Alex Blaze

The gay accent

Filed By Alex Blaze | May 20, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: bob corff, Hollywood, LGBT, movies, speech, straight

Details magazine interviewed Bob Corff, a Hollywood voice specialist who trains actors to speak with certain accents. Apparently, he also works on getting rid of the gay accent.

Why would someone want to do that?

Sometimes I'm working with people who have a fabulous British accent, and I'll say, "Let me just be clear with you that I don't think that our accent is aesthetically more pleasing than yours. It's just that you can make more money if you can master the one I'm doing--here, in this country, right now." Some people's accents limit them. Like the southern accent--a lot of people in the North think that that's not as smart a sound. I mean, some of the smartest people I've ever known are from the South, but even in business they sometimes have to change to the standard American accent, because then people think of them differently.[...]

With this particular focus on sounding gay or straight, have you seen your actors get better roles because of it?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. People get work and they just call me and say, "Thank you, man." It really has nothing to do with what they do in private, and it shouldn't. I mean, who cares! What's important is that you've mastered some little thing that gives you a foot up on the competition. I've worked with people from one end to the other. I worked with Vanessa Redgrave for a project in which she was a man who had a sex change and became a woman, and we had to lower her voice and get her into the man thing.

What is the gay accent? Corff explains:

What are you hearing that sends off that signal?

Okay, well, let me start by telling you what it is that sounds "straight." Straight actually turns out to be the perfect word to describe what straight guys do. It's very straight--it has no curlicues, it has no frills or any kind of melodic turns. So they say, "Hi. How are you?" It's simple, and the lines are very straight, instead of "Hi, how are yOOuu?" You know, women are much more melodic--their voices go up and they go down, and they even move their mouths more. There's a lot more animation. A straight guy just goes, "Hey--this is as much energy and animation as I'm putting out for this thing."

So it's a monotone?

If you're monotone, in either case, you're going to be boring. You don't have to be monotone. It's more about--you can do that straight sound, but you can't keep on starting in the same place. So if I say, "This is what I want you to do: I want you to go down the street. And then I want you to turn left," even though my voice kept going down in this very straight, direct way, I wasn't starting in the same place and ending in the same place on the scale.

Then there's a narrow bandwidth of notes in a straight accent?

Right. Even in the face--the mouth is very simple, the lips stay close to the teeth, and the jaw just drops down.

And the gay accent?

There's many levels of this. With some people there's just this little thing that's happening, and it's not much, but it's just this little tiny melody and inflection that tells you maybe there's something there. And then there's some people who are just [Slips into Charles Nelson Reilly mode] com-PLEEEET-ly doing THIIIIS, and you go, "Well, clearly, they're not even attempting to . . . " And listen, I make no judgment. I mean, I've been in show business--I did the leads in three Broadway musicals, so I've been around this all my life, and it makes no difference to me. And I don't think it should to anybody, because it's none of our business what you do in the bedroom.

What are some other elements associated with the gay sound?

Well, a lot of times--not always--but a lot of times there is a sibilant s. I work on that with people, too. You can be a girl, you can be a guy, you can be straight or gay--what it is is that your tongue is too close to the back of your top teeth, so the air has no place to get dispersed. It just bounces into your teeth. [Lisps slightly]

It's all interesting, but considering how Corff mentions several times that he works with straight guys who get told they sound gay, this seems to have a lot more to do with actors wanting a more aesthetically pleasing voice than them worrying that they'll add a gay accent to a straight character.

And of course a more masculine voice is considered more aesthetically pleasing. Hollywood's still a very homophobic institution, and no matter how much Corff says it's just about getting roles, it's really about the fact that producers and directors don't want to take on actors who sound feminine.

In other words, if this was really just about being true to a character, there'd be straight men and gay men who sound straight going to him looking to learn the gay accent so they can have access to those roles. But even movies with gay characters still lean towards getting a straight-acting dude to play gay.

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JonathonEdwards | May 20, 2010 2:42 PM

Interesting. I've been saying for years that there is a gay accent. For me, its not about "fem" sounding voices, though. I think he's onto something about the gay accent being more melodic and expressive, but I think even more relevant are colloquialisms we pick up when we spend time immersed in mainstream gay culture. I think this also plays a major role in "gaydar".

Its not about stereotypes, because its not saying there's a "homosexual" accent. A gay dude with no exposure to gay community who lives in rural Montana isn't going to have the accent. But if he moves to WeHo or San Francisco, he will pick up colloquialisms and a style of speech that's identifiable. (Again, not referring to stereotypes here the "accent" isn't a butch/fem thing at all).

I also think there's a component of this that relates to all male environments more than it does to necessarily homosexual male environments. One of the fascinating experiences I had living on board the USS California for 9 months back in the late 80's - especially when we were at sea for 2 months with no port visits - was how much the guys on board started sounding like the guys I hung out with in the Castro when were were home.

Straight guys, having no exposure to mainstream gay culture, started talking like they were hanging out at Badlands or the Midnight Sun (perhaps I'm dating myself). It was fascinating.

I wish a linguist would study this instead of it just coming from an acting coach...

I'm a linguist. There is plenty of literature on gay speech (speech that gays use) and gay-sounding speech (speech that people say is "gay"-sounding, whether it correlates to what gay people actually do or not.. usually it does not). Unfortunately, most of the research focuses on the speech of gay males... there's not a lot done at all about lesbian speech.

"But even movies with gay characters still lean towards getting a straight-acting dude to play gay."????


As often as not, the reverse is true: they direct actors, whatever their own orientation or "real life" mannerisms, to "gay it up." While not movies, recent examples are Eric Stonestreet, who, when he's not playing the chubby hubby version of a modern Franklin Pangborn-on-High-Flame on Modern Family or flaming those who've dared criticize the absence of any display of affection, public or private, by the couple, asserts he's straight, and Kevin Rahm [Kinsey ranking unknown] who plays the "bitchy [now former] partner, Lee" on Desperate Housewives who demonstrated no danger of sssssetting the curtainssss on fire with a word in his role on Judging Amy nor appearances on Grey's Anatomy, Friends, CSI, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

And is there any meme more tired than the one to which that sentence pivots: "Gay characters should be played by gay actors"?

The FIRST thing any movie producer is going to do is try to cast actors who can be believable in the roles AND will attract the largest audience.

Expecting anything more of them is to expect only Hoosier-born actors be allowed to play characters from Indiana. Or only someone who actually fought in the Civil War play a character who does.

I don't watch much TV, so that might be different. I haven't even heard of half the shows you mentioned.

I don't think gay characters need to be played by gay actors. My statement does not "pivot" on that idea.

These past few months I dug up a recent list of the "50 best gay movies of all time" or something like that, and Alberto and I have been searching for them here in Paris and watching as many as we can. We've seen about half now, and, really, I'm surprised by how many gay characters don't ring all that gay to me. Some of the more "direct to video" films have the token flamer among the 6 or 7 gay but not femmy friends, and some go as far as brokeback mountain did and portray all the gays as butch.

Maybe TV is different. I did see that Top Chef episode where they did lunch for the cast of modern family and those guys seemed really, really gay in real life. Good for them.

I got a press release about this and thought about posting about it until I realized I'd be traveling. Then I thought: I'll write it up on the plane.

No. No, I won't. Alex already did a great job with it.

Hmm. So is there a lesbian accent?

Jane Laplain | May 20, 2010 7:08 PM

I'm wondering here why it is hardly EVER explained outright that the "Standard" American Accent for men is not only a straight one, but a straight WHITE one. That is, if you want to be taken seriously by the american mainstream public, you are to speak in a manner that betrays no ethnic identity other than a White Middle Class, Gender Appropriate upbringing. People of color in America go thru this same sort of vocal "re-training" all the time and those of us who learn to "assimilate" learn to do so with the Standard White American accent appropriate for our gender.

Interestingly enough, white gay male culture, at least as it has stereotypically been portrayed in media, borrows heavily from (stereotypical) american black women's culture. From fingersnapping and neck swiveling saying "gurrrrrrl" to the general sassiness associated with the stereotypical black woman of a certain economic background, and the stereotypical gay man, who is usually white, middle class, but NOT straight acting, particularly because he acts like a woman of color...

I'm not sure how exactly this all happened, but it's clear that it did and it would be interesting to study the hows and whys of linguistic overlap among minority groups and the production of minority stereotypes at large.

Anybody know of any books/studies on the power of linguistic memes and how they inform the way different groups are perceived in mainstream? eg., how dominant groups learn to speak versus subordinate groups?? Especially how more dominant groups feel free to borrow from the lexicons of subordinate groups at will with positive or neutral social impact to their own status, while the subordinate groups are heavily penalized for using their own manner of speech to represent themselves?

Just asking.

Your first problem is that there AREN'T 50 great "gay films." But searching for them in Paris? Well, that would be interesting to see how the dubbing actors were directed, [except for those originally filmed in French, of course].

I've seen "true to the sounds of the original actors" such as the German dub of "The Sixth Sense," and ghastly ones like the German dub of the first "Batman" movie and the English dub of the first "La Cage Aux Folles."

Of course, in the latter, the dubbing director found it easy to do a more less reasonable facsimile of the characters...Screaming Queen is easy for anyone to do. But the original became the most successful foreign film in America [at the time] in large part because of all the brilliant nuance in his voice that the supposedly straight Michel Serrault brought to the character ZaZa. And don't get me started on the crime that the American [per]version is even with a certified out gay star.

As for "butch gays"...what's that? Science fiction?

friday jones | May 20, 2010 8:53 PM

Seems to me that what Corff is describing as a "straight male" accent is actually a highly affected forced flattening of a natural human tendency to employ tonality in order to be more clearly understandable.This is no different from the way that straight high school boys suddenly drop their voices a full octave when a girl walks into the classroom. It's signaling their virility and strength. Humans are, after all, just lusty primates.

This is called "gender expression." I had to spend a lot of time learning to talk "like a woman." (Took about a year, I'd say.) A lot of trans people never can master it, and there's no reason why they should have to, except for the fact that the wrong voice gender expression can make one's life a living hell. I can still talk like a guy, but I never do it, even to be funny or make a point. It's not a laughing matter, in my book. By the way, here's Redgrave in Second Serve playing Renee Richards before transition. I think it's pretty convincing, and that is very hard to do.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 21, 2010 10:24 AM

A guilty truth for me is my vocal intonations change according to situation and I think that most people experience the same thing. If I am at a Chicago party or charity fundraiser I sound "Chicagoan" but place me at a similar situation in Louisville during pre Derby week and "You alls" start flowing out after a half hour. I am still considered to be a "Yankee, but not a damn Yankee."

So understand, I find no accent desirable over any other so long as it betrays an intellect beneath. Now as to marketability lisps are not "gayspeech" but a vocal impediment that can be trained away to the benefit of the speaker because their impediment distracts from the meaning of their words. Wrong minded fools use such affectations to diminish us. I have spoken before groups of five or five thousand and the rules have remained unchanged.

speak clearly
speak knowing your subject

I had an employee who was satisfactory in every way from New Orleans LA. One of her jobs was to answer the phone for my business. "Axe" in place of "ask" was not acceptable to customers phoning in to spend money with us so I had a sit down with her over this inability to speak the word correctly. She told me she had never been able to form the word "ask" before. I developed a drill: Can you say Ass? said I and she said she could. Can you say kicker said I and she said she could. So "Ass Kicker" formed the basis for her to pronounce "ask." It took her only four times of repeating ass kicker to be able to form the word ask for the first time in her life. Phone customers immediately presumed her to be more intelligent (and she was intelligent) and the rest of her accent was charming anyway.

Her children called me when she died too young just recently. Part of the conversation was the great pride she had in being able to use the word "ask." Of course her children were "axeing" all over the place and thought their mother was hilarious. Words and proper usage count in written and spoken English for how we are perceived in intelligence. Sorry, I am beyond Gay people requiring "Gaydar." It is 2010, the age of the Metrosexual, sorry "Fabou" is passe.

To me Hollywood seems not to be homophobic, but Heterocentric. They are centered around the mainstream, and that will always be people who stay within gender, and sexual norms. They care about appealing to the majority so they can get the buck. If gay lisps became in fashion or desired by the majority then they would want a gay lisps in all their movies. Like some Hollywood agent would say. "Its nothing personal."

Steven Morrow | October 20, 2010 4:23 AM

The fact is, no straight male actor needs to go to a vocal coach to learn to sound like a convincing gay male. Are you truly that inane? No one cares if they sound CONVINCING, just the part. Gay men have become a one-dimensional Hollywood stereotype (thanks to people like you who would ask "why would anyone want to do that?" i.e. Want to sound like a man and not a mincing priss. Maybe you're right. Perhaps WE should all have PRIDE in sounding like Carson Kressley? After all, HE SELLS. RIGHT?) that is so hyperbolic in affectation that it is easily copied and passable in the unreality of films. However, the "straight accent" is unquestionably natural sounding to heterosexuals and seems much harder for gays to replicate believably. It is another form of subjugation that gay men, in their attempts to escape the prancing, politically correct prisses and all their mannerisms, must endure. Die hard sissies do NOT want us to be men. It's alright for a man to chop off his penis, BUT, I BE DAMNED if I want to just be a male who likes males, but doesn't want to act or sound like the feminine counterpart of of 'some guy' and dress up in a skirt and talk to him like his latest, favorite bitch. Well, Valley Gay does just that. It emasculates me. It explains the preposterous LGBT. How many more letters shall we add to that atrocity in the next decade? And, when all the "you're self-hating" Harpies want to sound in, I say this to them: I love myself enough to keep sucking cock and still want to be a man, in every way. I'm as secure as you get. But I refuse to be sexually or politically delusional.