Scrolling through the top ten lists of various documentary narrators reveals a long line of men’s names. Morgan Freeman, Sir David Attenborough, and James Earl Jones are undeniably excellent voice talents, but where are the female narrators? The Ranker list of best documentary narrators included five female narrators out of 20. Female documentary narrators are an underutilized talent pool, and the female documentary audience is an underserved market.
The status quo shouldn’t be female documentary narrators for feminine topics and male narrators for everything else. Female voices are considered more trustworthy, compassionate, and emotive, but that’s a stereotype that can limit possibilities. Whether for a commercial, audiobook, or documentary, it’s crucial to look past overarching preconceived ideas. We should look at the skill set of the individual voiceover artist and where to fill the gaps in the market.
The documentary industry is considered a friendlier, more welcoming space for women. It’s more forward-thinking, and in 2021, a reported 39% of independent documentaries had female directors. Studies have shown that the number of women hired for behind-the-scenes roles more than doubles in a female-led production. I couldn’t find any statistics that empirically prove that male narration is more prevalent than female narration. Still, there is a perception that the male voice is the go-to sound for documentaries.
Female Voiceover and Stereotypes
One documentary narration article described women’s voices as more “emotional” than their male counterparts. Talk about stereotypes from the 1950s! Women’s voices can sound emotional or sound confident and savvy, knowledgeable and informed. Like male voiceover artists can deftly express a wide range of emotions, the right female narrator can sound knowledgeable and credible. We can communicate passion about the subject or vocalize as an objective third party. Voice actors are actors, and we act. Thankfully, there’s a push for greater representation in the industry, allowing viewers to hear themselves in the storytelling with more diversity – of gender, nationality, and race.
Why Female Documentary Narrators Can Be Powerful
The same stereotypes that have kept women out of documentaries can be the reason to hire a female voiceover artist. Conversational, relatable voiceovers are the buzzwords of the industry. People want more approachable content, and they don’t want to listen to a lecture. We listen to podcasts and watch YouTube videos made by someone relatable and authentic, someone we feel like we know and trust. Documentaries’ voices are slowly changing, evolving away from the classic male stereotypical sound and towards a softer but still strong sound of a women’s voice that we long to hear.
Sometimes it makes sense to lean on stereotypes, but most of the time, any industry relying too hard on them is due for a shakeup. Take the makeup industry, which recently underwent a massive shift. The change left some in the dust and others thriving as innovators and forward thinkers. Men were suddenly selling products that, under prevailing logic, should be sold to women by women. Makeup that was only for women graced men’s faces, and some of the biggest influencers didn’t share the gender of their market.
Similarly, documentaries are creative endeavors, and they should be at the forefront of shifting attitudes. An excellent documentary should lead the way to drive awareness in the market and serve the underserved. Whether through female narration or male or gender-neutral, the point is to veer away from traditional thinking.
There’s Enough Content To Go Around
Millennials love watching documentaries, and Gen X or Millennials consume the most. Either way, documentaries are going through what is described as the Renaissance or Golden Age of filmmaking. They are more popular than ever, and viewers trust them as sources of information and cite facts and figures in documentaries as reliable sources.
Documentaries might have once been described as cinematic spinach to traditional films, coke, and popcorn, but there’s a new health-conscious market. And the filmmaker who can make spinach into a tasty smoothie has a willing buyer. The market is expanding, and filmmakers are growing right alongside it. It’s undergoing a similar transformation as in the video game industry. Which only recently discovered the other half of the world, the female half. Why fight over the male market when there is a female market of documentary film lovers sitting unattended in the corner? Women and the LGBTQ community have dollars to spend too.
Existing Media Case Study
The current climate is seeing an increase in action movies with female leads catering to female audiences. Wonder Woman broke box office records. Similarly, a female narrator can draw in female audiences. A good example is True Crime. The podcast Wine and Crime has an 85% female audience, hosted by three ladies, Lucy Fitzgerald, Kenyon Laing, and Amanda Jacobson.
The stereotype still exists that women fundamentally don’t enjoy horror, gore, or violent content. The popularity of True Crime among women proves that the stereotype, unsurprisingly, isn’t true. The difference is the approach to telling the story, how it’s told, and by who. True Crime is more sensitive to its subject matter by nature of the topic. It doesn’t glorify violence the way some movies or fictional narratives may have in the past.
In attempting to be more sensitive to victims and family members, True Crime as a genre may have unintentionally swapped its target audience and disproved a long-running stereotype. The prevailing theory is that women enjoy true Crime as a self-preservation mechanism to learn how to protect themselves. The old mindset is the equivalent of designing a t-shirt with “I’m a man” written across the front, followed by shock when women don’t buy it. And a years-long stereotype that women don’t like ALL t-shirts. If the content is made by men, voiced by men, for a male audience, then is it a surprise that the audience is made up mainly of men?
The door to male-dominated spaces is open for the filmmakers to start making t-shirts for women. Whole audiences are available for the taking, and female narrators are perfectly positioned to connect with female audiences.
Is The Future Of Narration Non-Binary?
The voiceover industry has traditionally been considered male-dominated. While there are indications that “the future is female,” I like to think we are going in a third direction. A direction where women don’t heighten their stereotype traits to get hired and men don’t either. A future where we are employed on our performance and talent as called for by the script. It seems likely that a more vocal audience will shape the demands of the future, a future where the industry is less concerned about pink and blue.
There are few stats about female narration in documentaries, yet multiple Reddit and Quora threads contemplate why male narration is dominant. Social media posters are actively looking for female lead documentaries, and they ask for recommendations from their fellow posters while committing to watching more documentaries written and directed by women. The cynics among us might see this as a woke challenge, but to me, it reads more like a genuine interest in the female perspective, lacking in the current climate. One that professionals are proactively working to correct to the best of their ability. The question, for some, has become, “Interesting, but what do women and people of color think?”