Wednesday, March 25, 2015

BFI Flare 2015: Do I Sound Gay?

Do I Sound Gay?

Close your eyes and try and imagine the sound of a gay man’s voice.  Think you have it?  I’m guessing you can hear an over-excitable, perhaps nasal, high-pitched voice with a lisp.  Where did this voice come from and why does it ‘sound gay’.  Gay filmmaker David Thorpe is on a mission to find out how he got the voice that he does and why it has such a stigma around it, from both inside and outside of the gay community. 

A question that haunts LGBT people from there most ardent ideological critics is whether homosexuality (and its varients) is a lifestyle choice or if individuals are simply born that way.  The arguments on both sides are that if it is a naturally occurring state within nature then it should be accepted as such, otherwise if it is instead a sinful lifestyle ‘choice’ then it is something to be overcome and purged. 

Most progressive people (and most LGBT people themselves) believe that it is a naturally occurring phenomenon of nature that cant (and shouldn’t) be helped and therefore should be embraced.  But what of the non-sexual elements of being gay?  Do they occur naturally, or are they learned when individuals spend time in gay communities?  And specifically what is the deal with that stereotypical voice?!

Dan Savage

Thorpe sets out on a Morgan Spurlock style voyage of discovery to learn about his own voice by visiting speech therapists, to interviewing famous icons such as Dan Savage, Margaret Cho, David Sedaris as well as analyzing clips of famous gay men such as Liberace and Truman Capote.  His own insecurities about his voice lead him to discover that his friends and family have different opinions about how his voice changed during his life, whilst also making his gay friends uncomfortable that he is potentially challenging something so integral to all of their identities.

The most insightful moments come when discussing how the stereotype has developed throughout film and cultural history, as well as theories as to why people still adapt their voice to their environment.  Disney, as usual, come across badly as Thorpe explains how the ‘gay voice’ became associated with villains – Shere Khan (Jungle Book), Jafar (Aladdin) and Scar (The Lion King) all have over-pronounced lispy voices. 

Another concept that keeps reoccurring is Code-Switching, the process of changing your language or pronounciation in order to hide or change part of your identity.  Gay men are accused of playing down (or over-emphasising) their voice in order to fit in amongst ‘straight’ society.  This semiotic analysis of intonation gives the otherwise playful film a bit of theoretical weight and insight.

Because the film is mostly auto-biographical, it was only ever going to end with a personal resolution as opposed to an objective one, but the characters and main argument of the film make it eminently watchable and great fun.  And the moral of the story for anyone watching who asks themselves Do I Sound Gay? Is that yes you probably do.  And that is just fine…

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