By Anna Brent-Levenstein
[Disclaimer: I am a white, straight, cisgender female debater. I am nowhere close to the most marginalized person in this community and I recommend that you read the amazing articles written from perspectives different than mine on the BR website. That said, I wrote this in an
English class and figured if it could help someone, I might as well share it.]
Male validation is the elevator to success in Public Forum debate. It’s an elevator that I would come to realize, has no buttons.
I didn’t know this when I started.
An affinity for current events, advocacy and let’s be honest, a love of arguing with people, brought me to the first information session for speech and debate on a Wednesday afternoon. I stood in front of three male members of the team, all in the grade above me, and was asked to debate my friend on whether bears or snakes were more dangerous. Eventually, I’d get used to catering my voice to the male ear, but that day their eyes felt like daggers, their pens scribbling notes on legal pads.
I guess I passed the bar because three weeks later, I found myself in an overcrowded high school cafeteria, fidgeting with my navy pantsuit, scribbling on pages of pre-written responses I had printed out the night before. My partner and I promised each other we would never be like the other girls dressed in skirt suits and dresses, who were shy and asked for permission to speak. We would make fun of the girls whose acrylics you could hear tapping as they typed and the ones we would run into in the bathrooms, reapplying their lipstick and talking about the cute boys they debated the round before. While I wasn’t self-aware enough to realize it at a time, my attitude was a symptom of internalized misogyny. I was convinced that I was better than other female debaters just because I ran from my own femininity. I was convinced I could beat these boys at their own game.
As I got better, high school cafeterias turned into Ivy League campuses, hallways bathrooms turned into hotel lobbies, and my plan to shove down my femininity started to crack. See, as many of you know, success in debate is far from a meritocracy. Unfortunately, it has a lot less to do with how good you are and much more to do with your financial status, resources and connections. Elite prep groups full of mostly White and Asian males dominate the community. Hordes of them ferociously prep teams out for out rounds in student centers, share private coaching, and constantly look to recruit young male debaters and provide them with social connections and mentorship. Turns out, they don’t love women who march around in pantsuits and aggressively tell them they are wrong in debate rounds. I know, shocking. Not only did we start losing to these teams, but the feedback from judges started rolling in: “overly aggressive,” “try and control your tone,” and my personal favorite: “Young lady, you are walking a very thin line between passionate and passive-aggressive.” It was painful. Male debaters respected other male debaters who acted as we did. They would yell at each other during rounds and then “dab each other up” afterward. Women who acted like that, on the other hand, were exiled.
In my junior year, I hung up my pantsuit, opting instead for black and plaid dresses, thin black heels, and a swipe of mascara. I understand that this is the moment where I am supposed to say that I felt restricted by society and wished I had on my pantsuit instead, but I loved my dresses. I felt confident and powerful watching my reflections in the glass buildings. Uncoincidentally, this is when strange advice started pouring in from older female debaters. One told me I would just need to hook up with one of the boys in an elite prep group and then I would be “in.” Another told me I should just show some leg and flirt during rounds so that even if I lost, I could at least get prep afterward. I switched out my stern face and cold hellos with smiles and side-eyes. I diluted my aggression and passion and received compliments on my “calm, composed nature.” I seemed like a “nice young lady,” as one judge put it.
Turns out, a lot of debate boys are more than happy to stare at you in dresses and flirt in hotel lobbies, but they are not so happy when you beat them two hours later. After my partner and I beat two established male debaters with reputations for being sexist, I overheard one of them talking about me outside the room. “She must’ve given that judge head before the round, we crushed those bitches.” We lost the next four rounds. I felt weak and powerless. I was furious. Furious at the idea that if I was less feminine and strong, I would lose rounds for being aggressive, and if I was pretty and passive, I would get made fun of and ridiculed. I hated the double-bind I was shoved in, not just because neither option meant I was successful in the event I love, but also because neither option felt like me.
I didn’t want to be empowered or feminine, I wanted to be empowered and feminine. I love wearing dresses and strutting down the hallways in my heels. I also love wearing glasses, constantly writing new responses on my legal pad, and speaking with passion and conviction. This option, however, is not an elevator button. It is not going to get me in the prep groups or get men in the community to respect me, but I know it is the only way I can respect who I know I am.
I wish I could say that embracing both sides of myself has led me to win a bunch of tournaments and feel over the moon all of the time. It hasn’t. Once again, debate is not a meritocracy, and it has been devastating to realize that as much work as I do, I will probably always hit a glass ceiling. I’ve gotten used to panels of judges where the one female judge votes for me and all the males don’t. I’ve gotten used to males on my team being in Zoom calls with their prep groups while my partner and I research arguments alone. I’ve gotten used to crying after debate tournaments. I’ve gotten used to feeling like I let people down, feeling like I let myself down.
However, I haven’t gotten used to finding out that freshman girls on my team text each other about how amazing of a debater they think I am and how they want to be like me one day. I haven’t gotten used to looking at myself in the mirror and fixing my mascara knowing I am about to kick ass. I haven’t gotten used to leading practices with 30+ people when our PF team used to only have 12. I haven’t gotten used to feeling authentic and powerful while I’m debating. I hope I never get used to any of those feelings.
Whenever I tell people about debate they always ask me why I haven’t just quit already. This is why. I am still here for the freshman girls, because while I will most likely never win the TOC, they might. I am still here because this event challenges me every day: to be smarter, work harder, and think differently about the world. And when I win rounds, I know that it was my voice, my presence, and my work that did it.
The elevator has no buttons. But that’s okay. I’d rather take the stairs anyway.
Anna Brent-Levenstein(she/her) is the Public Forum captain at Durham Academy. You can contact her on Facebook or Instagram (@annabrentlevenstein).
Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.