Some years ago, I saw a performance art piece by genderqueer theorist Kate Bornstein in which she recounted her experience with vocal therapy for transsexuals. The therapist she had gone to kept urging her to raise her voice: "Like this?" "Higher!" "Like THIS?" "Higher!" "Well, I don't want to talk like that." The "like that" was what you might call the squeaky toy voice. Bornstein eventually developed a voice based on listening to Laurie Anderson albums, and that seems a more laudable and realistic a goal. Thinking of all the great female voices, I gravitate to people like Lauren Bacall, Joan Greenwood, Sally Kellerman, and Kathleen Turner. No squeaky toys. This and more was all rattling around my brain as I walked to my car after seeing In A World... (2013, directed by Lake Bell). Writer/director/star Lake Bell doesn't like the squeaky toy voice either, and her movie underlines--gently--the disturbing assumptions behind its currency in our culture. In A World...is a comedy--a good one, I think--but it's also an excursion into feminist sociology.
In A World... follows the fortunes of Carol Solomon, a vocal coach and voice actor as she attempts to crack the glass ceiling of movie trailer voice-=overs. The biggest obstruction in her path? Her own father, Sam, a legend in the biz, who thinks women have no place in trailer voice overs. Sam is a supreme narcissist, newly in possession of a trophy wife who is younger than his daughters, and armored against a changing world by the arrogance of his own privilege. He's tops in a business that is insular and unchanging, and he'll be damned if he'll let anyone upset that applecart, even his own daughter, who he has just kicked out of his house in favor of the aforementioned trophy wife. Carol goes to live with her sister, Dani, and her husband, Moe. Dani and Moe are having some difficulties. Meanwhile, Carol snags a voice over gig that falls to her when established voice man, Gustav, fails to show. Gustav, for his part, views this as theft as well as an affront to his masculinity, but neither Gustav--nor Sam, who is his mentor--knows the identity of the "thief." This comes into focus after a party where Gustav winds up in bed with Carol, only to discover that she's his rival after the fact. When a new gig reviving the classic "In a world..." tagline formerly the trademark of voice over legend Don La Fontaine comes along, the competition is on between not only Gustav and Carol, but also between Carol and her father, who believes the legacy of the "In a world..." tagline should be his and not some upstart woman's...
As I mentioned, this is a film about a woman trying to make it in a business dominated by men, but unlike most movies of its ilk, it approaches the problems Carol Solomon encounters in this endeavor obliquely. With the exception of a scene near the end when Carol runs into a movie producer played by Geena Davis who is blunt about the need for female voices (literally and figuratively) in movie marketing, this is not generally a polemic. It doesn't need to be, really, because it has its finger on the pulse of sexism in business (and THE business). It's like water to a fish. It surrounds everything. Bell takes all of this as a given, and chooses instead to focus on the relationships between the characters--particularly between Carol and her father, which is patriarchy in microcosm. Carol's father would almost be a blatant symbol were it not for the narcissism at the core of his personality. Everything he does is sexist, true, but it also wells out of his personality in a way that's totally convincing. He's a spoiled baby who always gets his way. The scene near the end, when he doesn't get his way and has to flee to a janitor's closet to have a good cry is one of the best things in the movie. Such is Bell's affection for all of her characters--even Gustav, who is a first-class asshole--that the comedy never seems mean or spiteful. These are human beings rather than straw men. This is one of the film's best qualities.
I also like the way it expands the field of its narrative. This could easily have focused on just the world of voice-over, but this spills outside that world. The digressions with Dani and Moe suggest a broader world where other people have other problems. The awkward romance between Carol and her sound engineer, Louis, grows more from their respective personalities than it does from any situation created by the film's plot. This turns some expectations on their heads, too: Jamie, Sam's young trophy wife turns out to have greater depth than you might expect for a character who would be ridiculous in another movie.
In A World... is certainly a critique of male privilege, but it's also a kind of celebration of men. Certainly, Sam is no great beauty when measured against the movie-star good looks of most leading men, but his voice carries with it the power to charm snakes. When he tells Jamie that he's "bringing the sexy" for his demo real, she replies that his voice is always sexy. She's not kidding, either. In any event, this film has as much criticism to lay at the feet of how women use their voices as it does for men who abuse their privilege. The running gag of women--accomplished women, no less--speaking in voices that sound like "sexy babies," pays dividends in the film's coda, and it's an indictment of the way our contemporary society sexualizes and infantilizes women at the same time. What good is power and influence if you sound like a squeaky toy? This is the question that the film asks.
This brings me back to where I came in, because as a woman--particularly as a trans woman--I feel the pressure to pitch my voice higher and speak in a weaker idiom all the friggin' time (the notion that women tend to speak in questions--articulated explicitly in this film--is especially pernicious). I hate that my voice resonates the way that it does and there's a certain amount of allure to a higher voice for me. Intellectually, I know that it's bullshit, that there's nothing wrong with my voice, but I also know that socialization doesn't care about what you think. So the end of In A World... is a vindication of sorts and it makes me love the film more than it may deserve--and it deserves lots, because it's funny and warm and a huge relief.