"Viewers 'don’t want to hear about science from a woman.'"
April 16, 2019 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Reminds me of Lake Bell’s movie In a World... about the voiceover industry
posted by jilloftrades at 8:18 AM on April 16 [14 favorites]

One of the commenters pointed out that it isn't quite fair to conflate men's voices in general with Sir David Attenborough's voice, which carries decades of authority. But otherwise, I completely agree.

I had a short story read aloud on a podcast accompanying a magazine. I was thrilled about this, of course, but what I had to admit was that I was also pleased about it being read by a man, in a man's register. The story had to do with men, so it was a natural choice, and I felt I had succeeded in something important: completely transforming my own voice into one of authority, wit, darkness, art. It was not one of my proudest moments as a feminist.

Elizabeth Holmes, as a con artist, is not someone I can understand in the slightest, but the sole thing I can understand about her is why she did what she did with her voice. Everyone's laughing now, but it worked, didn't it?
posted by Countess Elena at 8:35 AM on April 16 [21 favorites]

Hang on, though - didn't BBC America initially have Sigourney Weaver re-record the narration for PLANET EARTH when it was first broadcast? I definitely remember that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:49 AM on April 16 [18 favorites]

I mean, yeah, let's get more women-narrating-science-docs going on, but I think that the article could have worked a little harder to make its case. They mostly talk about David Attenborough and cite an anonymous network dudebro for saying that "viewers don't want to hear about science from a woman", but they also get into Isabella Rosselini's Green Porno series and bring up Tilda Swinton narrating something, so I fear that they may be obscuring their argument a little.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

In the US maybe. In the UK I would point out:
Alice Roberts
Suzannah Lipscomb
Lucy Worsley
Janina Ramirez
Liz Bonnin
Helen Czerzi
Hannah Fry

All prime time science and history presenters and there are a good few more.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 8:54 AM on April 16 [25 favorites]

There's a documentary out there about the screech owls in central park narrated and hosted by Isabella Rosellini (pre-Green Porno) that is just stunning. She interviews a bunch of scientists and the interviews follow a pattern where the scientists try to do their basic 'talking to the press' dumbed-down spiel like 'did you know that birds lay eggs and live in nests?' and she's all "uh-huh. I read all your papers. You talk a lot about doing leaf litter counts to keep track of insect population in the area how is that done exactly?" and then their eyes get wide with disbelief and then they're off to the park with net bags to count bugs with the producers hanging desperately onto her coattails as she basically takes over the whole documentary (which I don't even think was supposed to be about screech owls or central park in the first place) and. It. Is. BRILLIANT.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:57 AM on April 16 [80 favorites]

When Discovery aired Planet Earth in America they had Sigourney Weaver narrate, and when they aired BBC's Life they hired Oprah. You could just as easily ask why the US prefers female narration. (Or rather... why would you want to hear anyone narrate your nature documentary other than David Attenborough, who is the best there ever was and probably ever will be at that particular role).
posted by Gortuk at 9:00 AM on April 16 [9 favorites]

Lucy Worsley is the jam on my scone.

I definitely want more women presenters and narrators, especially in science and nature documentaries.
posted by loquacious at 9:11 AM on April 16 [8 favorites]

Thanks, Gortuk - I knew that it was something like that.

I'm actually now wondering whether this is a function of "who's good at narration and who's a recognizable voice". I wanna say that there've been a lot of nature programs narrated by various people over the years, and I suspect some of them are more one-shot deals where the BBC goes "let's try this person, they're famous" but then they realize that "uh, maybe let's not use Benedict Cumberbatch any more, he mispronounced 'penguins' three times during the narration" or whatever. (He really did do that.) Any actor can do a narration well once, but it's a definite talent that some have and others don't.

And yeah, there probably are more men than women getting tapped for this, but I'm seeing that as more of a function of "men get tapped more for everything when it comes to entertainment". That dudebro notwithstanding and is probably part of the problem, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:12 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]

There's an aside in the article about Green Porno and about how it's hard to imagine Attenborough playing weird-and-sexy the same way Rossellini does, and I'm like, on the one hand, yes, but on the other hand I wanna get all culture-critic on how maybe the idea that nature should be Explained, with a capital E like that, by an capital-A Authoritative capital-V Voice, is maybe itself problematic (or maybe even capital-P Problematic).

In Green Porno, Rossellini presents nature as strange, complicated, and not entirely understood. But also, by dressing up in costumes and play-acting at being the strange, complicated, and not entirely understood creatures she discusses, she positions humans as ourselves part of nature, ourselves strange, complicated, and not entirely understood.

Meanwhile, in Attenborough's docs, he's this magisterial presence, possessed of vast authority about nature but himself outside of nature. He's good at evoking a numinous sense of wonder (and don't get me wrong, I love me some numinousity and some sensawonder), but perhaps the implicit ideas that:
  1. We are outside and above nature,
  2. Nature is knowable,
  3. Understanding nature means listening to facts delivered by an authority while looking at beautiful or sublime images
are more closely aligned with religious practices than with scientific practices.

The scientists I know in person (and, hell, the scientists I know on mefi) tend to approach the world more like Isabella Rossellini does than like David Attenborough does. I suspect that Green Porno is more likely to inspire someone to become a scientist than Blue Planet is.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:43 AM on April 16 [28 favorites]

They mostly talk about David Attenborough and cite an anonymous network dudebro

What they said:
"Women are making efforts in the field but are not household names in the way Attenborough and other men like Morgan Freeman, Sting, Al Gore, and James Earl Jones have become part of the very fabric of the science and nature documentary genre."
They also reference women's reactions to a Discovery Channel promo video that featured many many men (~24), and only one woman (a distance shot of a woman walking through a forest with a male companion, and not a speaking role). There are more wild animals featured in the promo than human women. As an antidote, Dr. Teagan Wall made this 40s clip collection of women in STEM doing their thing.

And they don't cite an anonymous network dudebro, they cite Emmy Award winner Alie Ward talking about her attempts to pitch shows to a network:
"I definitely don’t want to name names but I’ve pitched one network a few times & they said their viewers “don’t want to hear about science from a woman” & recently said Ologies wouldn’t work for them b/c “they don’t do travel shows.”

Hmm. Bummer.

Note: her show Ologies is not a travel show, it's a science/comedy show in which she interviews a different expert, or "ologist," each episode.

Really though the headline of the article ("Why it’s a man’s voice you hear narrating Our Planet’s splendor and decay") is just a catchy hook to get people to read an article about sexism - with a focus on STEM representation - and how women are perceived as inherently un-authoritative, emotional, and un-professional.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 9:51 AM on April 16 [13 favorites]

Meanwhile, in Attenborough's docs, he's this magisterial presence, possessed of vast authority about nature but himself outside of nature.

That's as he's got older. He used to get stuck in more.
posted by Grangousier at 9:56 AM on April 16 [4 favorites]

And they don't cite an anonymous network dudebro, they cite Emmy Award winner Alie Ward talking about her attempts to pitch shows to a network....

They name Alie, they don't name the person who actually said "don't want to hear about science from a woman. This is a direct quote from the article:
A recent Twitter backlash to a Discovery Channel tug-at-the-heart-strings promo video launched early this month (#TheWorldIsOurs) revealed that an unnamed network told science and podcast personality Alie Ward that viewers “don’t want to hear about science from a woman.”
I was talking about the person who literally uttered the words "viewers don't want to hear about science from a woman". Alie Ward was not the person who uttered those words.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:00 AM on April 16

I saw a great documentary on the plane about black holes. It was hosted and narrated by a woman and about half way through I realized that at least 3/4 of the scientists they were talking to were also women. It's wasn't ever made a "thing" or a statement per se, as far as I could tell, but just the way they did it. It was excellent though I have no idea what it was called. Landed before it ended. I think it might have been 90 minutes or two hours.

I love Attenborough's voice, maybe through familiarity, and sometimes I hear a different great male voice (Peter Coyote on the Ken Burn's Vietnam War doc, I think), but so many of them are expressionless baritone-on-a-horse dudes I'd rather have fucking Siri read me the script.
posted by Rumple at 10:13 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]

If I hadta nominate someone to be The Next David Attenborough, that someone’d be Jodie Foster. An entire generation grew up on Contact and are primed to hear her voice as the voice of science/reason/rational inquiry.

I don’t think Jodie Foster is going to become the next David Attenborough.

This is a tangent, but it feels related: Most of the scientists I know are women. And most of the scientists I know are leaving academia/research in droves as a result of not being able to find stable, secure, reasonable-paying jobs.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:13 AM on April 16 [11 favorites]

My experience on youtube/natgeo/tksst would say otherwise. there are lots of talented lady scientists speaking to me and my son.

I'm sure there are other articles, however, that speak to the domination by british/straylian accents over american ones when it comes to authoritative voices.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:41 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Of course it was. It was Isabella Rosellini.
posted by doctornemo at 10:47 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

Speaking of younger generations learning science, can I put in a plug for Lily Tomlin in The Magic School Bus? She was fantastic as a mad scientist/teacher.
posted by doctornemo at 10:49 AM on April 16 [6 favorites]

Jennifer Hale is incredibly talented and I could totally see her narrating a full nature documentary. Wasn't there a woman narrator for one of the Planet Earth's? I swear I was watching an episode once and was pleasantly surprised to hear someone badass and familiar but definitely not Attenborough.

Ah, found it, it was none other than Ripley herself. Sigourney Weaver did a great job, more of that please.
posted by GoblinHoney at 11:08 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]

That's as he's got older. He used to get stuck in more.

His voice used to be higher, too.
posted by clawsoon at 11:18 AM on April 16

PBS Kids is pretty solid on gender balance* with show characters, and the pretty great Ready Jet Go! features scientist Amy Mainzer talking about a range of science topics (but Wikipedia currently states that her "segments are not included in the export version"). And our local PBS station features a range of women in STEM careers, talking about how they got into their chosen field, which makes me pretty darned happy.

* Though Wild Krats comes to mind as an example of the dudes getting most of the excitement and action, and two science/tech women providing back-up, with an extra goofy dude for good measure, I guess.

Also, the choice to have Will Smith narrate One Strange Rock (previously) came to mind as an example of me wondering why they picked that narrator. In this case, I'm guessing they wanted someone who could bring a bit of incredulity at the weirdness of our world, and if that's the case, sure, he does that.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:28 AM on April 16

GallonOfAlan: Mary Beard.

My gut feeling is that the article's right - science and nature bias towards male presenters while history and society bias female. I'd be willing to bet BBC Four's output is roughly equal overall, though.

And to be honest, some people own a genre so completely that you just can't apply simple accounting to them. Attenborough just dominates his niche. Alice Roberts is shaping up to be the same thing in British archaeology I think, Lucy Worsley for modern history. Not to the same extent as Attenborough obviously, but the man's older than the Queen.

I'd be interested to see the stats for factual podcasting compared to factual broadcasting, as the barrier to entry is much lower there.
posted by Leon at 11:30 AM on April 16

I dunno. When I see a nature show I can't help but expect to hear Attenborough. Not because he's male, but because he is the Voice of Documentary for so many fields of study that are near to me.

On the other hand, when we bought our copy of Planet Earth, we got the one narrated by Sigorney Weaver, and I quite liked it. The Disney knock-off narrated by Oprah, not so much; she sounded way too much like she was forcing excitement. Attenborough and Weaver both managed to present a fairly calm, detached approach that I liked much more.

But we do need more variety. Attenborough isn't getting any younger.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:52 AM on April 16

One of my favorites about high intensity lasers from Dr. Kate Lancaster.
posted by loquacious at 12:50 PM on April 16

Jodie Foster has done a lot of narration, and a lot of it has been science.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:00 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Ah, found it, it was none other than Ripley herself. Sigourney Weaver did a great job, more of that please.

Have you seen Finding Dory?
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:35 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

If I hadta nominate someone to be The Next David Attenborough, that someone’d be Jodie Foster. An entire generation grew up on Contact and are primed to hear her voice as the voice of science/reason/rational inquiry.

She narrates the in-house film about the Very Large Array, for one.
posted by mykescipark at 1:39 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]

Lupita Nyong'o will be narrating the upcoming Serengeti.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:16 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Not all science documentaries.
posted by allthinky at 2:19 PM on April 16

Suzannah Lipscomb! Love her.
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:00 PM on April 16

My vote is for Gillian Anderson to start narrating. She’s already had a huge impact on the image of women in science, and she can smoothly switch between American and British mode to satisfy the US audience’s need for an accent in order to take things seriously.
posted by Diagonalize at 4:05 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]

I have a longer list than just one person obviously, but I would listen to Cathy Rogers narrate anything or everything.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:27 PM on April 16

@GallonofAlan has a nice list going. "Pop! The Science of Bubbles" is something my fam has watched a few times.
I need to see more of Helen Czerski's work.
posted by drowsy at 7:40 PM on April 16

I don't know it for a fact, but it seems to me that the public radio program Science Friday seems to try to use women as often as possible to discuss their various topics with. Always experts in their field, always good on the air; it feels like they're deliberately striving to make it clear that women have a voice in science.
posted by hippybear at 9:23 PM on April 16

My vote is for Gillian Anderson to start narrating

Again, you mean? Agreed.
posted by armeowda at 10:33 PM on April 16

Also, can I say, just watch Our Planet if you have Netflix. It's simultaneously joyously beautiful and heartbreaking. The point of the series is what climate change is doing to the planet, and it presents pretty bleak evidence of what is happening now, during the 3 years they spent filming it (and I have no idea how long editing).

Don't let this criticism of the patriarchy and its role in nature documentaries keep you from watching this one. It's a valid criticism and I hope for change (I hope for so much fucking change, in so many ways), but this... this is really special.

It's the Planet Earth team, over a decade later, having learned lessons from filming even that amazing document. This is even more beautiful and astonishing.

And it's engineered to break my heart. (The level of intervention in the global carbon-based economy that is required to stop what is happening is basically never going to happen.)
posted by hippybear at 11:14 PM on April 16

(Women, incidentally, weren’t included in the study.)

Oh, you don't say.
posted by ktkt at 12:41 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]

I don't know it for a fact, but it seems to me that the public radio program Science Friday seems to try to use women as often as possible to discuss their various topics with.

I hope this isn't too much of a derail, but the reason I cringe when Science Friday comes on is Flatow's tendency to try to paraphrase everything scientists say (especially, it seems, women) into "common speak" and persistently get details wrong. I don't know if that's his fault or the fault of the show's editors, but it seems to suggest that the scientists can't speak for themselves and need an authoritative male voice to summarize.
posted by thegears at 5:32 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

I didn't like how the article was like "Women never narrate nature documentaries. Here's a bunch of nature documentaries narrated by women, and here's why they don't count." Like, if you're writing an article trying to help women, I don't see how it's helpful to tell everyone that the work of women doesn't count.

Also, they're like "this work doesn't count because it isn't exactly like Attenborough's." But, like, Rosselini apparently created her show herself, and could have chosen to do anything and this is what she chose to do. If you want women to have power and influence, they may sometimes do things differently from what a man might do. Mission accomplished, yo.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 7:57 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]

Galaxor, you said exactly what I was trying to say but you did it better - thanks!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:11 AM on April 17

People want their daddy to read them a story.
posted by Oyéah at 9:17 AM on April 17

I'm glad we've established that this pattern doesn't exist because there are a handful of exceptions. Top commenting, everyone.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:26 PM on April 17

Not so much that "this pattern doesn't exist because this article presents exceptions" - more like "I know this pattern exists, but this article does a piss-poor job of making that argument and I wish it'd done so better or more clearly". At least that's what I was intending to say.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:43 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]

I mean, can we not also make the point that there are plenty of women in the sciences and more than a few who have narrated documentaries but also wonder why the "known standard" is considered a male voice? More specifically: David Attenborough. I mean, I assume that when he stops doing this as a vocation, the next most famous voice of science and considered the standard will be, most likely, be male.

Also, things like Science Friday and other programs on public radio seem to be moving or haved moved to gender parity in science professional voices by making sure that there are plenty of women's voices being heard as the authority on whatever topic. Another program I love is Guy Raz's "How I Built This" and he seems to be going male/female/male/female in his interviews which is fantastic. I've listened to all the women and now am circling back to some of the men who sound interesting. He also is co-host (with the delightfully wacky Mindy Thomas) of a kids' science podcast called "Wow in the World" which does a good job of bringing in female voices. That show is fairly self-contained so it's not quite as good on that front as another kids' science show "Brains On" which seems to almost exclusively have on female scientists and researchers.* Maybe, eventually, our society will not seem to picture just one thing when it reaches out for the image in their minds of a "standard scientist."

Also: I'm not finding a Rossellini owl documentary that now I feel I must watch! I found references to it and to her releasing some owls but....gah! I may have to head to my local library for a search.

*Small sidebar: While I do have the benefit of listening to these kids science shows with my kid. They are actually really good. Guess what? Science has moved on from when I was in school and there's lots of fascinating stuff out there. I like to read about science but I'm not a science person or academic so having this stuff spelled out in often fairly sophisticated ways given the largely intended audience is really great. I recommend "Brains On" if you want to try out a kids podcast and not let things get too wacky which is where "Wow in the World" comes in.
posted by amanda at 3:55 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]

amanda, I think the documentary must be Wild City but I can't find much beyond the IMDb page for it.
posted by cgc373 at 8:30 PM on April 17

The Rossellini show about her going about her day in New York City and noticing animals along the way may have been Animals Distract Me from 2011 (the documentary itself appears to be unavailable, but there are excerpts available on YouTube). Perhaps someone can confirm if this is the one with the screech owls?

From this behind-the-scenes video, it sounds like Rossellini was not just the host and narrator, but the showrunner.
posted by skoosh at 8:54 AM on April 18

Upon reading cgc373's comment, I've changed my mind: the screech owls are indeed in Wildlife Survivors: Wild City.
posted by skoosh at 9:06 AM on April 18

The more I think about it, the more I think this piece is actually about the author's own prejudices and inability to overcome them. They think that Attenborough's voice is somehow "correct" and they're troubled by that because they see all these other documentaries done by women but all those somehow feel "wrong".

This isn't about nature documentaries and who is narrating them. This is about the author being unable to overcome their own personal prejudices and hashing it out in public.
posted by hippybear at 8:14 PM on April 18

Thanks for the tip on Alie Ward and "Ologies," Secret Sparrow! (and via Ward's 03/19/19 episode, Helen Zaltzman and The Allusionist podcast.) I'm doing a cleaning job that I've put off for a ... substantial ... amount of time, and listening to this is getting me through it. In fact, I'm loving all these mentions of women narrators and now have a list of things I want to watch/listen to, so thanks, everyone, for these mentions. Also, I deeply, deeply share loquacious' Lucy Worsley worship.
posted by taz at 4:20 AM on April 19

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