Mary Wakefield

The voice of Big Mother does more for women than any Twitter feminist

Every day more and more objects in the western world find their voice, and invariably that voice is female

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

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.

Joaquin 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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  • Andrew Smith

    “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”.

    Precisely that is my problem with the direction taken by much of modern feminism. Many women respond differently, often want to be treated differently to men, but fear that this automatically means “worse”.

    Equality shouldn’t be about uniformity, but parity of esteem.

    • Gwangi

      Indeed – and the reason why female voices are used is innate too: we automatically listen more to a female voice (unless it’s a screecher!).
      This is because male brains hear male voices as a possible threat so listen less to content; female voices get processed solely in the area of the brain to understanding information not assessing threat – that is why they are everywhere.
      Research shows however that when you have pictures – as in TV – viewers take in less information when it’s read by a woman rather than a man.
      The social conditioning myth is just that, which is not to say that it isn’t there at all; but from what I see most male/female differences are in the brain and innate, not learned, so they can never change (one reason feminists refuse to accept that truism).

  • Mr Grumpy

    Would those pitiful blokes by any chance include the geeks who gave Big Mother her voice in the first place? Mary evidently shares the conviction of most of her sex that technology grows on trees. Vive la différence!

    • Gwangi

      Yes indeed! It was men who invented telephones, computers, the internet, Facebook, Twitter etc – even if it’s women who seem to spend much of their time nattering on them!

    • Denise Malecki

      Mr. Grumpy, I’m confused by what your actual point is here?

      • Mr Grumpy

        A techie’s irritation at feminist triumphalism. I wouldn’t let it worry you.

  • Sean L

    This is wrongheaded because we don’t ‘process’ voices outside of a particular context that will condition our response. The significance here is the disembodied voice on public transport. On the overground it’s a male voice; on the Madrid Metro a male an female duet: one announces the station, the other the connecting lines. The significance of gender, as much as any other personal attribute, will be determined by situation, social status, mood, dress, innumerable factors: there’s no such thing as ‘processing’ a voice neutrally as it were. But as far as there is it would be the anonymous voice on public transport.

    Otherwise, I don’t know what ‘Pavlovian’ is doing here. The idea is that a sound will produce a conditioned response as a result of previous conditioning: give a dog a bone every time a bell rings and he’ll eventually salivate at the mere sound of a bell. I’m not conscious of any response to a female reading the football results that could override my interest in the results themselves. And that’s because I wouldn’t otherwise be listening to them in the first place if I had no stake in their content. There’s no such thing as listening that doesn’t already presuppose a whole host of variants that combined constitute *meaning*. This notion of ‘processing’ .might sound scientific but is a fiction.

  • Sean L

    Just to qualify my earlier clear as mud comment, as there is a valid point struggling to get out. First, ‘process’ isn’t adding any meaning that ‘hear’ can’t express other than lend the point a spurious scientific quality. The science that’s being called into service here is based on mechanical conception of experience such that one senses the sound and then infers its source, that’s the ‘process’. But as the philosopher Heidgger points out to concieve of our every day experience in such as fashion already asumes a remarkably artificial appraoch. In reality we don’t hear a voice and then somehow ‘process’ it – we hear the thing itself. And besides, there’s no such thing as a neutral form of hearing or seeing: in the living world that we all inhabit we’re always somehow involved in the world: there’s always a context, In this case being on the tube travelling to work or whatever. In that sense the neutral scientific view is a fiction because every actual act of hearing is experienced *by someone in that moment*. Anyway, in my view, the significance you attach to a female voice on tube is unwarranted. Nowithstanding the men who fantasise about its author! And even in their case there’s nothing Pavlovian as such about men being attracted to a female voice. Else it becomes meaningless. Hope that makes more sense, if anyone’s reading. I just googled “Heidegger mortorbike” and got this quote:

    To ‘hear’ something like a ‘pure noise’ already requires a very
    artificial and complicated attitude. But the fact that we first directly
    hear things like motorcycles and wagons, which basically still sounds
    remarkable, is the phenomenological evidence for what has already been
    underscored., that in our very being in the world we are first always
    already involved with the world itself, and not with ‘sensations’ first
    and then, on the basis of a kind of theater, finally involved with the
    things. We do not first need to process and shape a tumult and medley of
    feelings” we are right from the start involved with what is understood
    itself. Sensations and sensed are first of all outside the scope of
    natural experience.”

  • mumble

    It might be a question of how as much as who: in the movie “Bowling for Columbine”, Michael Moore sought reasons why America holds such a commanding lead in the international school-shooting league-tables.

    He turned up no one convincing factor, I thought, but the bit of the movie that sticks most in my mind is his comparison between Canadian and US news-reading styles: the Canadian example was pretty BBC4ish and Shipping Forecast-y, calmly and clearly reporting what was going on in the world, whereas the US style, even in the weather forecasts, is, like, Omar Guard! There’s gonna be a storm! It’s Snowmageddon! We’re all gonna die!

    It’s all in how you do it, as the actress said to the bishop.