'Fundie Baby Voice' Seems To Be Everywhere Now. Here's What You Should Know.

Experts break down this vocal phenomenon — most recently displayed by Sen. Katie Britt — and what it means in politics and pop culture today.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo:Getty Images;AP

When activist Jess Piper heard Alabama Republican senator Katie Britt deliver the GOP response to the State of the Union, she had a visceral reaction. The senator spoke in a breathy voice with a soft and sweet quality ― even as she described horrific acts of sexual violence and murder and painted a dystopian picture of the United States.

For Piper, there was no mistaking that sound, which permeated her childhood in the Bible Belt. Britt was using “fundie baby voice.”

“I think everyone who was born and raised in evangelical churches knows that fundamentalist ― ‘fundie’ ― woman sound,” Piper, who is the executive director of Blue Missouri, told HuffPost. “It’s that childlike, sweet, submissive, honey sound that just pours from the mouths of Sunday school teachers and pastors’ wives.”

The concept has cropped up in popular culture thanks to the 2023 documentary “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets,” which touches on matriarch Michelle Duggar’s high-pitched baby voice. After House Speaker Mike Johnson’s wife Kelly spoke in a similar manner during a Fox News interview, Piper created a video explaining the significance of “fundie baby voice.”

“I would describe ‘fundie baby voice’ as a woman’s voice that is higher than average in both pitch and breathiness,” said Kathryn Cunningham, a vocologist and assistant professor of theatre and head of acting at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “While the average woman’s voice is higher-pitched than the average man’s due to a combination of anatomical and social factors, some women who speak this way seem to be intentionally placing their voices higher than their natural pitch range in order to convey submission to male authority and childlike innocence.”

Deliberate voice changes are very much a reality for women in fundamentalist Christian communities, noted Tia Levings, author of the upcoming memoir “A Well-Trained Wife: My Escape from Christian Patriarchy.”

“From a young age, we were taught over and over again to modulate our voices,” she said. “It was all about sounding sweet, soft, and childlike. There were very strict gender roles, and women were supposed to never sound angry but keep sweet, obey, dress modestly, speak softly, be very feminine.”

This sort of Christian vocal training has roots in Helen Andelin’s 1963 book “Fascinating Womanhood.”

“This book encourages fundamentalist Christian women to sound ‘childlike’ in order to convey submission to male figures,” Cunningham said, noting that there are “references to an idealized voice that a compliant, Christian woman should have.”

While the masculine voice is described as “deep-pitched,” the feminine ideal stands in contrast, with mentions of “a sweet, fresh, little voice” and calls to avoid “loudness,” “firmness,” “efficiency” and “boldness.”

“If you find your voice is spoiling the impression you are trying to create, make an effort to change it,” the book advises. “Don’t talk too loud. And don’t let your voice suggest mannish efficiency or coarse boldness. No man likes a coarse, loud, or vulgar tone in a woman any more than a woman likes an effeminate tone in a man.”

“Fascinating Womanhood” also recommends that women practice speaking or reading old fairy tales out loud alone in their room for 30 minutes a day over three or four weeks to make their voices more childlike.

“It is clear that this way of speaking can be consciously cultivated to convey an image of innocence, compliance, and a stereotypical femininity that is unthreatening to male authority,” Cunningham said.

In many ways, Sen. Britt’s State of the Union response appeared to be right out of the “Fascinating Womanhood” playbook. She delivered her remarks from a kitchen and began by emphasizing that her job as a U.S. senator is less important than her role as a “proud wife and mom.” Britt’s fellow Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville later stated that “she was picked as a housewife, not just a senator.”

To reinforce that image of a dutiful wife and mother, Britt spoke with a big smile and a sweet, submissive voice (which Scarlett Johansson later mockingly imitated on “Saturday Night Live”).

“If you didn’t know, you’d have no idea that she was a senator as the whole voice is serving to disempower her: it’s breathy, trembly, almost whispered in places,” Anne Karpf, a sociologist and author of “The Human Voice: How This Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are,” told HuffPost. “She has squeezed her voice up into a pretty high pitch, one demonstrably different from the one she uses in other settings, as if she were deliberately trying to make herself sound more babyish, stereotypically ‘feminine,’ unthreatening and submissive.”

Karpf believes the fundie baby voice is a “retro, nostalgic voice” that’s designed to “Make American Women Docile Again” and to appeal to those who think feminism has gone too far and desire a return to traditional gender roles.

“I would say that more than Katie Britt, a conservative woman in leadership who, intentionally or otherwise, embodies Andelin’s vocal vision is Justice Amy Coney Barrett,” Cunningham said. “The discordance of the largeness of her power ― especially over fellow women’s bodies ― and the smallness of her style of vocal production is profound.”

The fundie baby way of speaking feels like the opposite of Elizabeth Holmes’ voice, which many believe the disgraced Theranos CEO intentionally lowered to sound more powerful and commanding in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley.

“Vocal modulation through speech is not a novel phenomenon,” said Rebecca Kleinberger, a voice expert and assistant professor of humanics and voice technology at Northeastern University. “Across different cultures, submissiveness through the voice is present, often influenced by physical and physiological elements. For instance, smaller individuals or animals statistically tend to have higher-pitched voices, which may be perceived as less threatening. However, individuals and animals alike employ vocal strategies to either assert dominance or express submission, depending on social dynamics and context.”

She also pointed to historical examples like Margaret Thatcher, who worked with a speech coach to develop a more measured, authoritative voice.

“Marilyn Monroe, the iconic Hollywood actress, possessed a whispery voice that contributed to her on-screen presence,” Kleinberger added. “We observe former president Trump’s unique way of using microphones and other tools to modulate loudness and seemingly overpower conversational partners.”

Interestingly, the soft, breathy quality of Monroe’s voice is also associated with seduction and sex appeal. Old Hollywood movies are filled with female heroines who speak in higher pitches than we hear in films and TV today.

Still, the so-called “ditz voice” or “baby voice” has continued to show up on-screen, from reality shows like “Love Is Blind” to comedies like “30 Rock.” And don’t forget the enduring fame of pop culture icons like Betty Boop or even Paris Hilton.

While that infantilizing voice might captivate audiences in a Hollywood context, it’s associated with a more sinister agenda in political and religious circles.

“That baby voice is a means to an end, a highly manipulative voice,” Levings said. “It’s meant to keep women subservient, soft and contained. It’s the sugar that helps the medicine go down when they use a woman to deliver a patriarchal message with that voice, to say things that men seemingly cannot say. But it’s dishonest.”

“It is important to emphasize in this discussion that women’s voices are always scrutinized and policed. The truth is that we can’t win, no matter how we speak.”

- Kathryn Cunningham, vocologist and assistant professor

She highlighted the contrast between a politician saying she espouses family values in a sweet voice and then taking actions that suggest otherwise, like voting for policies that harm real families.

“What they produce is a lot of abuse and subjugation,” Levings added. “And it always stings more when a woman is used as a tool of the patriarchy to promote it. They’re the Aunt Lydias and Serena Joys of the program ― brought in and given power when it suits men, but they will be discarded when it’s no longer useful to those men.”

The fundie baby voice often masks a deep darkness. Behind Michelle Duggar’s soft, childlike voice was the secret of her son Josh’s child sexual abuse. Kelly Johnson’s sweet tones in public appearances attempt to cover up the anti-LGBTQ+ hate in her business dealings.

For fundamentalist women out of the spotlight, the voice can mask abusive relationships, substance abuse issues and other traumas.

“You’re expected to smile through horror in high-control religions,” Levings said. “Your body can feel it, but your mind can’t make sense of it. So you smile and speak sweetly to keep it all masked.”

Reflecting on her religious upbringing, Piper emphasized that the fundie baby voice does not always indicate hate.

“I grew up around many kind women who spoke like that, and they were good people who genuinely cared about and wanted to help others,” she said. “That’s just how they learned to talk in their communities. But when I hear that voice from people in power, that’s when I have a visceral reaction. That’s when I pay attention to what they’re doing.”

Piper urged those who are interested in the fundie baby voice phenomenon to educate themselves on the Christian nationalist movement in U.S. politics and the Project 2025 agenda. Directing ire toward those in power is more useful than tearing down everyday women for the way they were trained to speak.

“It is important to emphasize in this discussion that women’s voices are always scrutinized and policed,” Cunningham added. “The truth is that we can’t win, no matter how we speak. Women are critiqued for having excessively high or nasalized voices and also for having deeper voices and the associated creaky phonation that can sometimes go along with them. Because of outdated and stereotypical associations of high pitches with femininity and lower pitches with masculinity, many women are consciously code-shifting all the time to achieve the desired affect for the circumstances.”

Other factors like nervousness, illness, stress, hormonal imbalance or a voice disorder may also cause someone to speak at a higher pitch.

“The discussion surrounding ‘fundie baby voice’ offers an interesting lens through which to explore the complexities of vocal identity, social perception, and cultural dynamics,” Kleinberger said. “Voices serve as more than mere instruments of communication ― they are intricate projections of ourselves, shaped by a myriad of conscious and unconscious influences. By examining vocal behavior within specific cultural contexts, we gain insight into the nuanced ways in which individuals navigate social norms, gender expectations, and beliefs through the voice beyond words.”

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