Film Review – Do I Sound Gay?
Do I Sound Gay?
David Thorpe’s documentary Do I Sound Gay? comfortably sits just outside of a larger political question within the context of a personal journey. This is not an unusual way to frame a broad argument, such as western society’s attitudes towards perceived femininity in men, but Thorpe does a good job at never turning the film into a cause-oriented polemic debate. By placing himself as a neutral (and somewhat neurotic) cypher into the quandary of what it even means to “sound gay” he immediately cushions the implications of his question.
In fact, this approach is both the best and the most problematic thing about the documentary, as the soul-searching drive of the film sometimes shifts the story so far away from the political reality of its message that the themes sometimes become evasive.
Within the first ten minutes of the story we learn that Thorpe has recently broke up with his long-time partner and is overwhelmed with self-consciousness, worried that his self-described “gay-voice” will keep him from being able to project confidence and meet someone new. This then leads Thorpe into researching how speech patterns are developed, what masculinity means both within and outside gay culture, and how someone’s voice plays into their overall sense of identity.
It’s a lofty course to travel and the possibilities of this argument are so vast that it’s difficult to know where one should narrow the scope and decide which part of the story to prioritize. Thorpe tends to keep the narrative about himself and his personal context to the question. I don’t know if we’re really supposed to believe that he was as nervous and self-loathing about his voice as he lets on, but for the sake of the research needed to fully understand the issue, the “authenticity” of the plot isn’t actually that important.
Thorpe visits speech pathologists and Hollywood voice-coaches to understand why he and other men may speak with the stereotypical gay-sounding voice and to learn how he might be able to change it, if he so decides. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that many actors have been told by their agents and casting directors that their effeminate voice could be a liability, thus why a coach would need to teach a person how to change their speaking patters. After all, many actors and politicians from the south or oversees will often see these same types of therapists to broaden their appeal. However, what may come as a surprise to some straight audiences is that the “gay-voice” isn’t something that some gay men can simply turn off, or, in some cases, is even something they’re aware that they have.
One speech pathologist even suggests that some men speak with a feminine inflection because they, for whatever reason, learned how to speak from listening to the women in their lives rather than the men, and that these learning behaviors are hardwired and kind of random. There’s also a healthy debate about the origin of the gay-lisp, which we learn isn’t always a lisp in the truest sense of the impediment but rather a particular kind of annunciation. These are the kinds of nerdy tidbits I could have devoured for hours.
Along the way the doc is peppered with interview footage from notable gay celebrities and pundits such as Tim Gunn of television’s Project Runway, author and satirist David Sedaris, news anchor Don Lemon and the Seattle’s own sex-advice columnist and gay-activist Dan Savage. We get a sense of how these seemingly confident speakers have dealt with their own neurosis about their voices and what advice they have to impart on others dealing with the same struggle, but surprisingly we don’t get a very deep portrait of any of these interview subjects. At one point Thorpe speaks with a 14 year old kid who was beaten by a classmate because of the way he talks, but we don’t learn much about him outside of the fact that he likes Beyonce. Perhaps Thorpe didn’t have a lot of time per interview or he was asking the wrong questions or he simply didn’t want the scope of his story to become too broad, but these general anecdotes and fortune-cookie sound-bites are somewhat disappointing given the influence these speakers hold inside and outside of the LBGT world.
The underlining political subtext just beneath the personal journey narrative is that of the question of choice. Many in straight society are annoyed by what they perceive as effeminacy because they believe it to be an affectation. Thorpe distinguish between friends who act “campy” around each other as way of establishing a familial bond from unintended or casual effeminacy, but ultimately why does it matter either way? Well, it matters because of the institutionalized sexism that creates tightly held gender-roles and unfair societal expectations, but the director’s choice to prevent the film from being overtly political keeps these source-issues out of the conversation all together. There’s hardly discussion about how these stereotypes are defined or enforced in other cultures or countries, there isn’t much discussion about the fem-shaming and the masculine hierarchy that exists within gay-male culture–even though the film’s central question implies it–and there is absolutely NO discussion of how the butch/fem dynamic is mirrored in lesbian culture.
With that said, Do I Sound Gay? is a helpful and engaging documentary even if it’s not a very comprehensive one. It’s a breezy and entertaining watch that’s interested in starting a thoughtful conversation, and while I commend the director for not wanting to create a preachy bias by forcing a the story to fit into a convenient political narrative, the film ultimately feels small and incomplete because of its carefully neutral position.