The ‘Pity Grab’ and The Deeper Meaning Behind It

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Speech events such as Dramatic Interpretation, POI, inform, and oratory serves as a way for competitors to experience an emotional connection with the audience. The end goal is to convey a sense of empathy for their character. When choosing pieces or writing speeches, it is wise to consider a topic that relates to you whether it’s through life experiences, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or race. Me being black, female, and bisexual, I have tried to find pieces that related to my specific race and gender and sexuality. But, I noticed that other black and queer competitors were doing the same. When these competitors would perform these pieces, I noticed some of my white or straight peers criticize the performance as a “pity grab”. To be honest, I found myself agreeing with them; I began to tell myself “yeah, I’m a black gay teenage girl, do I need to shove it down people’s throat?” I wanted to separate myself from my identity group. I wanted to be different. I didn’t want to be a “pity grab”. It took me a while to get out of this mindset.

What is the “pity grab”?

I know this sounds like a made-up word (and seeing as how I couldn’t remember the exact term, this is the closest label I could think of), but, this mindset is an obvious issue. When someone describes a competitor’s performance as a “pity grab” (or anything equal to that), they mean that the only reason the competitor was performing a personal piece was to grab the pity of the judge and to be ranked higher on ballets. They believe that when a person is of a minority group it instantly grants them a one-up when it comes to competing. I have noticed this mindset gaining traction over the years, and it is becoming a problem that is in desperate need of discussion.

Why do people hold this narrative?

The “pity grab” has more to do with the judge rather than the competitor. The competitor’s job is to find and perform a piece that relates to them on a personal level. If the judge chooses to rank a piece higher based on their own guilt, then how is it the competitor’s fault? It’s not. But somehow we have shifted the blame from the bias of the judge to the innocence of the competitor. And the reason behind this is simple: jealousy. Let’s be honest, in every round we critique our competitors just as much as we critique ourselves. So, when the results revealed at the award ceremony don’t align with our initial judgment, we ask some questions: how come they were ranked above me? or why did that person win instead of this person? Most of us can accept our trophies and leave, but others feel that it is necessary to degrade others to arouse their own sense of accomplishment. From what I have heard first hand, they typically single out the competitor’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation as the reasoning behind their success and completely disregard the beauty of the performance. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to understand that a person who would stoop this low to discredit another performer has a serious, undiagnosed case of either narcissism or envy.

Why add this kind of negativity?

Whether we like it or not, the judge’s critiques are final. So, instead of allowing yourself to project negative sentiments on your competitors and their choice of script, how about you use that energy to better yourself. If you didn’t like how you were ranked-- join the club! Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and improve your speech or monologue! When you put in the work with a positive attitude, you will get the results you were hoping for. The thing is, NSDA has an intensely competitive environment that tends to fuel overexaggerated rivalries, so why would you purposely add more negativity to lift yourself up?

I will admit that in my past I did believe that anyone who performed a speech centering around their identity was “unoriginal” and looking for a first-place trophy and a guilt trip. But, at the beginning of my junior year, I took a long look in the mirror, and what I saw in my reflection was jealousy, self-hatred, and a lack of tolerance. I had completely rejected my identity as to prevent anyone from feeling uncomfortable with my performance. My desire to please others led to my hypercriticism and negative views of other competitors. Throughout my junior year, I made it my goal to fill my head with positive thoughts on myself and on others, inside and outside of forensics. I had to teach myself that having a constant judgemental outlook on life does nothing but limit the amount of beauty in this world.

The judgment of another person’s piece prevents you from seeing the beauty behind it.

Every performance is beautiful.

Every story matters. Whether the story is black or white or brown or pale. Female or male or enby. Lesbian or gay or bisexual or trans. American or foreign. Conservative or liberal. Religious or atheist. Mentally ill or disabled or abled. Every single story matters. No performer chooses a monologue or writes a speech thinking “I want people to feel bad for me”. Instead, they wonder “will my message reach someone else in the audience?” And that is why we value speech and debate-- we are allowed to speak our truth to an audience who wants to listen.

Nobody should be judged on the contents of their speech, but rather how the performer brings their speech to life in a way that reveals that they care about what they are saying.

To end this article I have to say this: if you are uncomfortable with someone’s speech, then you are the person that needs to listen.


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Bryana Langford (She/Her)

Cabot High School Senior


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