In an article for Atlas Obscura, Jody Amable examines the breathless tone (or ‘ditz voice’) famously associated with sexy female stars from Marilyn to Kim Kardashian. It’s an interesting piece, though in Marilyn’s case, the ‘baby voice’ was partly an attempt to conceal her lifelong stutter (as discussed by Gerald McDermott here.) As careful study of her movies will reveal, her ‘breathiness’ has been greatly exaggerated by impersonators.
“A version of this voice has existed since sound met film and, in a way, since a little before that. Actresses of early film played mostly damsels in distress or wide-eyed young women, and by the time talkies took over, women were still portrayed as less headstrong, more head-in-the-clouds … Along with these girlish figures came a girlish voice—high-pitched, a bit breathy, and a little bit unsure, evident in Clara Bow’s pouty purr, and even Betty Boop’s singsong.
Shortly after the advent of sound in cinema, the scrappy, spunky flappers of the ‘20s were relegated to supporting characters—’the gangster’s moll, the cocktail waitress,’ says [Max] Alvarez. Musicals of the era, says Alvarez, were bastions of these kinds of wise-cracking wacky sidekicks …The speaking voices filling these film’s chorus lines were still childlike as in the decade prior, but started to show signs of the modern-day ‘sexy baby voice‘: a little bit breathy, a little bit nasal, and with fewer harsh consonant sounds.
Leading ladies like Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall portrayed feisty women through deeper voices as America entered the Rosie the Riveter era. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when women were less vital in the workforce, that softer voices took center stage again. And boy, did they ever. ‘We think of blondes as being dumb because we tend to think of Jean Harlow and Marilyn,’ says Alvarez. Though Marilyn was famously influenced by ‘30s screen siren Jean Harlow, her bubblier, breathier speaking style—most notably, her immortal rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’—still have a stranglehold on the voices used to denote ‘sexy, but not very smart.’
The unnaturally high pitch used over the years is all a diversion tactic, says Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, Robin T. Lakoff. Sounding ‘masculine’ often invites ridicule, so, whether they do it consciously or subconsciously, these hyper-feminine, childlike voices and mannerisms associated with un-serious women could be the result of them over-correcting to stave off criticism.
It’s also important to note that the actresses cast as wisecracking sidekicks or tawdry sex maniacs were generally savvy and intelligent in real life … Marilyn Monroe famously attended the prestigious Actor’s Studio to hone her craft … Though Kim Kardashian’s vocal fry is a far cry from Marilyn Monroe’s breathy lilt, the aim is still the same. ‘What people will not want to hear is it’s still with us,’ says Lakoff. ‘[They] still wanna please and [they] don’t wanna frighten.'”