Girls fight bias in male-dominated high school debate field.
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Girl Talk is an inspiring documentary highlighting the triumphs and travails of female high school debaters. In a White, male-dominated field, female debaters and debaters of color are forced to contend with and overcome unconscious bias among judges. The filmmakers follow students in an unusual debate program at a Boston high school, in which older, more experienced debaters coach the newer members of the team. Language includes "hell," "piss," and "bitch." Note that several other movies share the same title.
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What's the Story?
GIRL TALK follows high school debate students in the unusual program run by Boston's Newton South High School. There the older, more experienced varsity debaters coach the younger novice members. The method has built long-running team spirit and instilled in all the members a responsibility toward one another to bring the team's supportive culture forward as older members graduate and leave the team in the hands of younger students. Against that backdrop, the film focuses on the bias female debaters face as they compete in a traditionally male-dominated field. One debater comments that she has been taught to be obedient and listen, to be respectful and never say "I disagree." She has learned much from an activity that requires logical disagreement, formulating arguments, and questioning everything, on the spot and under pressure, in front of judges. Although 40% of high school debaters are female, 0% of the females are ranked nationally. As one male debater points out, this is not because female debaters aren't as good. The implication is that judges' intrinsic bias plays a huge role. Judges seem to look down on higher voices and shorter stature. Judges also comment on the length of girls' skirts, their shoes, and their makeup. Adept female debaters are sometimes deemed too aggressive by judges, who, it's implied, would not call out boys for the same problem. The Newton debaters coach girls on the team to seem assertive without seeming aggressive because debates are often judged based on "perceived dominance" rather than actual dominance.
Is It Any Good?
Girl Talk does a great job of targeting the kind of prejudice girls and people of color face in debate, as well as in real life. Well-trained female debaters know going in that they are handicapped by the bias judges unknowingly bring to the arena, and much time is spent discussing strategies to combat the unspoken hurdles everyone who isn't a White male faces in debate competitions. The film showcases the way that the students involved become good and informed citizens as they discuss both sides of many polarizing social and political issues, including climate change, subjects that might not otherwise interest high school students.
Images of accomplished female former high school debaters accompany the final credits: Oprah Winfrey, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Toni Morrison, Condoleeza Rice, Stacey Abrams, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Nancy Pelosi. The film doesn't weigh in on whether those who join debate teams already have skills, intelligence, and personality traits that will propel them to great accomplishment or if the debating skills they learned got them there, but it's an interesting question. This is the last film of director Lucia Small, who died in 2022.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the way that the students are aware of their privilege. One notes she has a supportive family that can afford to send her on debating trips and pay for competition fees. How do you think privilege affects participation in school activities?
The girls on the team note that although around 40% of high school debaters are girls, boys dominate at the national level. Do you agree that bias against girls plays a role? How do you think judges can be trained to stop disfavoring higher voices, shorter stature, hair, and makeup?
What advantages are there to learning how to do research, speak assertively, and stay calm under pressure? How might that help in life?
- On DVD or streaming: March 17, 2023
- Director: Lucia Small
- Studio: PBS
- Genre: Documentary
- Character Strengths: Communication, Perseverance
- Run time: 92 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- Award: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: March 1, 2023
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Families should see this m-a-r-v-e-l-o-u-s film.
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