“Girl Talk,” Reviewed: Exploring Gender Bias in High School Debate and Politics


Naomi Crane, Columnist

UC Berkeley School of Law recently screened a film, Girl Talk, bringing to the forefront of public attention the nature of gender biases in High School Debate. Speech and Debate is a culmination of public speaking, research, and argument, with acting here and there. However, unlike conventional athletic sports, speech and debate competitions are co-ed and shared among debaters, regardless of gender identification. The film Girl Talk, directed by Lucia Small, documents the experiences of five young female debaters and gives the debate community invaluable insight into how social dynamics create complications for females finding their voices in the male-dominated world of American politics.

“When do girls, young women, speak up or begin to shut down?”

This inquiry is extensively explored throughout the documentary on a case-by-case basis. Some of the girls spoke of their experiences with male counterparts in competition, while others turned to hurtful remarks directed at them by the judges themselves—male and female alike. What Small shows is that the presence of gender inequality in judicial scoring of high school debate is present now more than ever. 

One of the most pressing issues that the film addresses is the recurring idea of presentational scoring beyond the content of any given debate argument. Some questions that are often considered may concern a debater’s garments, such as skirts, heels, makeup, and more; or tone, which is often deemed “too feminine.” All of these aspects of a single argument can lend their way to one’s success, but can also be remarkably degrading, especially for the female community. 

Girl Talk showcases debate as a microcosm of womanistic struggles. How can women paint themselves as authentic, kind, and confident, without being too alienating or apologetic? How can women do all of this, and work with their male counterparts on an equal footing? And how, perhaps on a national level, do all of these components shape modern politics and female representation in government?

The film does a wonderful job of alluding to these smaller-scale struggles that our nation’s female politicians confront from day to day. During the after-film conference, we were able to discuss the logistics of judicial training in debate. However, the practicality of enforced training has proven difficult to carry through as existing biases are difficult to “train away,” as Small stated. Judges, regardless of training, often hold subjective opinions towards or against debaters in any given competition, and this is just part of human nature. That being said, we must begin to consider how scoring could be made objective in content, without any external attempts to involve gender and  stereotypes. 

In order to change these power dynamics in Speech & Debate, both male and female participants must come together and learn the importance of recognizing the role of subjectivity. After all, it would be against any progressive intuition to divide the sport based on gender. Women should not be trained to alter their appearance and personality in order to succeed in something as indispensable as finding their voices—especially with current controversy regarding autonomy in medicine and women’s health across state lines. 

Small turns to Newton South High School, one of 40 Massachusetts schools nurturing the next generation of leaders in government, law, and public speaking. In her holistic efforts, she was able to showcase how preconceptions about confidence and perceptual dominance create a degrading environment for women in an intersectional, competitive arena like debate. Today, we see women such as Sonia Sotomayer, Elizabeth Warren, and Hillary Clinton, all women who began their political platforms in the cutthroat rigors of high school debate. They were able to overcome staggering odds thrown against them, but this is not something many women can do. 

I think it’s important to recognize that these patterns of unequal, objective scoring breach gender biases, and, more often than not, overlap with ethnicity and economic status. The film emphasizes this in one heartbreaking scene, where two young students, one male and one female, both people of color, turn to one another, “the judges would never vote for us” they remark in no uncertain, yet affronted terms. This universal struggle goes beyond speech and debate, and lends itself to systemic inequity in American political representation. Similar to learned helplessness, as many of these students experience subjective scoring, or biases, after pouring heart and soul into months of writing at the cutting edge of high school research.  

Small’s overarching message is wrapped up in one confiding moment, when one of the girls notes how the judges lend their votes to those who “look like winners.” But oftentimes, “looking like a winner isn’t very feminne.” This conflicting statement sets the stage for extensive questioning, even rethinking how to approach scoring among debaters from all walks of life. In other words, maintaining inclusivity. The gender biases that young women must reckon with and navigate were not uncommon, and potentially portray the difficulties of political justice.

Debate is full of excitement and misery, they’d say. “People don’t eat for three days,” one girl mentioned in a voice-over, “we never have time to sleep.” There was this distinct “lack of focus” on what the girls had to say. They’d receive comments ranging from “cute shoes” to countless critiques on tone and voice, withstanding even direct comparisons to men during competition. But what surprised the audience most was their response—their lasting love of the sport, despite the hurtful comments they’d so often front.

Small’s open, yet nuanced perspective reveals a need for greater transparency in politics. And her message is not confined to women, addressing the universal difficulty that minorities and marginalized communities face in finding their voices.