What do Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Ayanna Pressley have in common? They each were on their high school debate teams. Over the past few years something insidious has snuck into politics, and it has everything to do with the skills these women worked so hard to develop as teenagers.
Girl Talk is a tale of girls finding their voices, and raises crucial questions about gender (race and class) bias in America today. Like national politics, high school debate is male dominated — more males than females debate, reach finals, and win. Shot over four years, the film follows the nationally ranked Newton South High School Public Forum Debate team as they learn to become better debaters and confront bias head on. In this intensely competitive, demanding extracurricular activity, the novices, as well as the rest of the team, develop and refine their speaking and research skills, build their confidence, and debate in regional and national tournaments, while struggling with how to present themselves in a world dominated by boys. Most of the debaters are first generation Americans, with native languages like Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu or Ukrainian, who will likely become the country's next leaders — doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and politicians.
In a charged political climate when leaders are trained to alter appearance and personality to succeed, it is crucial that we question expectations and teach the importance of respectfully speaking up. Debate offers a model for understanding complexities of political issues and the value of fact based research. Debate is also a cautionary tale — that winning is not always based on the logic of an argument. As these high school girl debaters remain determined to win despite the odds, they can inspire future leaders, both boys and girls, that equal rights and freedom of expression are worth fighting for, both within debate and beyond.