It’s a tale as old as time: Men infantilize women, portraying them as children who just need Daddy to take care of them. It’s gross, but hey, I didn’t create the dynamic. Blame the patriarchy! Or, go ahead and subvert it by using a sexy baby voice to go against stereotypical gendered expectations and come into your own. Michelle Williams did it in I Feel Pretty earlier this year and now it’s Keira Knightley’s turn in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Both films are forgettable, but those bonkers supporting turns and how Williams’s and Knightley’s respective characters use the sexy baby voice for their own ends are worth thinking about.
[SPOILERS FOR BOTH FILMS AHEAD, FYI.]
First, some background on the sexy baby voice: It’s that fairly uncomfortable mixture of husky yet childlike, high-pitched yet sensual, that Victoria Jackson (ugh, her politics) used on Saturday Night Live and that 30 Rock devoted an entire episode to with “TGS Hates Women,” in which Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney is infuriated when Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon hires a female writer who uses that voice to write for their show.
The writer, Abby Flynn (played by Cristin Milioti) has the voice of a “sexy baby hooker,” which infuriates Lemon and Jenna for different reasons: the former because she thinks Abby is being stereotypical and sexist, and the latter because hey, Jenna invented sexy baby talk and Abby can’t steal her moves, dammit!
From the episode:
Jenna: “What is that?!”
Liz: “That is Abby Flynn. She’s a guest writer.”
Jenna: “She’s being hot and doing baby talk? I invented that! Summer of ‘98, I took it to a whole new level: ‘Uhhh goo gaa!’ There can’t be two of us, Liz. She must be destroyed.”
Liz: “No, Jenna, that is exactly the problem. Men infantilize women and women tear each other down.”
Jenna: “Exactly. I’ll start by spreading a destructing rumor about her, like the famous one I made up about Jamie Lee Curtis: that she has two butts.”
Liz: “Look, you and I actually want the same thing but we’re not going to destroy Abby. We’re going to fix her.”
Jenna: “Yes. Like you fix a dog. We’ll sterilize her.”
Liz: “No! I’m going to show Abby that she doesn’t need to act like this.”
But this is 30 Rock, so nothing ends up going according to plan: Instead, Liz learns that Abby is using the fake voice — and a fake name — to hide from an abusive relationship. Abby took other people’s expectations and flipped their agenda against them, and it was Liz, with all her good intentions of “fixing” Abby, who ended up misjudging the woman.
That sort of baby voice-as-weapon formula is what’s recreated in I Feel Pretty and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. In I Feel Pretty, Michelle Williams is Avery LeClaire, the leader of a high-end cosmetics company who is trying to figure out the details of a diffusion line that will be sold at Target. She is taking over the company from her grandmother, Lilly LeClaire (Lauren Hutton, serving face), and she’s terrified of letting her grandmother down, especially because she is haunted by her sexy baby voice, which for Avery seems genuine, not an affectation.
The baby voice is a source of self-loathing — “I’m just a stupid idiot, dumb bitch,” she says to Amy Schumer’s Renee, and in the same conversation follows that up with “I sound like a freaking moron”; later on, she says of herself, “Stupid bitch, you’re such a failure” — but also a sort of protection against any criticism. If you wanted to, you could see Avery as a little bit nefarious in I Feel Pretty: She has an array of privileged accomplishments (“I’ve got a JD/MBA from Wharton; I clerked for a Supreme Court Justice”) and yet she clings onto Schumer’s Renee, leaning on her over and over again for her (allegedly) relatable attitude and “real girl” qualities. She pushes Renee into a business presentation she may not be ready for, and when she stops showing up at her job, Avery’s concern isn’t really regarding Renee’s health, but how her absence will affect the launch of the diffusion line: “Renee, I did the pitch. I did it just like you said, but coming from me, it just didn’t sound right.”
Avery can both hide behind and use the sexy baby voice as an excuse. It is simultaneously a weakness and a weapon, and that voice coming out of a woman who looks that put together allows Avery to both be unexpectedly hilarious (how she pronounces “super” and “wow” is up there with how Maya Rudolph says “bubble bath” on Big Mouth) and narcissistically self-serving at the same time. (Avery ends up getting control of the company by the end of the film, because of course she does.)
That combination of amusing/frightening is how Keira Knightley uses the sexy baby voice as Sugar Plum in Disney’s film “suggested by” the Nutcracker story and ballet, too. Again, like Avery, Sugar Plum is a bit of a misunderstood, underestimated character here, and she ratchets up her coquettish qualities — and that voice — to the limit. At first, she is Clara’s (Mackenzie Foy) primary guide in the Four Realms, explaining that Clara’s mother used to rule their kingdom, helping her obtain new outfits, and fulfilling the stereotypical matriarchal role you would assume for a pretty, glittery, figure of power. When Sugar Plum says to Clara, “You’re every inch your mother’s daughter,” it’s supposed to be a sweet, reassuring moment.
But then! All that treacle and all those pastels and all that niceness ends up being a ploy in Sugar Plum’s quest for power. Now, I must admit that gigantic chunks of this movie felt like they were missing — it’s not clear why Sugar Plum is so angry (she has a line of dialogue, “No one will ever hurt me again,” that implies some portion of backstory that was cut from the film), but how quickly she goes into “militarization as protection” is fairly frightening! And this is where the “sexy” part of the “sexy baby voice” comes in: Sugar Plum’s fetishization of soldiers and her linking of military might to fascist power. She coos, “Boys, attention!” and has this sensual sigh when she says “A proper army, to control!” and then she literally has the line “Boys in uniform send a quiver right through me.” As Sugar Plum becomes increasingly deranged, she puts on a darker shade of lipstick, her cotton candy hair goes unkempt, and her rejection of Clara is absolute: “You order me? Well, well, well. I don’t want to play nice.” (Her punishment? Clara uses her mother’s magical laser ray — not kidding — to turn Sugar Plum back into a lifeless doll, which was honestly a bummer given that the fairy is the most interesting character in this whole damn movie.)
Wielded by certain women, the sexy baby voice is a ploy and a protective measure, a way of performing a specifically accepted kind of femininity while hiding nefarious intentions underneath (think of Adora and her perfect Southern manners, and how she treated her teenage daughter Amma as a child, in Sharp Objects). First this year on the big screen was Michelle Williams; next was Keira Knightley; three makes a trend. Who is going to be next? Honestly, whatever evil plan they unveil, I’m probably down with it.
Let’s end this on Krakowski, always a delight.
Image sources (in order of posting): Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures