The opening lines to Our Planet, the new Netflix series described by the streaming service as an “ambitious documentary of spectacular scope,” are somewhere between ominous and beautiful. They serve as the intro to each episode, akin to a theme song. With a lingering view of Earth from space, David Attenborough speaks, sounding very old and a bit fired up:
Just 50 years ago, we finally ventured to the moon. For the very first time, we looked back at our own planet. Since then, the human population has more than doubled. This series will celebrate the natural wonders that remain and reveal what we must preserve to ensure people—and nature—thrive.
Mere minutes into the first episode, Attenborough makes it clear that the series will be unflinching about climate change and human impact: “For the first time in human history, the stability of nature can no longer be taken for granted.”
To experience nature and science through Attenborough’s softening voice is to marvel along with his every syllable. Witnessing the destruction of this planet in Our Planet’s eight episodes, all to the sound of his voice, inspires a sort of visceral, panicking fear, mixed with wonder, mixed with Oh, god, I’ve upset Grandpa.
Nature documentaries are the domain of men’s voices, and have been since long before the moon landing (and David Attenborough has been narrating them since even before that). And whereas they were once focused on showcasing nature’s grandeur, these documentaries have shifted to chronicle the demise of our fragile planet—a demise that men will narrate, because that seems to be what audiences want.
While women have been narrating our lives for decades, it’s not as often that there’s a school of fish or pack of hyenas paired with their voice-overs. Women are instead our computer voices and our sexy robots and our devices: Siri, Alexa, navigation systems, and more. In a 2003 study (forever ago, a pre-Siri life), scientists at the University of Plymouth found that in voiced warning systems, the variable dynamics and higher pitch of a woman’s voice was only better at cutting through steady or loud ambient noise, in a factory setting or busy public space, for example. Yet women have not found the same kind of opportunity or acclaim in nature voice-over work that men traditionally have.
Mainstream, woman-narrated nature and science documentary projects do exist, but to mixed success and acclaim. Tilda Swinton’s stunning voice in 2010’s Climate Of Change is, in fact, low pitched: “The earth from above. The face of the earth. Its range and its depth. Its scope, its breadth,” Swinton narrates, like poetry. “But at certain angles, in certain light, the Earth looks out with a different face. The scratches, the wounds, the burns, and the scars, apparent now in this climate of change…” It’s strikingly not unlike the opening credits to Attenborough’s Our Planet, narrated nine years later.
In 2011, when Disneynature adapted a French documentary for U.S. markets, the distinctly voiced Meryl Streep was tapped to narrate. There’s something to be said about the respect the three-time Oscar winner brings to the table. But Wings Of Life is a kid-focused niche project, exploring the interplay of flora with winged creatures like birds, butterflies, and bees. Her speech feels like that of a kindergarten teacher: graceful, poised, dynamic, and lyrical. Engaging. High-pitched. Feminine. But if Meryl Streep cannot earn top billing narrating documentaries meant for wider, adult audiences, what female narrator can?
And then there’s Isabella Rossellini’s 2008 series of dramatic shorts, Green Porno, written and produced by Rossellini herself for the Sundance channel. Each tiny video details the mating habits of a particular creature, with Rossellini dressing up and acting as each featured animal. It’s a woman narrating science, yes, but it definitely makes no qualms of playing up the sexy (and weird) element. “To have babies, I need to mate with another hermaphrodite… in the 69 position,” Rossellini says in one episode, dressed in a pale pink earthworm costume. Rossellini is innovative, intelligent, and unapologetic, though it’s hard to imagine Attenborough ever feeling the need to take a similar tact.
To say nothing of the misogyny that pervades both science and the entertainment industry, cognitively, men’s and women’s voices affect the brain differently. According to a University of Sheffield study, when men heard another man’s voice, they processed the information in the rear, “mind’s eye” portion of the brain, indicating that the listener processed the voice with the familiarity of listening to his own. Whereas when they listened to a female voice, the auditory section of the brain was triggered, and the male listener computed what he heard through the frontal cortex, as an unfamiliar entity. In short, men have to work harder to listen to women. (Women, incidentally, weren’t included in the study.) This could correlate to a bias that leads to the idea that men are easier to learn from, and an easier choice to dispense complicated or pedagogical facts about science.
Dr. Shikha Jain, faculty at Rush University Medical Center and founder of the Women In Medicine Symposium, identified gender bias in her own experience as a medical trainee:
I had many experiences where I had nurses who were not as responsive to me as my male counterparts, or experiences where I’ve felt that my authority wasn’t being respected. I was told that I was being emotional or irrational, when I was speaking with a very even tone. I was told that my voice didn’t sound professional enough.
Jain described “an underlying unconscious bias” in scientific leadership fields, and also discussed a University Of Wisconsin study in which medical residents leading CPR demonstrations were evaluated for authority and respect. The ideal leader was described as authoritative and ultimately had a deep, low voice.
Beyond Attenborough’s low, masculine, British voice, and the perception of authority, our dependence upon male nature documentary narration might also be distilled to Attenborough himself, as the defining voice not just in style but in content. Maybe nature shows are written to match this style, a documentary writer’s ultimate voice of god. “There’s another mouth to feed,” Attenborough says in the second episode of Our Planet, as a baby penguin rears its fluffy gray head between its parents. It’s quintessentially Attenborough: a charming personification of animal lives, dictated with the slightest of irreverent whimsy but not precious or cute. The thing with Attenborough’s narration defining the genre for so long, with so many hours of footage available, is that his voice, and the way he intones specific things—the gentle lace of humor, the tangible astonishment—has formed what is expected of descriptions of nature. Do writing rooms pander to the David Attenborough style because that’s what they were raised to do, or do they just not notice that it’s happening? And with Netflix dipping its toes in the market of venerable and grandiose Planet Earth-themed limited series, can they afford to not satisfy that expectation? Do they truly think there is nothing else out there?
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.” That Discovery Channel promo was exclusively male: 24 men, one “voiceless, nearly naked woman,” said Emily Callandrelli, host of Xploration Outer Space, a Saturday morning science show for kids.
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.
“Messaging around a woman’s place and capacity is still not where it needs to be, and the statistics for women in science are abysmal,” said Ivel Gontan, Community Programs Senior Manager at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego. Including diverse voices and perspectives in science builds a more robust society, with more individuals and groups feeling represented in the realm. “This allows for more people to feel connection, thus building more empathy and relatability to the subject at hand,” Gontan said.
Gontan cited research in exhibit design in science that points to the big-picture importance of catering science to girls. “If you make an exhibition better for girls, it is more enjoyable for all visitors,” she said. Girls are drawn to collaborative projects, multiple solutions and applications in the real world, for example. “I think the same goes for something like narrating a documentary,” she added. “The more normalized [the female narrator] becomes, the better it is for all viewers.” The risk to perpetuating a lack of representation in the sciences is broader than simply paving a future for girls.
In the final minutes of Our Planet’s final episode, Attenborough poses a scenario of resilience and hope that is no less depressing than much of the series: Chernobyl. Today lush green vines and vegetation, thick forests, and wildlife—even wolves—inhabit a space only made available to them by its vacancy of humans. Despite the gender bias and representation problems inherent in the genre, Our Planet is startling and brilliant. If humanity needs to hear the grave warnings of climate change from a man in order to save the planet, fine. But it’s not the only way. In the final seconds of the Green Porno “Starfish” episode, Rossellini describes asexual mating while dressed as a sea star, losing appendages and staring down the camera to deliver a timeless final line in a scene that should be required watching for budding scientists: “You don’t have to have a penis.”