Culture  /  Explainer

An Investigation Into the History of the 'Ditz' Voice

How pitch, tonality, and celebrity imitation have portrayed cluelessness.

In January, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch spoofing The Bachelor, one of many they’ve done throughout the reality juggernaut’s time on air.

Bachelor contestants adhere to a long-established archetype in the public consciousness: the vapid gold-digger who needs a man to make her life complete. Most of the cast members depicting the contestants adopted a certain speaking style: monotonous, with elongated ending syllables and a lot of vocal fry, in line with the voice associated with “ditzy” girls today. But host Jessica Chastain’s interpretation was slightly different: her voice had a higher pitch and a little more musicality—more AMC than ABC. Though it sounded old-fashioned, it was clearly recognizable as part of a library of voices women have pulled from over the years to play silly, sappy, or simpering women.

A version of this voice has existed since sound met film and, in a way, since a little before that. Actresses of early film played mostly damsels in distress or wide-eyed young women, and by the time talkies took over, women were still portrayed as less headstrong, more head-in-the-clouds. “The 1920s had a serious case of the cutes,” notes Max Alvarez, a New York-based film historian. “There is a prevalence of childlike women in the popular culture [at the time] … Girlish figures, girlish fashion, girlish behavior.” Along with these girlish figures came a girlish voice—high-pitched, a bit breathy, and a little bit unsure, evident in Clara Bow’s pouty purr, and even Betty Boop’s singsong.

Shortly after the advent of sound in cinema, the scrappy, spunky flappers of the ‘20s were relegated to supporting characters—“the gangster’s moll, the cocktail waitress,” says Alvarez. Musicals of the era, says Alvarez, were bastions of these kinds of wise-cracking wacky sidekicks. “Anything with a backstage Broadway setting, you’re gonna find these women.” The speaking voices filling these film’s chorus lines were still childlike as in the decade prior, but started to show signs of the modern-day “sexy baby voice”: a little bit breathy, a little bit nasal, and with fewer harsh consonant sounds.