One of the claims against disgraced tech founder is that she lowered her voice to appear more serious. Why did she do it? And what’s the precedent for women faking a deeper voice?
You can track the movement of someone from online curiosity to full blown zeitgeist obsession the second people start doing impressions of them.
It’s the Saturday Night Live Rule, or better yet, the Rob Brydon Bylaw: in order for the joke to land you need to be well-versed in the thing that is being impersonated. Think of Melissa McCarthy’s just-so rumpled suits when she took on Sean Spicer, or the particular shade of orange that was spraytanned onto Alec Baldwin when he became Donald Trump on SNL. When it comes to impressions, the devil is all in the detail.
Take, for example, this video of Tavi Gevinson impersonating Elizabeth Holmes.
The disgraced tech founder, whose company Theranos promised to change the landscape of blood testing and instead was exposed as peddling technology that simply did not work, was famous for her messy hair and makeup, her love of black turtlenecks courtesy of her idol Steve Jobs, and her deep, deep voice. All of which is on display in this viral video.
Holmes’ love of turtlenecks has been discussed at great length. In a bid to emulate Jobs, Holmes dressed only in black turtlenecks and puffer jackets no matter the season. As a result, the Theranos office was kept on ice, hovering at 18-19 degrees, so that their esteemed leader would never overheat.
And the voice, deep and guttural, dropped several registers below a usual female speaking voice? Well, that was reportedly faked.
“When she came to me she didn’t have a low voice,” Stanford University professor Dr Phyllis Gardner said on The Drop Out, the chart-topping podcast about the Theranos scandal. Gardner was one of the first people Holmes approached with her idea for a machine that could run microbe tests using a patch, an early version of what would become Holmes’ idea for the Edison. “That is so completely ridiculous in terms of healthcare,” was Gardner’s response. She stressed to Holmes that it would never work.
Famously, Holmes ignored her advice, dropping out of Stanford at the age of 19 to launch her company. She would spend the better part of the next decade trying (and failing) to make her idea a reality, and raising hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars from investors including Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos in the process.
But back to Holmes’ voice for a second. Gardner didn’t see Holmes for several years until they ran into each other at the same Harvard Medical School board meeting. Holmes was speaking “with this low voice”, Gardner recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’ It was quite off,” she added. From there, almost all footage of Holmes shows her speaking in that same deep register.
One clip, which has become infamous since the truth about Theranos hit the headlines, involved Holmes answering a question about her favourite Star Wars sound by doing a Yoda impression.
Or rather, Holmes did a Yoda impression that had crossed too far into the uncanny valley.
Holmes’ relatives have disputed the claim that her voice is fake, telling TMZ that deep voices are a Holmesian family trait, and that Holmes’ voice is as low as her grandmother’s was. Others, particularly on reddit, have pointed to videos that show Holmes speaking in a higher register – usually after drinking – as proof, but her family suggest that her voice rises when she is excited, as all of ours do.
Maybe we’ll never know if Holmes faked her voice or not. But we know why she might have been moved to do it. According to reports, Holmes lowered her voice in order to give herself more gravitas and so that she could be taken seriously by the largely white, male executives she was seeking funding and support from.
That is a tale as old as time. Studies have shown that women who speak with lower voices are considered more trustworthy. Men and women who have lower-pitched speaking registers are more likely to make social gains and increase their status in tight-knit communities. When looking for leaders, we tend to gravitate to those with deep voices, because we consider them authoritative.
Like so many things, it all boils down to sexism. We associate notions of power, authority, leadership and intelligence with men. And men have deeper voices. Just ask Hillary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom have been accused of having “annoying vocal inflection” because they speak in the natural, higher-registered cadence that they were born with. Margaret Thatcher didn’t, famously heading to a vocal coach to retrain her speaking voice so that it had more of an “authoritative tone”, but let’s not open up that particular can of worms right now.
Being accused of having “vocal fry” is the most common criticism levied at female podcasters. Jessica Grose, the former co-host of the feminist podcast DoubleX Gabfest, would receive email after email complaining about how her voice would rise at the end of her sentences. Then a man she was interviewing told her that she sounded like his granddaughter. Grose felt that her voice was hurting her career, and sought help from a speech coach, before ultimately deciding against actively trying to change her speaking tone.
“I felt when I was self-conscious about my voice it lost that expressive, connective quality,” Grose told NPR. “There was something lost when I wasn’t being myself, whatever that is.”
But you can understand why she might want to change her voice when up against the ingrained sexism that dictates that lower voices are more trustworthy and authoritative. You can understand why Thatcher was moved to visit a speaking coach, and why Holmes might have dropped her voice down, as low as she could, like some kind of vocal contortionist.
Today, The legal case against Holmes and her former boyfriend and COO at Theranos Sunny Balwani rages on. Both pleaded not guilty to nine counts of wire fraud, which carries with it the potential for a maximum of 20 years in prison.
In 2017, Holmes and Balwani spent three days being questioned by the SEC about Theranos’ failed technology and the claims that she made about it to investors, medical professionals and the media. Video of this deposition was broadcast on ABC News’ Nightline for the first time in January. You can see Holmes being interviewed, trademark turtleneck exchanged for a plain blue button down and a black blazer, blonde hair scraped back off her face.
And you can hear her too, answering probing questions from the SEC regarding the truth about her company and its blood-testing technology. “I don’t know,” Holmes said, her voice deep and low. “I don’t know.” In total, Holmes said “I don’t know” 600 times over the course of her deposition.