Talk to Me Baby
A few years ago, I briefly dated a man whose recent ex-girlfriend was the stuff of nightmares: an ethereal giantess and beauty, an artist and musician. He was telling me about one of their arguments. “And then came the baby voice,” he finished. Wait. What? What? I repeated the exchange to a couple of friends and we all agreed it was disgusting. And yet, there was something about the immediacy and strength of my repulsion that jarred — why did it bother me? It was, of course, as Leanne Shapton’s graphic novel Was She Pretty? and Abi Titmuss’s appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show taught me: it is those you see similarity in who bother you most, and when you say cruel things about other people you are really saying them about yourself. With that in mind, I am confessing my transgressions as a baby talker.
To clarify: when I say I am a baby talker, I’m referring to a noticeable softening of my voice, a slightly girlish register, maybe, as well the occasional moment of performative cuteness. I wear buckled shoes, am not above plaiting my hair into pigtails and own a lip gloss shaped like a rabbit. I like videos of otters, puppies and anything prefaced with ‘pygmy’ (appreciation of cuteness being a kind of cuteness in and of itself). I asked my boyfriend what I do that he finds cute and he replied, “When you are sleepy or when you are ill”, so: weak? Also, “cute-grumpy”, he added, which makes sense — as a conflict-averse, passive aggressor, I tend to package genuine displeasure in a more amenable guise. Though I cannot deny that there is something strangely liberating in asserting yourself as cute; an unburdening of autonomy — since cute things are unaccountable, they need taking care of.
There’s a scene in Sarah Polley’s 2011 film Take This Waltz in which married Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen sit staring at the news, while dolefully eating their tea. “I wuv woo,” Williams says, turning to Rogen, intoning the words perfunctorily, as much to occupy the silence as anything. “I wuv woo,” Rogen replies indifferently, locked into the pantomime. The film is a strange one, preoccupied with the hermetic, esoteric nature of the domestic space and the private speech patterns that emerge, dominated by in-jokes and surrealist bits. Williams is obviously deeply unhappy, yet unable to identify that unhappiness in an objective sense. Instead, outsourcing it onto a dissatisfaction in her relationship, and abnegating responsibility for it, she falls for her handsome neighbour; bouncing from man to man, seeking somebody else to take care of her.
Babies and baby talk are recurring themes in Take This Waltz: Rogen calls Williams his “bad little baby” and she cheerfully plays the part; Williams speaks of comforting a baby, recognising its unfiltered emotional articulation, expressing a peculiar jealousy that when melancholy strikes, she is expected to self-soothe; she cannot cry and weep and wail. She repeatedly assumes the role of child through moments of such hyper-performativity you could switch out her character with an eight-year- old girl and it would make more narrative sense. The film ends with her leaving Rogen for the neighbour. There follows a montage set to the titular Leonard Cohen song. The new couple have wanton, experimental sex, live artists’ lives, ruptured as they sit staring at the news while eating their tea. “I wuv woo,” she tells him — signalling the inevitable devolution of their relationship. Finally, we watch them brushing their teeth. Williams pulls down her shorts and sits on the toilet to urinate. It is sad, but also sort of sweet and familiar. They look like children acting out the adult duties they have been conditioned to perform.
I sometimes get a sense I’m not really doing anything, just pretending to. I am pretending to wash the dishes, I am pretending to Hoover the carpet. This feeling has become more pronounced since my boyfriend moved into my flat, where I previously lived alone. My boyfriend is perhaps more traditionally domestic than I am. After he moved in, several friends laboured the point: “He has made this house a home”. And it is true. Before he moved in, I didn’t own a bookcase, I just piled books in a corner. I didn’t have nice things, “no frills” a friend commented, before buying me some pretty cutlery. But I felt more myself unencumbered; living alone allows you to indulge your fluctuating whims, to nurture unpleasant habits. I mopped the bathroom floor when it needed it, not weekly, because it was something you are supposed to do. I ate at strange times throughout the day. I became very sensitive to noise.
While I do not think my boyfriend and I are hugely conventional, within weeks of moving in together we assumed conventional roles. I do most of the cooking. He fixes things around the flat. Strangely, assuming these roles in our domestic partnership has never felt tethered to gender; it seems to be down to a mutual regression to childhood. And there is something fundamentally infantile in a heterosexual romantic relationship and domestic partnership; we are performing roles we have been trained in through play since infancy. I had my first “boyfriends” at two, three and four; we had weddings and babies. An assumed girlishness and adopted childish speech patterns can feel like a product of this conditioning; we are pretending to be grown-ups, we are acting out the adult duties expected of us.
Thomas Anthony Harris’ renowned self-help book I’m OK – You’re OK, published in 1969, focused on an emerging populist model of psychoanalytic theory called transactional analysis. It is a mode of therapy that interrogates a subject’s ego using the taxonomic “Child state”, “Parent state” and “Adult state”. Each state becomes a mode for interaction and transactional analysis works towards understanding which mode is best, depending on the interaction you are engaging in. It opens with the Walt Whitman quote, “I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes” — acknowledgement of the multifarious personas human beings contain. Like Russian dolls, we have versions of ourselves ensconced in versions of ourselves; the most potent nub enshrined in a series of duplicates. Transactional analysis allows for these identities to coexist; they are essential to each other, yet are perpetually warring it out.
Distinct from Freud’s id, ego and superego, in transactional analysis your various states are experienced intentionally. The Parent state denotes an appropriation of the messages you received in your formative years, an essential aping of the thoughts and behaviours of your parents or parental figures. The Adult state denotes the critical thinking and data processing of emerging adulthood, the point at which you begin to examine external influences and make decisions for yourself. The Child is, perhaps, the most compelling state: you have a frozen sense of dependence and helplessness; an inability to comprehend or negotiate your surroundings, lacking the language or cognitive faculties to do so. The Child is doomed to feel a permanent sense of not being alright; even those who experienced happy childhoods are overwhelmed by the fundamental helplessness of being a child. I asked a friend, a devotee of transactional analysis, what she thinks about couples engaging in baby talk. She said she found it pretty gross, but was also heartened to see a couple interacting in such an unencumbered way; they are meeting in Child. However, I’m OK – You’re OK notes a problem with two people interacting as Child — children are inherently selfish and dependent. A parent figure or adult is always required.
The most complementary interaction, Harris poses, is one in which one partner performs the role of child and another, adult. In Maggie Nelson’s stunning The Argonauts, a meditation on motherhood and queer family making, she references critical theorist Kaja Silverman’s contention that the figure of the baby can be “very flattering to the mother’s narcissism”; that the baby satisfies the essential vanity of caretaking, it “soothes an egoic wound”. I’d previously wondered whether baby talk or performative cutesiness is a way of asserting yourself as Not Mother, since women are frequently required to assume a nurturing role, shouldering emotional weight in various contexts. It seemed adopting a mode of childishness might offer an opportunity to reject that, but perhaps it is also the opposite and therefore a strange paradox — assuming a role which requires nurturing from which to nurture.
And that is one of the peculiar things about baby talk — it contradicts itself. Google “baby talk” and you will find it is called “infant-directed speech”; a hyper-articulation mimicking formative speech patterns, usually to demonstrate affection for a child. It affects both parent and child. Parent performs the role of baby in order to perform the role of parent. It is both. It is also called “motherese”, rendering it idiosyncratically female. The Wikipedia page on baby talk asserts that “when adults talk to each other using baby talk, it is generally to show affection or to emulate the fondness shown by adults for children” — which makes sense, “baby” being a long-time term of endearment between adult romantic partners, a staple in uninventive pop songs. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz posited a particular set of infantile features (large head, round face, big eyes) which triggered an evolutionary urge to care: the baby schema. A study found the baby schema could not only prompt a judgement of cuteness, but also of attractiveness and beauty. Another peculiar thing about baby talk: is it (sort of) sexy?
Hammed-up baby sexiness is a weird cultural staple; it is Betty Boop’s wide-eyed naiveté, Mae West’s ‘Santa Baby’, Marilyn Monroe softening her Rs in ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’. Latterly, it is the breathy uptalk-meets-vocal fry of the Kardashians. Grantland called it “speaking like a 12 year-old trying to be a sex object”. The Atlantic denoted it “a cultural fetish for adult sexuality wrapped in adolescent packages”. Youth and adolescence being grotesquely sexualised is nothing new; the earlier examples I noted date back to the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, though it does seem very prevalent of late. Actress and writer Lake Bell named it the Sexy Baby Vocal Virus: “It is festering through our nation [Bell is American],” she believes. “And it will be our demise.” 30 Rock neatly sent up the sexy baby in the episode TGS Hates Women, in which writer Tina Fey is forced to hire a woman to massage some negative press for a slew of sexist skits. She hires the roundly adorable Cristin Milioti, who embodies a caricature of hyper-sexualised-meets-infantilised femininity. “The whole sexy baby thing isn’t an act,” Milioti protests. “I’m just a very sexy baby.”
The thing is, Tina Fey herself — or rather, her character Liz Lemon — deals in a very particular mode of performative cuteness. While she compulsively renders herself unattractive, Fey is also her own version of a very sexy baby. Through cartoonish glasses and girlish eccentricities, she asserts herself less as capable woman and more as precocious child, which is reminiscent of the early days of Twitter, where Grace Dent and Caitlin Moran would pepper political discourse with “omg” and “SCREAM!”. The subtext: I am just playing at this, so please don’t hold me accountable.
The role of an adult woman, with appetites and convictions, can be one of the most terrifying (and vulnerable) to assume; one foot in, one foot out seems a canny self-preservation measure. But while I recognise the compulsion (and the rewards), I wonder whether it is responsible? Returning once from a trip to London, I wanted to get the same bus as my friend, but we had booked different departure times. I showed my ticket to the conductor; hammed up girlish idiocy with what am I like, etc, etc. I knew it would work and it did. “We can get the same bus home!” I informed my pal. “You,” she replied, “give us all a bad name.”
I have capitalised on the same phoney naivety to get a discount on expensive cymbals, to get free hash browns when hungover; these are the shitty spoils of the patriarchy. But must we lick the crumbs from the table? In Catherine Hakim’s largely problematic book Honey Money she coins the phrase “erotic capital”. Like financial capital or social capital, attractiveness she posits, is an asset to be, well, capitalised on. She legitimises women investing in their appearance, developing their charms and adhering to a certain standard of beauty as a means of furthering themselves via finding a partner or leveraging their attractiveness as a means of getting a job. She throws around the (admittedly hilarious) phrase “the male sex deficit”, an unsubstantiated, unqualified claim to “men’s greater sexual desire, which leaves them frustrated from a young age”. The book is lousy with similar moments of crass essentialising — men are receptive to this, women prefer that — ad infinitum. If an expectation of coy amenability or a particular beauty standard is demanded from us, she suggests, then why not weaponise it? And I recognise how it can offer a limited liberation; exploiting what already exists. And that when denied adulthood, socialised as pliant children to be subordinate and submissive, it becomes exhausting to constantly rally against that, to challenge that assumption as an individual. But mostly, I am not doing it for gain. I am not deliberately posturing as pliant. I wonder whether the softer register I fall into at home or when spending time with my boyfriend is simply a dropping of my defences: I am not trying to prove anything; like an animal bowing to the ground, I am posing no threat.
A couple of months before writing this essay, I was telling a male friend I had noticed a tendency to soften my voice in a romantic context. “That’s hard to imagine,” he replied. “Because you are already incredibly softly spoken.” Our image of ourselves is rarely accurate, but this surprised me because I have always thought of myself as having an especially aggressive, galling register, harsh and overly masculine, grating to the ear. “Softly spoken” would be bottom of the list of possible descriptors I can imagine being attributed to me. It made me sad, sort of; my compulsion to make myself smaller, more quietly heard.
A few months before that, I was telling another friend I had acute anxiety about work.
“That’s true,” she said. “You do have a cute anxiety.” And I really thought that was funny.
Photograph by Creative Commons