To the average Jane or Joe, voice overs are ubiquitous. We hear them on the radio, on TV and in movies. We hear them in ads on YouTube or Spotify. Yet, how many of us stop to think about whether the voice artist is a man or a woman and whether it matters to us as consumers. A lot that can be said based on what type of voice you choose in your voice over and that includes whether you choose to go with a male or female voice. Sometimes gender matters a lot and sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on what you are trying to say.
Traditional Views on Gender in Voiceover
Traditionally, voice artists were men. The first recorded spoken voice was none other than Thomas Edison reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb on a phonograph in 1876. Reginald Fessenden, a vital contributor to the development of radio was first to broadcast his voice. In 1901, his Christmas message was heard by ships across the North Atlantic. Walt Disney gave us another first in the ‘20s, when he synchronized his voice to his Steamboat Willie cartoons. Mel Blanc became the first prominent voice actor. Originally a radio personality, he became the voice of many beloved Looney Tunes characters: Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, and the Tasmanian Devil. He also was responsible for ensuring voice actors were mentioned in the credits. By the mid century, the need for voice actors increased, not only for cartoons and radio but also advertisements and movie trailers. One of the most well known voices among voice artists is Dan LaFontaine. He voiced hundreds of thousands of promos and commercials over the course of his career. He set the standard for how movie trailers were edited and voiced. These men played huge parts in the development of voice over as an art. In other words, historically speaking, voice artists were men. Now you might be wondering, where do women fit into this?
In a nutshell, at a rate that does not reflect their actual percentage in society. To enhance story, a smattering of women actors found their way behind microphones in the ad world and June Foray will forever be lauded as the first woman of animation voiceover. In the ’80’s, when I worked in broadcasting, the staff ratio of men to women on air was 6:1 in the dj and voiceover world. 5:1 in news and talk show hosts. The tradition of seeking male over female voice artists is alive and well. However, a recent industry trend report showed a 24% increase in demands for female voice artists while demands for male artists has only increased by 16%. While this report only outlined voice seeking, not hiring behaviors, it seems as if people are becoming more interested in female voice artists than they were before.
Mixing the Voiceover Up
Online casting sites and casting directors for all forms of voiceover currently see a 2:1 ratio of hiring male over female voices. This is certainly an improvement toward a more equitable ratio than fifty or even twenty years ago. But what we hear around us still does not reflect the reality in front of us. The animated series Bob’s Burgers, with over 80% scores on both imdb and Rotten Tomatoes, presents a cartoon character cast of 3 female leads to two male, however the actual gender of the actors who portray them is 1 female and 4 males. This mixed message is passive aggressive and imho more destructive than positive in the search for gender balance in voiceover. The show presents the validating veneer of gender equity on the outside, but does so from the position of a pocketbook slap to voice actors and a confusing ethic to audiences.
In advertising, studies over the past couple of decades continue to reveal a preference for the male voice in a persuasive ad such as automotive or appliance retail. Whereas the female voice continues to evoke our trust. Female vocals have gained ground in beauty and health and have infiltrated the sound of financial institution advertisements. Of course, the advertising world is constantly looking for ways to mix it up, to get our attention and influence our behaviour. Lately, for example, women’s voices have made an upsurge in car retail especially on a national level. Female voices in the lower range, i.e. lower pitch voices, tend to be perceived as powerful and so are the best to gain access to traditional male domain roles. Medium or high pitched male voices by contrast are perceived as being non-threatening therefore more capable of earning our trust. The guy or girl next door are seen as allies.
Current Gendered Voiceover and the Future
Interestingly, 2017 saw a number of requests in voice-over spec sheets for an androgynous voice. There are a number of factors that could be playing into this. The proliferation of artificial intelligence and the desire to keep AI as something different from what we’re used to hearing. At the same time, the fight for LGBTQ rights has gained a lot of ground over the past couple of years. Playing with gender in voice and the search for neutral ground may be a reflection of this or an attempt to be more inclusive. Either way it’s giving voice to a community who has been struggling to be heard. Many artists such as Elton John and Lady Gaga have made music that play with themes of sexuality and gender. Today’s trends bring this theme into voice overs and voice artists.
Kim is an award winning female commercial voice over artist with a lot of opinions on gender nuances of voice overs. What are your experiences with gender preference in the voice industry?