Director: David Thorpe
USA, 2014, 77 mins. 30 October 2015 (UK)
Those of us who are of a progressive and PC mindset might well wonder if it is appropriate to talk about someone ‘sounding gay’, or to suggest there is such as thing as a ‘gay accent’. Writer and director David Thorpe, whose slight but engaging film sets out to investigate these knotty questions, partly gets round that by being an openly gay man himself. But even if you put this all aside, there is the issue of whether or not this is a mission impossible for Thorpe. As the openly gay actor George Takei challenges him in one scene: “well…how do you define ‘sounding straight’?”
As it turns out, these questions have actually been taken up by scientists in the fields of linguistics and anthropology, and Thorpe is actually able to wring some definitions out of them. Prof Benjamin Munson, speech scientist at the University of Minnesota, and Prof Ron Smyth, Linguist at University of Toronto, have long been interested in how sexuality might affect speech patterns and sounds, right down to micro variations. Smyth offers up a kind of ‘gay speech checklist’ that has been devised over years of study: clearer vowels, vowels longer, the S’s are longer, L’s are clearer, Ps, Ts and Ks are over-articulated. The findings provide food for thought, even if they are hardly representative of a large body of research.
Thorpe intersperses into the mix a few archive clips TV showcasing faux-gay performances from stand ups and actors, played for cheap laughs. This is meant to show how mass media has played its part not only in making the gay voice something that people feel they just know when they hear it, but how popular culture has too often reinforced negative stereotypes and helped internalise a form of homophobia and fear within gays themselves. This ties in to David’s explorations of his own and other gay men’s insecurities. David at one point tries to explore if he can talk differently through help from a speech therapist. Many viewers will no doubt have the same reaction of Thorpe’s friends: why should the way you sound be thought of as ‘wrong’? But plenty of the interviewees Thorpe consults over his provocative decision, including writer David Sedaris and CNN news anchor Don Lemon, confess that they too felt anxiety over how they sound. Thorpe is young enough to have been born after homosexuality was legalised in the US, but fear of sounding gay seems to have been a sadly normal experience for him and others.
The notion that there is an inherent gay voice is further complicated, and in an interesting way, when David is guided by the linguists he consults to look back on who he spent most of his childhood with. It turns out he probably picked up much of his speech patterns from the women he was close to in his life. Proximity, rather than inherent ‘gayness’, was a factor here. One of Thorpe’s friends, one who he considers could pass for straight, describes how he grew up with three “jock” brothers. Professor Smyth points out that tests frequently show people incorrectly guess the sexuality of men they listen to when asked anyway.
Thorpe’s film is too surface level and short to allow it to function at a deeper scientific level, where it might pick apart the incredibly complex fields of linguistics, the media, and parental studies. But even if the film cant explore interesting phenomena like the persistence of internalised homophobia and fear within gay men in too much detail, the personal stories still resonate. Shocking video footage of 15 year old interviewee Zach Collins being beaten up by a classmate for being ‘faggy’, is a depressing reminder that gay people’s fear of violence in response to them merely opening their mouths is not an illogical one.
Even if it is circling a subject that is beyond its own scope to really plumb in depth, Thorpe’s film remains engaging at all times because the personal journey is relatable, funny and touching, and the film at least provokes a few questions about how we judge our fellow human beings when they speak to us.