Maternal shrillness on Zits

Today’s Zits strip manages to assemble three disparate bits of assumption about cognition into a joke about maternal shrillness:

(#1) So shrill — in particular, so high-pitched — that it takes a ladder to get up there and read what’s in the speech balloon

Whoa! You might not have subscribed to any or all of these cognitive stances built into the strip:

— conceptualizing speech and thought balloons as physical objects

— perceiving women’s speech as shrill — an impression that incorporates (among other things) sociocultural associations of high pitch and loudness with various personal and interactional states, and also the association of high pitch with femininity

— (metaphorically) associating high pitch with height above the ground

Balloons. From my 11/12/22 posting “Hold on to the bubble …”:

[A] Mother Goose and Grimm strip goes all meta with speech and thought bubbles / balloons:

(#2) [caption:] They’re physical objects, with words in them, and (like helium-filled balloons) they’ll rise in the air, taking their content — and, unless you fight against it, you too — with them. Aieee!

A recurrent theme on this blog, going back at least to my 10/8/13 posting “Speech balloons in Dingburg”, with a Zippy strip:

(#3) [caption:] The strip treats word balloons as physical objects, revealing the thoughts of whoever holds them

I’m merely noting that this goofy physicalist conceptualization of speech bubbloons first appeared on this blog in the posting above; I have no idea when it first turned up in the comics (no doubt much longer ago than we’re inclined to suppose). Such meta-play has certainly been recently popularized in a few strips: MGG and Zippy, as above, and especially in Pearls Before Swine

Shrillness. From NOAD:

adj. shrill: [a] (of a voice or sound) high-pitched and piercing: a shrill laugh. [b] derogatory (especially of a complaint or demand) loud and forceful: a concession to their shrill demands

The [a] sense is implicitly derogatory; a sound characterized as being piercing is an unpleasant sound. Part of what makes a sound piercing is loudness. Another part is its being (impressionistically) “sharp” in timbre / tone / vocal quality (“strident, raucous, screeching, harsh”) — presumably, the (impressionistic) effect of sounds with prominent high-pitched overtones.

So: three components to shrillness: high pitch; loudness; “sharpness” in timbre. The first of these is associated with femininity, but in a complex way. Other things being equal, mean F0 in speech is significantly higher for women than for men (primarily for physiological reasons), but there’s considerable overlap and also considerable individual variation — plus sociocultural jigglings of these settings (American men tending to pitch their voices lower than expected mean, Polish women tending to pitch their voices higher, plus culture-specific differences in particular registers, very often in combination with vocal quality differences (like falsetto, breathy voice, and creaky voice).

Out of all this emerges a persistent inclination of many men to evaluate women’s somewhat higher F0 as unpleasant: too high, too loud, and too strident. There seems to be little objective basis for these evaluations, which would appear to result from some men attending to any deviation from their expectations of appropriate feminine behavior as quiet and unobtrusive.

Meanwhile, high pitch and loudness accompany various personal states (like surprise, delight, and anger) and interactions (like admonishment, complaint, and command); a notable display of some of these by a woman might be seen as unfeminine. As Jeremy’s mother’s — surely justified — complaints seem to be in #1.

Up in the air. As if that weren’t enough, Scott and Borgman have also folded in a (cross-modal) metaphorical association of high F0 (there’s also such an association of high F2) with location above the ground, up in the air. So Connie Duncan’s complaints about Jeremy’s bad behavior are in a speech balloon over Jeremy and Pierce’s head, up where the boys can’t read them except by climbing up there on a ladder.

Combining speech balloons as physical objects with high-pitched speech as located up in the air is a bit of imaginative genius — deeply goofy, but inspired.

One Response to “Maternal shrillness on Zits”

  1. annburlingham Says:

    I remember Charlton Heston referring to gun control advocates as “shrill” and laughing because the person he seemed to be responding to was Gregory Peck.

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