As one of the auspicious few who have successfully navigated the world of voiceover acting, I couldn’t be more appreciative than I am. I have had the opportunity to work with great producers, writers, and voiceover actors around the world. I’m thankful every day for this extraordinary career. And yet I am often reminded of the voiceover industry’s limitations when it comes to advancing women fairly.
I have been blessed with a combination of the “what it takes” factors for getting ahead in the voiceover industry: a resonant vocal instrument, performance range, acting technique, industriousness, and a pleasant way with people. But I, as is true for all women in voiceover, am rarely appreciated as having the “Voice of God,” as it is commonly called by insiders. To achieve that, I would need a pair of balls, which I only have metaphorically.
Indeed, to achieve the highest level of success in this industry, you must possess the Voice of God. This is the authoritative, bigger-than-life, rumbling male voice that advertisers and even everyday consumers assume to be a key factor in capturing the attention, trust, and therefore money of the consuming population.
It goes without saying that our society has a patriarchal idea of God that long precedes audio recording. Never mind the fact that many of us can vividly recall the power of our own mothers’ voices to make us sit up straight and take note. God as male, however faulty the premise, is deeply intrinsic and will have enduring reverence for years to come. As a result, the choice to use women in voiceover, whether it be made by a man or a woman, is first and foremost governed by this misguided social conditioning.
And based on this imperfect logic, the lucrative voiceover contracts (the meat of the industry) that are regularly feasted upon by men are for women sparingly sprinkled around like so much salt on a thick juicy steak.
While Barbara Jordan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and other heroines have paved the way to gender “enlightenment,” professionals in the advertising world are able to get away with statements like “Her demo reel sounds great, but we don’t use female voices.” A prominent executive for a major TV network reported that his network president (a woman) looked him straight in the face and said, with great managerial brio, “I think our network voice should be male. I’m very sexist when it comes to that.”
Again, consumers never complain about the chosen voice unless it simply lacks talent. It’s the industry insiders who are unwittingly forwarding these archaic assumptions. Unenlightened executives wax philosophical about how focus groups show that male voices are preferred over female voices. But what these executives fail to see is that when you compare male and female voices side by side in a focus group, you are inviting the very social misunderstanding that is thwarting a fair analysis. A more honest assessment would be to ask random people to recall the last time they rejected a product because they were turned off by the voice gender. The answer will undoubtedly be “Never.” Yet our patriarchal thinking is so ingrained in us as insiders that we’re blind to the availability of choice or the moral imperative to change the paradigm.
All of us in the industry have the opportunity to jettison our biases against female voices, challenge the old Voice of God assumptions, and look upon all voiceover actors with open minds. Let us understand that the Voice of God refers not to a gender but to any voice with the necessary authority to fully and powerfully convey the message. Obviously, the issue is far bigger than advertising and promotion, but what a great place to start the revolution: in an industry with such deep and global influence.
Joan Baker is a voice actor, the author of “Secrets of Voice-Over Success,” and spokesperson for Neumann microphones. She provides private voiceover coaching for newcomers and professionals in her New York office and via Skype. She is also a co-creator of That’s Voiceover and a partner with Push Creative Advertising. Go to www.joanthevoice.tv or joanbaker.tv/voice-over_coaching.php for more info.