Why pantomime dames don’t sound feminine

Euan McIver in pantomime

It’s the festive season, and time for British middle aged men to dress in drag and become pantomime dames. But they don’t sound much like women. This is something that’s also true of male comedians impersonating women on TV – Monty Python and Les Dawson spring to mind.
The difference between male and female voices has been exercising James Dembowski, from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center [1], but for a different and more serious reason. At a recent Acoustical Society of America conference, he presented a case study examining how a male-to-female transgender patient speaks. Seeing this paper sparked my curiosity and got me reading some of the scientific literature on transgender voices – there is more than you would expect. While drag queens are very different to transgenders, they must have a similar issue of trying to use a ‘male’ vocal system to try and sound female.
When a male comedian impersonates a female, they automatically raise the pitch of their voice, because usually women speak at a higher frequency than men. Typically the fundamental frequency for men has the vocal folds opening and closing 120 times a second, whereas for females it’s something closer to 200 times a second.  But raising pitch alone isn’t sufficient to make a convincing female sound. Part of this is to do with how male and female speakers stress different words in a sentence. We all change the loudness and pitch of words as we speak, after all talking in a dull monotone isn’t a good idea for communication. Men tend to use loudness more often than women to help convey meaning, whereas females tend to vary the pitch more than men.
In the case study presented at the conference, the transgender patient also varied other voice characteristics. The patient reduced how fast they spoke to better match typical female syllable rates. The patient also tried to reduce the amount of ‘glottal fry’ they made (glottal fry is a rough low-frequency sound which is more characteristic of male voices).
By tapping into this literature on transgender voices, pantomime dames could become more convincing women. But maybe that’s missing the point. Not only do pantomime dames sound unfeminine, they don’t look very much like women either. Because if they did become better impersonators, they probably wouldn’t be as funny.
[1] The Transgendered Voice: Beyond the Pitch Change
Picture credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pantomime3.jpg

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  1. Just to clarify, transwomen are not “impersonating” females. They are women, they are female. They just happen to be in a body generally read as “male.”
    It sounds like you are mixing up drag queens (who are impersonating women) and transwomen (who ARE women).

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