Women as Narrators: Bad Logic in Documentary-Land

I just added this to my del.icio.us page of recommended reading, but it’s worth a special mention in CONTENTIOUS too.

Check out this Feb. 24 article in Kottke.org: The History Channel: no women allowed? Here, Jason Kottke laments the lack of female voices in documentary narration. At first he thought this might be a unique hangup of The History Channel, but as it turns out the problem is far more pervasive…


“An acquaintance of mine is doing some documentary work for the History Channel. One of the channel’s guidelines for their documentaries is that they don’t generally allow the use of female narrators…men only. The History Channel’s audience is mostly men and they want to continue to target only men.

“…how can women ever be considered authoritative if the channel all about history never gives a woman a shot?

“…men are more often used as narrators than women in historical documentaries across the board; it’s not just the History Channel. Authority is part of the issue, but in the narrative context, men are perceived as gender neutral, while women are perceived as female.

“…So, not the History Channel’s fault and probably an issue that requires a gender studies degree to even begin to unpack and something I’m not going to touch with 8 or 9 ten-foot poles.”

OK, Jason, I’ll tackle this one – and no “pole” of any length is required for me to make this point. (Yes, pun intended.)

Such pervasive idiocy definitely IS the “fault” of the History Channel and any media organization or documentary producer which accepts and perpetuates such obvious fallacies.

For a long time, black performers also faced similar obstacles – that if their speaking voices were “recognizably Negro” they inherently lacked credibility even if their faces were not shown. Yeah, tell that to James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, or LeVar Burton today. Audiences clamored for more racially equitable representation in the media, media organizations responded, and no one thinks black documentary narrators are “less inherently credible” today.

Subtle but faulty “logic,” expressed as commonplace knowledge, is a key way that discrimination gets perpetuated. It doesn’t matter whether the assumption is “women’s voices don’t sound authoritative” or “men aren’t as good as women at childcare” or “women don’t enjoy or desire sex as much as men do” or “blacks, Asians, women, and homosexuals disrupt the cohesion of military units.”

Any blanket assumption that is presented as common knowledge and cited to support the denial of opportunities, rights, or a public voice to a group of people who share certain characteristics is probably wrong, and should be addressed with strong skepticism. Such statements should be assumed false until proven accurate, since the risk of harm is so great.

With that, bear in mind that proving the “accuracy” of blanket assumptions in any realm involving human perception (such as whether women or men sound more credible) is practically impossible. Studies of perceptual or cultural issues that offer statistical “evidence” in any direction should also be treated skeptically. Let’s face it, you can design a study to “prove” anything you want. (I’m not denigrating the importance of social research, I’m just pointing out that it has significant limitations, and that much of it is agenda-driven.)

Credibility is at the heart of this matter. It is the currency of the documentary world. Most documentary makers and the media outlets which present their work succeed only if the documentaries and the context in which they are made is viewed as credible. Any individual or organization that accepts and perpetuates such prejudicial fallacies as “women’s voices aren’t as authoritative as men’s” undermines their own credibility.

Eventually, that comes back to bite those documentary makers and media organizations. Count on it.

(Thanks to Misbehaving.net for this link.)

5 thoughts on Women as Narrators: Bad Logic in Documentary-Land

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  1. What I don’t understand about the quoted piece is this:

    The History Channel’s audience is mostly men and they want to continue to target only men.

    This sentence doesn’t make sense to me- I’m a man and I enjoy hearing women’s voices. To be honest, often, I’d rather hear a woman’s voice than a man’s.

  2. Key quote:

    Authority is part of the issue, but in the narrative context, men are perceived as gender neutral, while women are perceived as female.

    I would assume (perhaps ignorantly?) that this is solely a product of the “no women narrators” policy.

    If it is only men narrating, then of course a female voice will sound singularly female.

    With the plethora of women in the TV news business, I doubt that anyone even thinks about the gender of the reporter on-screen. I suspect that the same will happen with more female narrators.

  3. Here is another reason to use women for voice-over work. Back in the latter half of the eighties I worked as a video production assistant for The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The director preferred women to do the videotape voice-overs because their voices were more easily heard in a large room full of presentation attendees. I recall using only one guy (we tended to hire students from the Drama Dept), and we would schedule his time first thing in the morning while he still had his deeper just-woke-up voice.

  4. I love to see people talking about this! This is an issue that is central to my business. I manage voice over talent and spend LOTS of time trying to change this situation. I do believe that the business is slowly but surely moving in the direction of using more women. There are so many brilliant, engaging and talented women out there. If there is anyone reading this that has ideas about how to make a change here I would love to hear them. I think that more production companies are going to take the leap and use women on historical narrations, movie trailers and other areas that are mostly voiced by men and they are going to get such a bang for their buck for being innovative that there will be many more to follow. People are ready to do it, we are just in that catch 22 phase…

  5. I frequently watch the Discovery channel, and I’ve heard Candice Bergen narrating lots of shows. Keep up the good work Discovery