Filmmaker Lucia Small’s Girl Talk explores the microcosm of gender bias within high school debate competitions, following five girl debaters through their high school years.
Perhaps it should come as little surprise that many prominent female public figures—Sonia Sotomayor, Kamala Harris, Oprah Winfrey, the list goes on—were all high school debaters. In that arena, each of them overcame the odds stacked against them—girls are less likely to participate than boys, less likely to continue year-after-year, and even less likely to win.
Filmmaker Lucia Small’s latest film Girl Talk explores the microcosm of gender bias within high school debate competitions by following five girl debaters through their high school years on their team at Newton South in Massachusetts. The film, which took Small eight years to complete, depicts how the girls shift from mentees to mentors—one of them even becoming the first girl in nine years to win the nationals.
The biases that exist in high school debate competitions are well-known, and yet awareness has not eradicated discrimination. Girls who compete adapt accordingly. At one moment in Girl Talk, a girl asks, “So you want to be more aggressive with guys?” and another responds, “No. It’s not about being more aggressive; it’s about being more assertive and curbing their aggression.” Before these girls have even embarked on their careers, they must embody a seemingly impossible ideal.
Girl Talk is Small’s fourth film, and it marks somewhat of a shift from her first-person documentaries such as My Father, The Genius (2002) and two films co-directed with Ed Pincus, The Axe in the Attic (2007) and One Cut, One Life (2014). Girl Talk won the Audience Choice Award at its premiere at Independent Film Festival of Boston in April, and it continues to screen at festivals, organizations and schools. Small hopes the film will inspire discussions about gender bias in the debate world—and beyond.
In this interview, Small talks about her inspiration for the film and how it speaks to larger issues of how girls and women articulate themselves in arenas from politics to filmmaking.
Michele Meek: Tell me a bit about why this film was so important for you to make.
Lucia Small: It has been my struggle, my whole life, trying to find a voice that I felt comfortable with—that wasn’t alienating, but at the same time, wasn’t apologetic. I’m still navigating that. But Girl Talk was a way for me to look at—when do girls, young women speak up or begin to shut down? That’s usually in middle school when hormones start hitting. But it’s societally with us from day one.
I ran into an old friend in Central Park, who I used to play in the sandbox with. He told me a story, which I had completely forgotten—one time when we were 5 or 6 in LA, he ran home, crying to his mother and asked, “Mom, mom, what’s a male chauvinist pig?” So, from the beginning, I guess I felt I had to stand up for myself. I had a father who both encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be, be the artist that I could be, but who also had some different ideas about females. Then I experienced the ’70s and the women’s movement, and my mom was a divorcee, a single, working mom raising three young girls, and the Supreme Court just passed Roe v. Wade. These were exciting times for women.
In some ways, I’ve been waiting my whole life to make this film. I felt as much as things are changing, the situation is still very similar. And when the election of Hillary was looming, I thought, this can go a couple of different ways. It might be this historical moment where we see a female president for the first time, or there might be a lot of backlash against female empowerment.
It has been my struggle, my whole life, trying to find a voice that I felt comfortable with—that wasn’t alienating, but at the same time, wasn’t apologetic. I’m still navigating that. But Girl Talk was a way for me to look at—when do girls, young women speak up or begin to shut down?Lucia Small
Meek: Why did you feel the topic of girls in high school debate was the right angle for this topic?
Small: I knew nothing about debate, absolutely nothing, but what I did know was that boys and girls competed with each other and against each other, which is unusual for a sport. And I always call debate “the sports of the mind” because the kids are as dedicated as students who compete in athletic sports. The private schools often have paid debate coaches. And yes, there’s also a lot of elitism in debate. But, still, the world of debate provided a unique environment in which to compare and contrast different preconceptions about confidence, perceptual dominance, and the like between girls and boys.
I’ve always done work that’s close to my reality. Even with The Axe in the Attic I wanted to acknowledge my privilege and my point of view. I’ve been fighting for that my whole life in terms of filmmaking. I have always wanted to do something that was somewhat familiar to me where I could bring a different perspective. So a public school that was well-funded with parents who were active in their children’s lives, that was a reality of my peers growing up in Los Angeles. So it all worked together. And when the debate coach Josh Cohen said, “Come film us at Newton South High School,” I jumped. In documentary, access is always key.
Meek: So obviously you didn’t know how well their team would do when you started…
Small: We had heard that they were a good team, but we didn’t know how unique their team was. We didn’t know that they taught each other—that’s very unusual. We didn’t know that they were one of the teams that had the most girls on it. And they were a large team because we discovered that the winning teams usually highlight two to three teams, and they go to all these tournaments and become proficient and get coaches that can help do the research and everybody else drops out. I mean, there is an underbelly of people who struggle to find their voice in that very competitive atmosphere of debate.
But we became interested in finding a powerful team with powerful girls’ voices. And what we discovered is that, yes, it’s a powerful team with powerful girls, but they still struggled with their confidence so much more in relationship to the boys. There was just an interesting exuding of confidence that the boys had that the girls—even very smart, good debaters—didn’t have, and didn’t translate on camera.
The world of debate provided a unique environment in which to compare and contrast different preconceptions about confidence, perceptual dominance, and the like between girls and boys.Lucia Small
Meek: There’s a point in the film where one of the coaches, I think, says that if they were to get rid of gender bias in judging, “then the girls will have been trained to perform well in a world that does not exist.”
Small: The conceit of the film was: As an audience member, how do you judge? I wanted, as with all my films, for the audience to question their biases, their judgment that they bring into the viewing experience. And I had to catch myself too. On the cutting room floor, Bella, one of the protagonists, talks about how she became a judge and how she suddenly saw her own bias.
So it’s interesting what we think of as formal, successful public speaking. I mean, personally, right now, as I am doing this interview, I’m nervous about whether I will I come off confident and articulate enough? Will I be too cocky, too apologetic? It’s always with me, the second guessing.
Meek: Not with me though!
Small: No, not with you. I feel trust and I feel comfortable because we know each other, but in an interview and even up on stage, I’m always wondering.
During Q&As with my former collaborator Ed Pincus, I was this long blonde haired much younger woman who a lot of people would make assumptions about. Initially, the audience would often direct their questions to Ed. So, I had to start wearing library glasses, with my hair pulled up in a bun, and it was remarkable how after that, I was much more included, although not entirely. Consistently, I heard these things directed to him, like, oh, so you’re sleeping with her. He thought it all very amusing; I thought it outrageous. He and I had a lot of heated discussions about his white male privilege, and how it played out in our creative partnership. Some people watch One Cut, One Life and still believe how could we could NOT be sleeping with each other. People make a lot of wrong assumptions. So, historically, I have tackled a lot of issues in terms of wondering whether people take me and my work seriously.
Historically, I have tackled a lot of issues in terms of wondering whether people take me and my work seriously.
Meek: I think this broader issue comes through in the film—how women must carefully walk this line between being taken seriously, but not coming across as off-putting. Were you conscious about connecting these larger issues to the film?
Small: From day one, even before the film, I saw it as connected. I knew some politicians performed in debates—in fact, part of why the debate space seemed like the right place to go is because of Elizabeth Warren. I read her book, and she talks extensively about debate. And Sonia Sotomayor talks about debate and how it empowered her. I just remember the debate team as being full of really smart kids who went off to Harvard. And I liked the kids, but I wasn’t friends with them. I was an athlete. But, I think I even heard a quote from Obama about debate being important.
I felt a connection was there instantly, and then against the backdrop of the Hillary Clinton election, the story of these girls became that much more relevant when she lost. But it was always an important thread that debate represented the microcosm of the national stage.
Meek: Girl Talk contains hopeful moments as well as some moments that made me feel like maybe nothing will ever change—like the point when a coach says that he thinks the judges would take offense if you told them that they were biased.
Small: That was Josh, and he’s tapped into the Massachusetts Speech and Debate League. There is a fine line between people being able to own their own bias or not. Some people are open to taking criticism and feedback while a lot of other people aren’t. We often merely do lip service in identifying the systemic problems. But, how do we really train judges and debaters to actually shift their preconceptions and bias mindset?
I strongly believe that the power of film is in the asking of the questions rather than providing the answers. Viewers can come to their own conclusions and/or hopefully have more meaningful discussions about these ideas. The Girl Talk team is dedicated to touching audiences beyond the screen, and sparking important discussions about gender bias, implicit bias, classism, racism and the importance of fact-based research and dialogue in terms of maintaining a democracy.
What I really hope to do with this film is to inspire a generation of young people, both girls and boys, to look at this model of collaboration and how, even though you don’t want [bias] to exist, it does. So, what can we actively do about this? Even though you think you’re woke, you have to keep questioning your “wokeness.” Everything is up for grabs and has to be re-evaluated. And with Roe v. Wade significantly threatened, discussion around women’s rights has become more urgent and pressing.
I am hoping that the film—in our outreach and building a movement—we will see a real impact. I mean, the big dream is to finally pass the ERA.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. For more information visit https://girltalkfilm.com/.