Mary Wakefield

The reassuring triumph of Big Mother

3 July 2014

1:00 PM

3 July 2014

1:00 PM

Feminism in modern Britain is not for the faint-hearted. Only the smartest, mouthiest girls on the social media scene dare join the fray — in print, in blogs, on Twitter — where they yell silently at each other in front of a mute but poisonous audience.

It often seems not so much a fight for ladies’ rights as for territory: Caitlin Moran, Lily Allen, Laurie Penny, all jostling to own each particular piece of feminist turf.

So it pleases me, secretly, that quite unnoticed by the Twitter girls, another woman’s voice, one that speaks aloud to millions every day, has done more (I suspect) to advance equality than the whole shouty lot of them.

I noticed her first when I answered a phone call from an anonymous number not so long ago. Though prerecorded, the lady’s voice that started up was so pleasant that I kept listening for a while. The modern world is difficult, she said, and we all struggle with debt. Was I falling behind on my payments? She was a machine, and a scamster to boot — but she sounded so caring and in command that I almost regretted hanging up.

She opened my ears, that robot. Since then I’ve realised that this voice, or near-identical versions of it, speak to us ceaselessly every day, from loudspeakers, from the radio, from inside our appliances. Sometimes the voice is recorded, sometimes live, but she’s always female and she always cares. She’s pleasantly old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time; classless but classy, effortlessly in charge. I’ve come to think of her as Big Mother.

If I take the bus to work, the 38, then the 24, there she is on both, announcing the stops, with particular feelings about each one. ‘Denmark Street’ she says with a shudder, ‘Tottenham Court Road’ in a sort of ecstasy at making it through Soho again. She’s on the London Underground from Heathrow to Upminster, in railway stations, in airports, inside those traffic lights that talk to the blind. In lifts nationwide she says ‘Going up’. She takes my late payments to Camden council and, come the weekend, lists the films at the Odeon, then takes my card details. Should you need her, she’s still there by the speaking clock, keeping up with the third stroke. She’s in your home, the voice of all laptops and mobiles — except for iPhones, which are inexplicably possessed by camp and furious Siri. Every day more and more objects in the western world find their voice, and invariably that voice is female.

HerJoaquin Phoenix falls in love with the voice of his computer in ‘Her’ Photo: Annapurna Pictures / The Kobal Collection

Though the Twitter feminists may disagree, this is a mark of how far we’ve come. In the early 1900s, before British women had the vote, a lady’s voice was considered too shrill to make a public announcement. Crowds nationwide were informed by men. It was unsafe, it was said, to let a girl speak in an emergency. People would just ignore her. ‘What’s that she said? Fire? Tosh! The little woman’s just hysterical.’

As the idea of women and our capabilities began to change, so we were allowed, just little by little, to become the public voice of authority. A Pathé newsreel from 1945 declares Dorothy Harris — a housewife with two children — to be the new voice of Euston railway station, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a woman’s voice was allowed, tentatively, into shopping malls to direct customers and announce lost children.

The date which the historians of the future might call Big Mother’s great leap forward came in 1999, when a girl called Emma Clarke, with that same classless command, became the voice of the whole London Underground, cajoling the tide of commuters in and out every day. It was a great feminist coup: millions of men conditioned morning and night to obey a woman without thinking. Some men miss Emma so much during the day that they moon around on her website, summoning her voice at will. She has a page where fans can click on words of their choice and hear her speak them out loud. The words are ‘rhubarb’, ‘frottage’, ‘jockstrap’ and ‘fumble’, which tells you everything you need to know about British men.

One last outpost of masculinity fell to BM late last year. For the first time ever, the voice of the classified football results on BBC radio became female, and this must be not just a sign of the rise of women but a cause of it too. Nationwide, come Saturday night, British men sit attentively as a lady doles out their favourite tidbits. It’s Pavlovian training to a T.

But it won’t please the Twitter feminists one bit, this subtle revolution, because though effective, it’s covert: a battle won by womankind in the traditional manner: act dutiful, make nice, then get your own way. It’s because she’s overtly a public servant that the voice can call the shots.

Your average Moran likes to act as if men and woman are the same; any differences in mindset or behaviour are cultural and to be ironed out. But Big Mother has been able to capture the 21st century precisely because there is a difference between the sexes.

We process voices differently, men and women. Women respond with equal indifference to either gender, but when a man hears another chap speaking he begins to tense up. Deep in some recess of his brain, he compares himself to the talker and begins to feel wired; more ready to fight. When he hears a lady, however, the visual part of his brain is activated. He conjures up a face to fit the voice, then sits on the number 24 bus in a happy reverie contemplating his new imaginary squeeze as she calls out each stop. To his left and right, women contemplate work and dinner.

No wonder then, the western world has come to speak with a woman’s voice. It keeps men calm. Big Mother might even help to explain the perplexing drop in violent crime across the developed world: the constant shower of female voices acting like a sprinkler system on incendiary young men. Far-fetched, okay, but feasible.

There was a film out earlier this year, Her, about a man in love with the disembodied lady’s voice of his computer’s operating system. Reviewers treated Her as if it was a cautionary tale about false intimacy, but in fact it was almost a documentary; a public admission of western man’s capitulation to the omnipresent female voice.

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