Reviewed by Miranda Schiller @mirandadadada
When writer/director David Thorpe is dumped by his boyfriend and finds himself single and in his forties, he realises something: He hates the way his voice sounds – and the voices of most gay men around him. So he goes on a quest to find out what the stereotypical “gay voice” is, why so many men adopt it, and how to either lose it or accept it.
His interviewees range from speech therapists and linguists to famous out gay actors like George Takei, comedians like Jeff Hiller, and LGBT activists like Don Savage, to his best friends, high school friends, and his mother. Thanks to this eclectic approach, we learn a lot about the impact of the voice, of controlling one’s own voice, and about media representation of gay men throughout the decades.
We learn that there is actually no correlation between being gay and having a particular way of speaking, but that instead, a certain voice is stereotypically seen as sounding gay – and a lot of gay men and boys internalise the stereotype and adopt this voice. While exploring this, the film touches on subjects like internalised homophobia, misogyny, code switching, and “performing your identity”.
But while bringing in all these more or less academic concepts, Thorpe manages to keep the mood of the film entertaining and lighthearted. In between, he films himself practicing the speech therapist’s exercises, which includes some laugh-out-loud moments and some clever criticism of what is seen as standard and what isn’t. All in all, the film feels more like his personal journey than a serious investigation, which makes it fun to watch and easy to follow. Having said that, Thorpe never loses sight of the serious questions and issues.
Even though the focus is firmly set on gay men, the film does not feel irrelevant to everyone who is not that. The impact of one’s own voice is something that affects everyone, and it may well lead the viewers to ask themselves who or which idea they are modeling their own voices on. For we apparently all adopt ways of speaking from what we’ve heard, who we’ve been around growing up, and whom we’ve come to see as our role models, or our kind of people.
Which is slightly tricky when the voice you’re adopting originated as a way to ridicule or vilify gay men more than as a means to create a community. Thorpe illustrates the development of the gay on-screen stereotype with a journey through film and TV, which is both delightful and frightening in that it is guaranteed to reveal some previously unnoticed prejudice inherent in treasured childhood films. And there is no reason to believe those days are over: out gay actors are rarely cast for non-stereotypical roles even today, and as the recent discussion over Matt Damon’s comment that gay actors had better not come out shows, this is still a pretty touchy subject.
This, too, is one of the myriad issues Thorpe touches on, but does not delve into deeply. It does seem at times as if he couldn’t really decide which path to follow and so ended up putting everything in but not focusing on any one thing. On the other hand, this film ultimately is the story of Thorpe finding his own voice, and all the things he touches on may just be steps on the way.
As it should be in a documentary about something that can only be heard but not seen – the voice – there is a noticeable focus on audio production and sound design. With the way quotes, speech exercises, interviews and sound examples are interwoven and put together, the whole film follows a rhythm and is very well choreographed. Yet nos is the visual side a let down – “Do I Sound Gay?” is a meticulously edited documentary that combines entertainment, information and a personal journey in just the right doses.
Do I Sound Gay? is released into cinemas October 30th.