Lake Bell, whom you may remember from Boston Legal, It’s Complicated, What Happens in Vegas, or How to Make It in America (just covering my bases here), is on the cover of New York Magazine’s new issue, nude but for a large fake tattoo of a rose designed by her tattoo-artist husband Scott Campbell. Two gray, inked leaves conceal her nipples, and her hand hovers over her crotch. This feature, for the fall fashion issue, is in honor of the promotion of In a World, Bell’s writing, directing, and producing debut (she also stars); it’s a comedy about voice-over actors, and in it Bell comments on her personal bugaboo, the sexy baby voice. She spoke to Conan about this “pandemic” in July, explaining that sexy baby voice is marked by symptoms of high pitch and equal parts fry and “up-talking.” While Bell’s movie sounds pretty good — its title is a nod to the oft-used Don LaFontaine trailer phrase, and it touches on gender bias in the omniscient-narrator role — she is advising women that they should sound more “sophisticated and sexy, à la Lauren Bacall or Anne Bancroft or Faye Dunaway” while wearing the bumper sticker of pre-teendom: a temporary tat.
Sexy baby voice was probably born somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, finding its tiny little infant footholds in reality-television stars via the sexy baby voice Illuminati, the Kardashians. (Imagining Keeping Up With the Kardashians dubbed over by Lauren Bacall, Anne Bancroft, and Faye Dunaway is a brain-melter: It might be kind of like Designing Women.) Bell’s main beef with SBV is that it portrays the speaker as a submissive 12-year-old trying to be a sex object, and while it’s true that being in the presence of this unique inflection is alienating once you recognize it (the mousy squeak, the handful of gravel tossed across the very top of the register like useless compost), it’s an odd choice for a platform to promote a movie that deals with female empowerment. Slate questioned Bell’s authority to dole out perfect pitch advice, pointing out that smaller women have “narrower vocal folds, which will lead to a higher pitch.” In the comments, the author (a woman — rarely is a man diagnosed with sexy baby voice disease) was called out for being guilty of her own teen fry speech patterns on a podcast as if she had committed a serious social crime. Who has ever heard the natural voice of a Kardashian? They could have been born sexy babies.
I had a friend whose dad made us put money in a jar every time we said the word “like.” He talked a lot while we sat there, too scared to open our mouths. I think that was the point. Bell has, in what’s probably a half-serious way, made a campaign out of her annoyance with how other women display their sexuality. Is sexy baby voice an ineffective seduction tool, and does it have the power to grate on a person? Sure, but almost any distinct vocal pattern can do that. Identifying a trait in someone else that bothers you is a unique pleasure, and hating a trend en masse is possibly even better than partaking in it. The problem is that picking at the vocal quirks of your own gender is just as much of a nuisance as harping on the bodies that belong to them. Are we planning to slap an SBV dunce cap on Constance Shulman? Jennifer Tilly? Have they been going out of their way for decades to annoy us? Is sexy baby voice acceptable if it’s innate or well executed? The thing about omniscient narrators is that they never condescend to or boss their characters around — that would spoil the fun, and the plot, and the illusion that everyone is, in the end, still governed by their own choices. These narrators can’t be catty, because then everyone who was supposed to move the story along would shut up.
Bell looks beautiful in her cover photo, confident and casual, decidedly not freezing while posing. She wears a decoration she’s sporting for art, for fun, or perhaps because she thinks it’s sexy. Maybe she’s wrong. It’s not really for us to say.