speech as a sign of self-loathing so much as frustration or desperation. He admits quite directly that he's in his 40s and alarmed at being single. Wondering one day why that might be, he noticed the way he didn't like how others used the gay voice, and assumed that perhaps that was the reason he himself had been rejected. I suppose that is self-loathing at the core, but I think not about being gay so much as not having found "Mr. Right." (I mean, straight people go through the exact same kind of midlife crisis.)

I can imagine the viewer who might recognize himself in David Thorpe, and thus find his documentary as a valuable step on a journey to self-acceptance. For that reason alone, it does have a place, and I hope it finds its audience. But I myself found it to be a bit long on navel gazing and short on substance. I'd give the movie a C+.

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