The Nuanced Optimism of Girls State

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There’s a tendency in generational discourse to position young people as one of two archetypes: Either children are the naive, detached, irresponsible, phone-addicted, self-absorbed embodiment of all modern sins—or they’re the long-awaited antidote to the wells their ancestors have already poisoned. Neither portrayal is fair; neither portrayal is accurate. And while the new documentary Girls State never addresses this bifurcation directly, its framing of girlhood in the 2020s nevertheless touches on how challenging it is to hold two truths in the same hand in America. Especially when you’re a kid. And especially when you’re a girl.

Girls State, now streaming on Apple TV+, is the “sibling” documentary to Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s 2020 film Boys State. Both films chronicle gender-segregated programs run by the American Legion veterans association, which challenges a competitively selected group of high schoolers to build a mock government in a week. Although Boys State was filmed in Texas, McBaine and Moss aim the lens at Missouri for Girls State, filmed on the Lindenwood University campus outside St. Louis in the summer of 2022.

The documentary endeavors to represent the Girls State program in its fullness, but does so through a handful of chief protagonists, each interviewed and selected prior to filming. They are buoyant and sanguine, but rarely uninformed, and they consider vying for a position of leadership in the Girls State government system—the most acclaimed of which is governor—not a mere resume-builder but a consequential honor. These students include, among others: Emily Worthmore, ambitious and warm, but concerned about her public speaking skills and conservative leanings; Cecilia Bartin, hungry to use her considerable charisma to tackle meaningful gender issues; the wry but practical Faith Glasgow, passionate about gun control and reproductive rights; the brilliant, grounded Tochi Ihekona, thrilled to counsel as Attorney General but wary of microaggressions; and Supreme Court hopefuls Nisha Murali and Brooke Taylor, who develop a deep friendship even whilst competing for the same chance to wear a justice’s robes. Together, these students ride the waves of dissonance that underscore a rah-rah-girl-power environment in which the Dobbs opinion has only just been leaked.

As they braid one another’s hair, chant anthems, and conduct Instagram election campaigns, these girls also turn a side-eye to the Boys State program taking place on the same campus. The boys have the privilege to walk alone; the girls must use a buddy program. The boys can dress more freely; the girls must police how much skin they expose. And the Boys State program, as Worthmore investigates later in the film, receives significantly more funding dollars than Girls State. These revelations do not undermine the value of Girls State’s empowerment bent, but they do teach the participants that a binary is just as often a double standard, and that “girlboss” language often does more to uphold the status quo than transform it. As the film continues, the protagonists learn that the issues they’re debating are almost never simplistic. That realization both terrifies and liberates, for it’s also true of them as individuals.

Curious about Girls State’s loaded point of view, I traveled to the True/False Film Festival in my hometown of Columbia, Missouri, to see the film. A few weeks later, I caught up with McBaine and Moss to better understand their approach. A version of our conversation is replicated below.

amanda mcbaine and jesse moss sit together on a couch on the set of girls state

Whitney Curtis

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss on the set of Girls State.

Tell me a bit about your decision to follow up Boys State with Girls State, and why it felt so important to “revisit” this project while tackling a very different scene.

Moss: From the beginning, we thought about Girls State. We were actually talking to Texas Girls State while we were talking to Texas Boys State. The project, in our minds, was about young people coming of age in these divided times, and how they were making sense of the world around them. So we weren’t specifically focused on boys, but through the openness of [the Texas Boys State] program, we ended up with the boys and ended up with that film.

But we have two teenage daughters. We think a lot about young women and girlhood, and we always knew we wanted to make this film, that the project was incomplete. So there was a question of when and where and how, but not why.

It was interesting. For example, at Boys State, the boys would tentatively talk about abortion, but they were so uncomfortable that there were no women there, and they knew it probably wasn’t, in a way, appropriate [for them to decide], and it presented to us the necessity of exploring that issue and other issues with young women. We hoped, perhaps naively, that in 2018, when we shot Boys State, that the country’s divisions would heal. We found through the beliefs of Boys State and into 2022, when we shot Girls State, that the country’s polarization was ever more extreme. The necessity of really getting back into it was clear to us.

Mcbaine: A couple of days before all these girls convened, the Dobbs case was leaked. So that was on everybody’s mind going into that week; that was extraordinary.

Moss: We were really challenged, in a way, by the success of Boys State, and the idea of following up one documentary with a sequel, so immediately we called it a “sibling.” It was to release ourselves from the expectation of having to be the same but different, and we also engaged in small negotiations with ourselves about taking the risk to follow [Boys State] up. I told Amanda,“Let’s do it, if for no other reason than our daughter, who’s 16, can work with us in production as a PA, and if it’s an absolute bomb—which it could be—at least we’ll have that experience together, and that’ll be worth it. She can see what it is we actually do.” Fortunately, it wasn’t a bomb. There’ve been a few documentary sequels, but they’re often not very good, and so I think the “sibling” formulation was helpful for us.

What was it that ultimately brought you to Missouri for this film, given that Boys State was filmed in Texas?

McBaine: We knew we didn’t want to stay in Texas. Partly because we’d already talked to that program, but partly because it’s a big country and we wanted to experience another state. In the end, we ended up in Missouri, because the program there is really dynamic, run by a great group of women. We needed the program to be big, because the bigger the democracy, the more people involved, the messier and harder it gets to get organized. We needed that… For the first time, [Missouri Girls State] was running in parallel with the Boys State program, and I think that was compelling to us. We didn’t know what that meant. In fact, they didn’t know exactly what that meant, except that [there would be] a little bit of overlap at some point during the week. But what I didn’t quite anticipate is how much the boys and girls were going to be talking to each other and therefore really comparing the programs—and how different they were, actually, became such an interesting part of the week for our girls.

Missouri is interesting, politically: You have [Senator] Josh Hawley over here, and then you have [Representative] Cori Bush over here, and everybody in between. A lot of people on the coasts, maybe, don’t know the political dynamic of Missouri, and that’s interesting to us, too.

the participants gathered for girls state assembly in the documentary film girls state

Courtesy of Apple TV+

How did you select the specific students that you worked with? I know that was all decided ahead of filming. So how did you narrow the pool down?

Moss: We were scared of following up Boys State, because those kids were so magnetic and complicated, lovable in all their complicated ways. But the moment we started talking to these girls—it was about four months before that [Girls State] week started, on Zoom—we realized we were going to find exceptional kids. I like to say that they really cast themselves amongst the many hundreds that we talked to. I think that they all have a unique combination of confidence and sophistication and ambition, politically, but also a vulnerability and an openness of spirit to invite the camera in, but still be themselves. That’s quite unique, I think.

Emily [Worthmore] says she’s going to run for president. I’ve never had a teenager announce that to me, and she was incredible. So we then visited in-person. I went to prom in Eldon, Missouri, as part of our immersive casting journey. We went to band practice with Emily. We did it all. It’s a great project in its own right; it’s like an ethnography of teenage girlhood. They would show us their rooms, what’s on their walls, their medals, their trophies, their plaques, all of it.

McBaine: Confidence is the other key part of this, because they are so young, and our project is intense, and Girls State is intense. Are they going to thrive in the session of the program, let alone having a camera follow them through that? So it’s really important that we do our due diligence and they do theirs, and we have a really good relationship with them, their families, and the program, when everything gets started— because it goes fast.

There’s an inherent vulnerability to these students, and to the program itself, that’s only enhanced by putting a camera on them. They’re kids, and they’re figuring themselves out, and you don’t necessarily want to put them in uncomfortable positions either now or later in life when they watch this film. How did you, as filmmakers, approach that challenge and responsibility?

McBaine: I couldn’t have been the subject of a documentary as a teenager. I was still working out who I was, and what I thought. These kids do have an ability to look in the mirror and not fall apart, on some level, and they know they’re still growing. They have a sense of humor about themselves, to be honest. And now that these Boys State guys are in their twenties or something, now they’re real adults with real jobs, they love having this document of that time. One of the reasons we’re so drawn to this group, over and over and over again, is because they are still open. People, when they view this film—the adults in the audience, the little kids in the audience, the grandmothers in the audience—you [know you] are watching high schoolers, and everybody brings that view to what is being said. None of the laughs in our film are laughing at the kids.

Also, by the way, part of our process is sharing the film in rough cut form to all the kids, because that’s critical for our process. We want everybody to be psyched to be on stage with us at the premiere.

Moss: I would just add, we built a much more female crew. Particularly the camera operators, it was important to pair these young women with female cinematographers. We felt like the gaze and the relationship was a way of being sensitive to the questions you’re raising. I also feel like the audience can sense that intuitively, and that we can make promises and stipulations, but ultimately I think the evidence of that relationship is embedded in the film.

When we shot Girls State…the country’s polarization was ever more extreme.”

Having spent so much time with these kids, and all of the questions that Girls State brings up about girlhood and our political system, what do you find yourself reflecting on most as this film goes out into the world?

McBaine: There’s so much fortitude that’s on display here. There are limitations and they’re very real, and there’s been slow progress in female representation in politics, but it’s slow. To me, that’s one of the many unfinished promises of our country. I can’t do a lot to change that, other than to keep pushing, and in my small way, by storytelling.

My takeaway, though, in hanging out with these young people, is they’re undaunted, and they have this fresh energy and this mission—Gen Z, in particular—to push back against the negativity, I guess, of how my generation and Boomers are feeling about our country. They hold the reality but the optimism. It makes me remember that that’s actually how I feel, too, about our country: Very critical, but also I still believe in the promise.

Moss: There is an optimism without naïveté that we need to see, because if we’re going to have a political future that sustains our democracy, we need a generation that does things differently, and still has hope, despite all of the existential threats we face.

As a man making this film, there’s a way in which it has made visible to me some structures that are normally invisible or perhaps I choose to look away from. And I’m embarrassed to say, but frankly I was shocked to discover that the funding levels of [Missouri Boys State and Girls State were] not equal, and I do think it mirrors a structural inequality in our society. We know that. But I think to be reminded of it, and to let you make that discovery through the eyes of someone like Emily is, to me, the power of this film. The power of going on a journey with her is to see her see those things, and to feel them. Because we know if we’re going to change people, move people, they need to feel something, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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