"Girls in America: Their Stories, Their Words" by Carol Cassidy

A Review by Kim Allen

"Girls in America: Their Stories, Their Words" is a three-film documentary series and accompanying book by Carol Cassidy that portray the experience of American junior high and high school girls through their own words. Three hundred interviews distilled down to 28 girls' voices give a powerful view of average American life through the eyes of today's young women. Cassidy focuses on three groups: teen mothers, beauty pageant contestants, and athletes. The book mostly contains written versions of what some of the girls say on camera, so I will review the films.

Perhaps Cassidy's Preface says it all: "The girls in my life were always smarter, tougher, funnier, more complex, and more interesting than the girls I saw on TV, in movies, in magazines." This documentary series captures real girls, revealing the deep contradictions in society's expectations for young women, as well as their gamely and creative ways of learning to manage those expectations while still pursuing their own dreams. The viewer gains new appreciation of the challenges facing girls in America, even in our "liberated" era nearly three decades after the most recent Women's Movement.

These films were shown on Fox recently. There is an excellent online interview with Cassidy at http://www.foxnews.com/books/020900/writersblock_girlsinamerica.sml. Copies of the three films (for noncommercial use) can be purchased from Films for the Humanities and Sciences at (800) 257-5126, or at http://www.films.com.

Baby Love

In "Baby Love," the first documentary in Carol Cassidy's series, lower-class teenage mothers speak about the path by which they came to be mothers, the changes the baby has wrought in their lives, the lessons they have learned, and their hopes for the future. (It is important to note that these girls are not from the middle class, which tends to deal with teen pregnancy, a phenomenon just as prevalent but less politically visible than in the lower class, in different ways. A full class analysis is beyond the scope of this commentary).

This is a sobering film for anyone who has wrestled with how to reduce teen pregnancy, and it is especially valuable for those at any point on the political map who think the situation is simple. The girls are similar in some respects, but very different in others, precluding a sweeping analysis.

The firsthand accounts given by these girls are shown as short clips dealing with a sequence of topics: their first period, sex, getting pregnant, the reaction of the father, the reality of caring for a baby, their plans for the future (for the child(ren) and for themselves). Despite the complex and troubling nature of the subject matter, I could not help being impressed with the maturity, inner strength, and hard-won wisdom of these young mothers. In a world with few options and no easy answers, they are doggedly forging a path that makes sense to them, with an unwavering belief that things can and will get better.

The complexity of teen motherhood--and the inadequacy of current policies--are revealed by considering the aspects where the girls are most similar and most different.

Fairy Tales

They overlap the most at the beginning of their journeys. Many got their periods at age eight or nine (a result of our higher body fat content compared to earlier times). As is natural for that age, they almost universally expressed belief in various fairy tale images common to our culture: a dashing Prince Charming who would sweep them off their feet, a perfect family life resembling that of the Cleavers, or a nice house with a white picket fence. When they first met a boy who wanted sex with them, all of these images danced before their eyes, making it easy to say yes. (Although a few girls were raped, most assented to sex). In addition, none of them seriously believed that they could get pregnant. Most (although not all) knew "the facts of life," but they all managed to convince themselves that "it wouldn't happen to them."

Of course, it did. Reality hit like a brick wall. The guys fled. All but one girl said it was obvious in hindsight that the relationship to which they had attached so much significance and fantasy was actually meaningless. The guy just wanted a fling, a conquest, and even if he promised to be supportive, he never was. (The strong words of so many girls made the one holdout--who was pregnant at the time and convinced that her guy would actually stay-- look sadly deluded).

Choice and Chance

"Baby Love" only covers teen mothers, the ones who ultimately gave birth and kept the child. We do not hear the voices of those who had abortions or gave their babies up for adoption. And yet even in this seemingly homogenous group, there were vast differences, both stereotypical and surprising.

All but one girl had the option of abortion. (The one who didn't was prevented from having one by her father, and wishes she had been able to). But those who had the choice nonetheless kept the child for a wide variety of reasons. Some clung to the fantasy of a picture-perfect family life. Some simply said they wanted it because it was theirs. Some felt that having a child would give purpose to their lives, which they perceived as meaningless amidst poverty, gangs, and limited opportunities. One girl had previously had an abortion after which she felt confused and traumatized (and had had no support to deal with the emotional pain), and was determined to keep this child. Another gave her baby up for adoption, but found that she couldn't live without the child; since she lived in a state with a "grace period," she managed to reclaim the child on the last day possible. None expressed religious sentiments or moral objection to abortion.

The girls' feelings about their babies are similarly multifaceted. Giving birth did not transform them into perfect moms; they are often frustrated or even angry with their crying infants. They are keenly aware that their fun teenage years have been buried under a mountain of diapers, bottles, and mushy cereal. They now understand first person that single parenthood is the hardest job, and the pay sucks. Of course they love their babies, more than they knew possible, but each expressed regret at her choice to leap into an adult role before she was herself an adult.

These girls are not all saints, either. Many reveal a manipulative streak in their relationships. Others seem disturbingly flippant about planning for their future. Although some speak about wanting to break the cycle of family dysfunction, abuse, and poverty, it is far from clear that they will succeed. One is left with the impression that this is an old story, not a new one.

The stark reality of these testimonies shows that none of our current political arguments about abortion, family planning, or teen pregnancy is valid. Teen mothers are not, as family planning advocates claim, having unprotected sex because they don't know about contraception, or can't afford it. Similarly, they are not restricted from abortions out of ignorance or poverty. Many chose the path of motherhood completely freely, albeit wrapped up in little-girl images of family life.

As such, motherhood is not turning out to be the most wonderful thing for them. They do not feel that their destiny has been fulfilled and that some magic hormonal process kicked in and made them great moms. Instead, many feel cheated that their dreams have been put on hold by the huge burden of a child. Neither are they happily willing to give up their babies for adoption. Pro-life advocates should note that most did not even consider this a viable option; they were willing only to consider abortion or raising the child themselves.

Thus, we must reject the rhetoric of both the Left and the Right as out of touch. Dealing with teen pregnancy is neither a matter of supplying more free condoms and sex brochures nor providing "moral counseling" and better adoption services. Can we find a suitable policy by examining the girls' own stories? Maybe, although even here, grounded in the real world, the situation is complex. Despite their regrets of motherhood, the teenagers were uniformly certain that having the baby had helped them. They saw a path of drugs and gangs and dangerous self-destructive behavior that was averted by the responsibility of caring for a child. They had grown up too quickly, but were glad that they had grown up. Bittersweet, hard-won wisdom.

It is tempting to take comfort in a sentiment that they expressed again and again: "if only someone had taken an interest in me and cared for me, they could have helped me see that motherhood is a poor choice for a teenager. I wish there had been just one person, an older mentor, who could have showed me how hard this life is, and the value of a good education." But these are the words of the older, wiser women. The girls who got pregnant at age 16, 15, or even 13, were still dreaming of sugar-plum fairies, Prince Charming, and white picket fences. Would such words really have penetrated into their consciousness?

"Baby Love" offers no answers. It invites a certain cynicism about the inevitability of boys' sexual conquests and irresponsibility and girls' unreasonable expectations about love, both of which are misunderstood and poorly addressed by out-of-touch politicians. But it also shows the strength within the humans who find themselves in this situation. Adaptation, learning, and hope--prime human attributes--are thriving even in those who become teenage mothers.

Watch this powerful documentary before you form your opinion on teen pregnancy and family planning.

Smile Pretty

Cassidy's second documentary, "Smile Pretty," examines the lives of girls who compete in fashion shows. High school and junior high students during the week, they transform into makeup-bedecked, chic styled princesses on the weekend, prancing and posing before judges.

And it's not easy. They must learn to walk with grace, confidence, and just the right sassiness. Thirteen-year-olds bat eyelashes and swing hips sexily to garner style points. They use whole cans of hair spray, hair extensions made of real human hair, and "butt stick," a special adhesive applied to their buttocks to prevent bathing suits from riding up. Teasing their 'do to just the right height can be painful enough to bring tears.

Why would anyone do this, much less young girls who might rather hang out with their friends on the weekend? Again and again, they cited the same two reasons: pageants made them feel feminine and gave them the thrill of competition. They were being rewarded for acting like females. (The analogy to guys being rewarded for acting like males through the thrill of sports competition is blindingly obvious. Cassidy's third film--"Run Like a Girl"; see below--is about girls playing sports. It provides a surprising contrast to both "Smile Pretty" and boys' sports.)

All the girls in the film were heartily encouraged by their mothers; fathers were nowhere to be seen. In fact, the mothers drove their daughters, taking no sass from tired 14-year-olds who didn't want to practice their moves one more time. It is impossible not to get the impression that these (often dowdy) mothers were living a younger, prettier existence through their daughters.

Charitable reviewers have perceived some "complexity" in this film by noting that fashion competition, while perhaps distasteful in a broad sense, had positive effects on these girls. They felt focused, they learned the benefits of hard work, and, after all, they claimed to be having fun and enjoying their newfound role as sexual beings. Most seemed bright and capable, commenting that they disliked the "dumb model" image and wanted to show the world that pretty didn't have to mean airhead. Some even hoped to win enough money through fashion shows to go to college.

All well and good. I agree completely that girls should be able to develop into women without feeling like their femininity is something to hide. I don't subscribe to the older feminist notion that hairy legs, no makeup, and shapeless clothes are the only way to avoid bowing to the patriarchal constraints placed on women. But I cannot accept that prancing before a panel of judges to be evaluated on body shape and fashion sense is the healthiest path to self-actualization. There are so many other, better ways that girls could become feminine, adult women besides competing in fashion shows that I am not impressed by the supposed "complexity" of the situation.

"Smile Pretty" is, above all, a depressing film. The girls say all the modern words about wanting to go to college, wanting to "be themselves," and enjoying tough competition, but these words are pasted on to the surface of their pageant experience just as surely as makeup plasters their faces and gel breast inserts cover their lack of cleavage. Underneath, they are girls doing what girls have always been expected to do: encase themselves in uncomfortable glitz, embody a passive but overblown sexuality, and, of course, smile pretty.

Run Like a Girl

"Run Like a Girl" looks at girl athletes in one of the most masculine sports--rugby--as well as three quintessentially feminine sports--double dutch, cheerleading, and synchronized swimming. I may be biased as an athlete, but I found this film to be the most intriguing and complex of Cassidy's trio.

Watching "Run Like a Girl," reminded me of how strongly the male sports myth, which depicts sports as uniformly positive, defines sports as a whole. I have read countless books by and about women athletes, eagerly watched women's sports on TV, and competed in many sports myself. The message is always crystal clear: sport is good, even the pain and struggle that accompany it. Sport is about strength and speed and the finest, purest achievement of human potential. We hear about the power women athletes gain as they learn to reap the same benefits from sport as men do. Although women and men may have different styles of play and personal goals in a game, both feel the fire of competition and the rush of victory with the same intensity.

The girls Cassidy portrays, especially those in the exclusively female sports, put a different face on athletic competition. Some are as terrified before events as before a major exam, stressing themselves to near breakdown. Some pursue sports to become attractive to boys. Some of the synchronized swimmers and cheerleaders have eating disorders and the desire to pose with makeup and "glitz" to a degree rivaling the beauty pageant contestants. Although these girls are fiercely competitive and empowered through sports, some of them are still playing stereotyped roles as surely as they are playing their positions. Simply becoming an athlete does not transform a girl into a free spirit, as healthy and happy as a Nike commercial.

Remember that these girls are not suffering through gym class. They are participating voluntarily in after-school sports programs. I was surprised to see so much angst and confusion in an activity they chose to pursue. Because I saw this film right after "Smile Pretty," which also featured girls who were stressed-out by a voluntary activity, I was able to draw parallels between them which were new to me.

The importance of "Run Like a Girl" lies in tackling the hidden side of sports that is unlikely to be portrayed in the traditional media. Athletes are playing roles, and these roles are determined by the larger culture outside sports. Male athletes are celebrated as long as they adhere to a manly, strong image, as is appropriate for society's male stereotype. Thanks to feminism, female athletes who possess an analogous strong image can also be celebrated, such as Mia Hamm and Sheryl Swoopes. But there is another acceptable image for female athletes, one that springs from society's female stereotype: the pretty athlete. In this category fall the synchronized swimmers, the ballerinas, the ice dancers. Since the male-stereotyped sports image is the dominant one, we tend not to see the feminine side of sports, which means we are missing most of what goes on in purely female sports. Note that these are all sports in which smiling is necessary, not to mention makeup and fashionable outfits--almost like a beauty pageant.

Cassidy reveals the strain these girls feel, which is the same as the strain all girls feel as they try to adopt the damaging female stereotypes that are expected of them upon reaching womanhood. Being an athlete is no saving grace if you are playing a feminine sport, and even the rugby players rolling in the mud were encouraged to smile more and act feminine. Athletic culture is not separate from the rest of culture. Most books and movies about sports project the positive, male image, but these girls live in a more complicated world. Because the rest of society is still adjusting to women's changing role, sports culture is similarly confused.

I began watching "Run Like a Girl" with the (unconscious) expectation that it would be like the other women's sports shows I had seen: a celebration of female power and freedom through the pure teamwork and hard training of athletics. Instead, Cassidy jolted me with a more realistic picture simply by not assuming the standard male myth that sports are uniformly positive. It was a useful jolt. Although I am still an unwavering believer that tough team sports shaped me and many of my contemporaries into stronger women, I am now aware that the popular "Nike" image of the strong, carefree girl athlete is simplistic at best.

In summary, all three of these documentaries present a different, more realistic view of their subject areas (teen motherhood, beauty pageants, and girls' sports) than the conventional media do. They provide interesting "reperceptions," reminding us that our cultural myths are in fact myths; the things we "know" about these subjects may not be quite true. As Cassidy says, "Girls in America" is "for anyone who has ever been, or cared about, a young American girl."

While the book is good, I strongly recommend seeing the films. They provide a much more powerful experience.

Copyright © 2000 Kim Allen.