Vocal fry murmur among 25-and-under actresses has become so pronounced and consistent and increasingly hard to understand that I brace myself whenever a younger actress pops up in a film or TV drama. Will I be able to understand her at least partly or will I be leaning forward and cupping my ears and wondering what I missed? And don’t say it’s me — VFM is a completely recognized and routinely-analyzed epidemic. It’s been implanted in younger women along with uptalk, and it’s the responsibility of the director to recognize that they become all but indecipherable if they sink too deeply into their vocal murmur, and that they have to be told, “I realize that you’re being natural and real, but you have to figure some way to do that and be understood by people who’re accustomed to greater degrees of vocal clarity.”
It’s not just actresses. Vocal fry is everywhere, and it’s alienating or pissing people off in all walks of life. Here’s an 8.12.14 Business Insider piece that says vocal-fry women are hurting their chances of getting hired and/or advancing. Second graph: “Vocal fry involves dropping one’s voice to the lowest register, causing the vocal chords to flutter, which creates a creaking sound.”
Shailene Woodley was bugging the shit out of me last night as I watched Gregg Araki‘s White Bird in a Blizzard (Magnolia, 10.24). Sometimes I was able to hear her words and other times she would say “uhm…duhcantuhfaylee” or “muhrduhraffah” or “defayzmoreuhmnet.” It depends on how intimate and low-down the setting is. If she’s angry or agitated Woodley is fine (“Why are you doing this? Thank you for, like, totally embarassing me in front of my friends!”). But if she’s laid-back and serene and speaking quietly to a boyfriend on a couch or in a car, forget it. I’d say that her VFM obscures between 25% to 33% of her dialogue in this film.
Woodley has probably decided that enunciating is anathema to expressing her core emotions, and she’s probably told herself, “Marlon Brando was given shit for mumbling and slurring when he was young but it never hurt him any.” That’s actually bullshit. There’s not a single line that’s hard to decipher in any early Brando film. By any case Brando’s mumbling (in what, A Streetcar Named Desire?) pales next to vocal fry.
I go through the same anguish on The Leftovers whenever Justin Theroux‘s daughter Jill, played by Margaret Qualley, has a dad-talk scene and particularly when she’s sharing with Emily Meade, who plays her live-in best friend Aimee. I have a high-end sound bar and a woofer speaker attached to my 60-inch Samsung plasma so I can turn it up and use the Menu options to sharpen consonants as much as I want, and at best I’m able to understand maybe half of what these two say to each other (or to Theroux or the guys they hang with). Thank God for online episode recaps.
I blame the actresses as they should obviously be aware of the vocal fry epidemic and try to make lines feel real and come alive without frustrating people like me (which I suspect number in the hundreds of thousands). But I mostly blame their directors for not laying down the law. It can be done. I understand every Woodley line in Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants, and she was obviously natural and genuine in that film.