This documentary follows David Thorpe in his quest to both understand why and how he speaks like a ‘teenage girl’, and his desire to modify his voice to sound ‘straight.’ He explores a myriad of possibilities, visiting voice coaches, childhood friends, interviewing celebrities – namely Margaret Cho, Tim Gunn and George Takei in his seeking for answers surrounding perhaps quite simply; what it means to be gay.
Breaking up with his boyfriend seems to send Thorpe into a crisis – he feels that the pressure of being single at 40, regardless of sexuality, is taboo. The focal subject of the film is the 'camp' voice, a phenomenon not previously explored in such depth on the big screen. The full 77 minutes of the film investigate how the male voice can be a powerful tool, and potentially a burden, however, the film pushes further than that, raising questions of choice; did Thorpe choose this effeminate-sounding, ‘girly’ voice? Why is there a surrounding stereotype of gay men sounding feminine? What it is that makes the voice sound this way? And perhaps the question most important to Thorpe – ‘can I undo this?’ Thorpe’s documentary presents the stigma of the effeminate voice; the disadvantages of being a gay man in a ‘man’s’ man’s world, and the consequential internalised homophobia that accompanies this.
Voice is what identified the early gay characters on television - Thorpe recalls their flamboyance and ‘camp’ melody; he reminisces on his childhood and the desperate need to hide his sexuality, and the one trait that would’ve ‘outed’ him – his voice. In conforming or attempting to conform so actively to societal norms, a sort of self hatred and anxiety grows within – gay men who do not like 'sounding' gay feel that this description of their speech is a negative. The film delves into this; you have accepted you are gay, and that your sexuality is a part of you, so why not accept your voice? Stereotypes often resonate the strongest when there is a degree of recognition and familiarity in the mocked, for instance, an openly gay man who has accepted himself as such - aside from his voice.
Predominantly jaunty, the up-beat diary style documentary climaxes with Thorpe's realisation that his crisis about his voice was ‘an attempt to reconnect with myself.’ The viewer is left with a sense of the incomplete; questions are presented yet not fully addressed and answered. But perhaps this is largely due to the vastness, the sheer depth of the subject matter; answers yield more questions, more queries that simply cannot all be answered.
It is a shame that some topics raised by linguist Ron Smyth are not explored in full, such as the link between male and female vocalisation and the translation of this onto gay men’s speech patterns, the representation of the ‘villainous gay man’ on film and how this fuels negative conditioning in both gay and straight children, adolescents and even adults. Maybe these concepts could have been given more weight, as these are the images that linger after viewing.
Regardless, Thorpe presents us with a thought-provoking piece of cinema, an extremely personal narrative which does well to include some important wider societal issues, such as the legalisation of gay marriage, and the bullying of homosexual children in school.
Do I Sound Gay? is now showing at FACT. Click here to book your tickets.