When I’m sad or bored, I sometimes turn to little, quirky comedies such as In a World. . . for a pick-me-up. Writer, director and star Lake Bell plays Carol, a voice coach vying for the voice-over part for a new trailer, but she’s the only woman up against the voice-over world’s biggest stars, including her father, Sam (Fred Melamed). Admittedly, I keep returning to this film primarily to gush over Demetri Martin, who should play the love interest in every movie. But I also applaud how the film’s look inside the overlooked voice-over industry reveals that sexism permeates every aspect of the entertainment business and women’s voices continue to be repressed throughout Western society. However, the film falls short in its criticism by policing women’s voices.
By portraying the virility of male voice-over actors, In a World. . . presents the male-dominated voice-over industry as a result of patriarchal ideology. Throughout the movie, we constantly see voice-over actors Gustav (Ken Marino) and Sam discussing their sexual prowess, often in a sauna. Female characters pine for these men; even Carol spends a night with Gustav. The sexualization of male voice-over artists points to the power of the voice, how it can persuade and seduce listeners. But this power to persuade and seduce is given to male voices, which we have heard far more often in our commercials and trailers. Because of patriarchal values, men’s voices are considered more powerful and privileged in the voice-over industry.
When Carol lands the coveted voice-over role for The Amazon Games, Sam takes it as a threat not just to his career but to the patriarchal order. The trailer reveals that The Amazon Games is a ridiculous fantasy quadrilogy about amazons rising up to take over a world that has been ravaged by men. The trailer plays as Carol’s dad races backstage frantically. For Carol’s dad, a woman uttering the words “in a world” (words made famous by voice-over legend Don LaFontaine) in a movie trailer, a daughter snagging a job from her father, is a slippery slope to global domination by women.
By juxtaposing Carol’s father’s crying backstage with this over-the-top trailer, the film exposes the absurdity of patriarchal structures—that men should be in control of everything because if you give a woman an inch, she’ll take over the whole planet. Even though this film shows how ridiculous it is to fear a woman beating out men for a voice-over part, it doesn’t trivialize Carol’s accomplishment. The producer of The Amazon Games, played by Geena Davis, explains that she hired Carol to serve as an inspiration for young girls who watch these trailers: “[V]oice over matters. Everyone in the world watches movie trailers. Everyone in the world sees commercials on television. Or they hear them on the radio. And that is power!” The voices we hear and the voices that are stifled indicate who holds power and who is repressed. In a World. . . reveals that patriarchal values corrupt every nook and cranny of our culture, even the often-overlooked voice-over industry. Carol’s voice-over part in a series of trailers therefore serves as an important step in advancing women’s voices and chipping away at the patriarchy—but for the sake of equality, not global domination by amazons.
This is all great, except the film also argues that for women to land opportunities in which our voices can be heard, we must learn to talk better. Throughout the film, Carol makes fun of women who speak in high registers and uptalk (a raising of the pitch at the end of a sentence which makes a statement sound like a question). The film ends with Carol providing “vocal makeover” lessons to women with these speech behaviors. A woman, who appears throughout the film just so Carol can make fun of her voice, tells the class that she has been unemployed for ten months because she sounds like a “sexy baby” at her interviews at law firms. Carol responds that “women should sound like women,” which I guess means we should sound like Carol. Though the film criticizes the sexism which privileges male voices, it upholds the same sexist ideology which polices women’s voices. Rather than criticize the law firms which refuse to hire the woman, the film places the blame on the woman. She sounds, according to Carol, “like a squeaky toy,” so it is her fault that she’s not taken seriously.
The podcast How Stuff Works includes an episode about the sexism behind criticisms of women’s speech patterns. The hosts point out that uptalk, along with vocal fry (a growl produced when speakers lower their pitch to their lowest register) and speech fillers (pauses in our speech, often in the form of “ums” or “likes”), have become common speech practices for men and women, but women receive the most criticism for speaking incorrectly. Many women feel compelled to seek vocal coaching to obtain employment. In the podcast world, Ann Friedman of Call your Girlfriend and Kate Mingle of 99% Invisible have both received frequent emails regarding their speech practices, while Ira Glass of This American Life claims that despite his vocal fry, he never receives complaints about his speaking habits.
By concluding with Carol’s vocal makeovers, the film suggests that the next step for gender equality is for women to change how we speak. However, this conclusion ultimately buttresses sexist criticisms of women’s voices. Rather than criticize a society which condemns Friedman’s vocal fry but says nothing about Glass’ vocal fry, the film advocates that Friedman should stop using vocal fry.
Still, I will keep watching this film for Demetri Martin. He doesn’t have the deep, sultry voice or smooth pick-up moves of Gustav, but he still ends up with Carol. If the film doesn’t go far enough in advocating for women’s voices, it at least challenges traditional notions of masculinity by letting the nice, awkward guy get the girlfriend. Despite his weird antics.