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Girls Be Heard: High School Debate Teams Aren’t the All-male Bastions They Used To Be

But sexist assumptions still hobble even the best-prepared female participants.

Eleanor J. Bader Mar 27, 2023

When most of us think about competitive sports, basketball and football probably come to mind. 

Girl Talk, an 87-minute documentary directed by the late Lucia Small, aims to change this. High-school debate, the film reports, is every bit as rigorous, strategic and exhausting as the most intense physical activities, and like other team sports, it forces competitors to develop a host of skills, from grace under pressure to quick thinking and the ability to collaborate.

And although just 1,247 of the country’s 23,519 high schools currently sponsor debate teams, girls increasingly participate when given the chance. According to the film, 40% of the country’s debaters are female. Not surprisingly, they are demanding inclusion in this once solidly-male bastion and are pushing against overt sexism, misogyny, and a slew of outdated ideas about “authoritative voice” and what the film calls “perceptual dominance.” 

Girl Talk confronts these notions by zeroing in on five girls who were part of the Newton South (public) High School Debate Team between 2015 and 2019. Although it’s an odd choice of venue — neither they, their school, nor the tony Newton, Massachusetts, community in which it is located are typical — it nonetheless provides an incisive glimpse into a rarified world.  

First, let’s look at Newton as an anomaly: According to Census figures, the town has 87,453 residents, 74% of whom are white. The rest are a mix of Asian (15%); Black (2.9%); Latino/a/x  (4.1%) or mixed race (5.8%). It is also economically privileged. The 2021 Census puts median household income at $164,607. Furthermore, 80% of residents are college graduates and just 4.2% live at or below federal poverty levels ($14,580 for a single person; $30,000 for a household of four). Most residents own their homes, with median property values hovering just below $1 million, at $992,800.

The judges critique girls for being “overly aggressive” toward their opponents far more often than they criticize boys for the same infraction. 

These demographics help explain the popularity of debate in Newton — and the paucity of teams at other public schools — since participation does not come cheap. Team members report that each person is responsible for their own travel, hotel rooms and food when they attend out-of-town competitions; expenses can run between several hundred and  $1,000 per person per contest. 

For their part, the Newton South students know they’re lucky. None of the girls in the film have jobs or responsibilities beyond attending school. At the same time, they are some of the most driven kids you’ll ever see — tough, savvy and eager to prove their intellectual worth to any and all.

There’s Hannah, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, who dreams of attending Harvard. Gil, whose family is Israeli, says that she spends four hours a day preparing for debate on top of her homework. Bella, who speaks Russian at home, is the team’s co-captain. She stresses the stamina needed to compete, explaining that approximately 30% of girls who join the team drop out because of the relentless pressure. Team member Gaby tells the filmmakers that while she was raised to be obedient and deferential, debate has helped her become more assertive about her opinions and desires. Lastly, there’s Anika, pushed to debate by her India-born parents. She tells filmmaker Small that she initially resisted joining the team only to discover the thrill of the spotlight.

Throughout the documentary, viewers witness the girls’ camaraderie, something that might be attributed to the blatant gender discrimination that each has experienced. All five have had judges comment on their clothing, tell them to wear more make-up or urge them to lower their voices to sound more commanding. Gil, for example, had a judge tell her that her voice was “too feminine” for debate and suggest that she drop out. Yes, really.

What’s more, the film stresses that the judges, most of whom were once debate team members themselves, critique girls for being “overly aggressive” toward their opponents far more often than they criticize boys for the same infraction. 

“Judges vote for whomever they think looks like a winner,” Anika says. Not surprisingly, this means girls are awarded far fewer trophies (about 10% of the total) than their male equivalents. 

It’s enraging.

Yet they stay. The girls showcased in the film makes clear that despite their fury over sexist assumptions and protocols, they love debate and see the team as a launchpad for both personal and professional success. After all, they crow, many women leaders were once high school debaters: Shirley Chisholm, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Toni Morrison, Celeste Ng, Sonia Sotomayor, Elizabeth Warren and Oprah Winfrey among them.   

Girl Talk
87 minutes
Directed by Lucia Small
Available on worldchannel/org/episode/local-usa-girl-talk-special/ through early June and streaming on Amazon Prime and PBS Documentary Channel

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