David Thorpe’s documentary Do I Sound Gay? is cinema by way of the diary. After breaking up with his boyfriend, Thorpe realizes he’s not happy with the person he is and decides to change for the better. This happens to just about everyone at a crossroads in their life, but few turn the camera on themselves and take something back from the political and put a human face on it.
Thorpe’s issue is his voice, or his gay voice, which he finds grating, effeminate, and juvenile. To correct this, Thorpe starts taking lessons with dictation coaches and speech pathologists to change how he talks. The speech pathologists explain the commonalities of the gay voice: elongated vowels, emphasis on “S” s, clear pronunciation, lilting sentences, a tendency for the voice to go up even when the sentence is a statement, etc. All of which Thorpe is aware of, but where do these traits come from? To find those answers, Thorpe speaks with several gay rights activists to learn more about his gay voice.
Thorpe’s quest doesn’t exactly kick down any doors—in himself or the audience—but it manages to highlight the major influences of the “typical” gay voice. The first is the historical—Hollywood and television—and the second the psychological—a conscious decision to inflect the mother—both of which express identity.
Of the two, Thorpe seems more interested in the historical. Gay characters in cinema and television are, for the most part, well-spoken and educated—hence the snobbery associated with homosexuality. Characters couldn’t be outright gay at the time, so these traits acted as signposts for anyone paying attention. As were the traits established in the 1940s when villains became more wily, cunning, and crafty, with less brawn and masculinity. As one historian points out, there is a trait in the Disney villain (notably Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, Jafar from Aladdin, and Scar from The Lion King) that relies on these same speech patterns of the 1940s Hollywood gay villain. While that doesn’t necessarily make these characters homosexual, it does lean on a shorthand that has been well established. Considering that these movies are aimed at children, that shorthand might create a preconception without the child’s awareness.
All of this is fascinating material, but Thorpe filters this information through the lens of self-discovery, or more correctly, a journey of personal embrace. Thorpe’s quest began with a distaste for the sound of a gay voice, especially when that voice bounces off other gay voices in a crowded club, but it ends with an admiration for all of those gay voices making themselves heard.
And that is where Thorpe’s central question makes its greatest play: can Thorpe correct, or lose, his gay voice without losing himself? The answer is he can’t, and he doesn’t. Thorpe learns to embrace who he is and the voice he has. It’s not a shocking conclusion, but what Do I Sound Gay? lacks in suspense, it makes up for in heart.
Do I Sound Gay? (2014)
Directed by: David Thorpe
Produced by: Howard Gertler & David Thorpe
Sundance Selects, Running time 77 minutes, Not Rated, Opens July 17, 2015.