Sharks in the Water

by Rhyen Hunt

My heart is beating at a normal pace as I begin reading my case in my first Public Forum round. A mere minute into my constructive speech, my coach stops me and has my male partner and I switch speaking positions. I take a seat and my partner stands up to read case and now I have the task of being the second speaker.  The round proceeds, as most first rounds, pretty terribly. At the time, I felt unsure, intimidated, and vulnerable. It was like being dropped into a shark tank.

Our team last year was male dominated with a debate coach who had never done debate. For me, a lot of the learning was from watching the second speakers in rounds. In drills, in practice, whenever we would split up by speaking position, I constantly felt small and very isolated as though if I spoke about an idea or thought I had, it would be ridiculed. I felt that I could only sit and observe as the men talked about everything.

A trend I began to notice that in most boy/girl teams, the men were always the second speakers. While at first, I didn’t think much of it, my first tournament was a different story. In most rounds, people would be surprised and taken off guard when my partner would get up and read our case. Our opponents, as well as the judges, would talk to my partner about me and make comments, the worst was being called “bitchy” in round.  I started to wonder why it is so strange for the girls to be second speakers and what the difference was between being assertive and aggressive.

Society for years has painted females in the light of being compliant with whatever a man says. Reading what they are given and not thinking for themselves is a concept that has been ingrained in culture for many decades and while it has begun to change that doesn’t mean we are there yet. What I have particularly noticed is that this ideology seems to be an underlying theme when it comes to speaking positions in debate. It seems society perceives it to be a strange concept that women can make actual arguments for 4 mins on the fly with very little prep.

Judges would look at me when I was giving my rebuttal like I was crazy and talking about nonsense when in fact, I was speaking as I had seen the male members on my team speak in their rebuttals. It’s actually impossible to talk like a guy when you are debating. We cannot imitate the style of speaking because of the higher range of our voices. With my male partner, I was comparatively a worse speaker because my voice was higher pitched. I found it hard to get my judges to take me seriously because I struggled to find a middle ground. I found myself trying to speak low a lot of the time instead of my actual voice. If I was too loud, I would be called aggressive. If I was too quiet, the judges would say they couldn’t even notice me. I became frustrated that I could not be a “good 2nd” and I felt extremely alone as I didn’t have anyone to look up too.

As I switched partnerships to a girl/girl team half-way through the season, I finally found a dynamic that worked for me and my partner to be successful at tournaments. While this unfortunately did not stop the sexist remarks, it certainly helped minimize them. By finding a dynamic that is similar to good cop/bad cop, I was able to find a balance during round. Finding a balance allowed me to be less frantic and more confident in round and my judges could see it too.  I think it is always possible to find the right dynamic and your personal way of performing in round, however, it definitely helps to have a person to look up to that has gone through something similar as you.

PSA: Women as second speakers are capable, passionate, and strong regardless of the culture of debate.

I am grateful for this platform because hearing womxn share their stories about debate has really helped me to feel less alone and I’m sure it has for many other wonderful debate girls. As an encouragement to those girl second speakers, you are an essential role on the team. You are not out of place. You are capable of giving great rebuttals and final focuses. You can be passionate in cross and throughout the round. You are strong. Be confident in yourself because you got this. My first season of debate was like being dropped in the shark tank. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was a shark too.

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