Can Women Save America?

In 2020, Apple TV+ released directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s documentary Boys State, which followed the 2018 edition of the namesake teen extracurricular program in Texas. Boys State is put on by the American Legion, while Girls State, its distaff equivalent, is run by the American Legion Auxiliary. Like its counterpart program, each iteration of Girls State brings together high schoolers from across an American state for a weeklong series of mock government exercises, including political debates, Supreme Court cases, and, of course, elections. Given the acclaim and success of Boys State, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that Moss and McBaine would return to the subject. Sure enough, the duo recently released Girls State (2024), another film that explores what happens within a miniature nation of teachers’ pets, except this time, the poster is pink.

That’s too glib. While the two films are nearly identical in structure and approach, many of the conventions of these programs take on a different tenor through this new valence. Both identify a small group of characters to focus on from early on and follow them through a journey mainly shaped by their respective programs’ gubernatorial elections. Emily proudly states that she’s been participating in class elections since the fourth grade, never losing one, and sees Girls State as a step in her elaborate plan to win the United States presidency in 2040. She’s also a religious conservative, and openly wonders how to thread that needle with her peers. Her ideological opposite is impassioned liberal Cecilia, one opponent in the race for the governorship with a gift for speechifying. Supreme Court candidate Nisha is no less enthusiastic but struggles with shyness; she’s one of the few whom I imagine benefits from the program just through the socialization aspect. The cast is more sprawling than Boys State‘swhich allows for more points of view but also prevents it from going in-depth with the subjects.

In Boys State, the political discussions felt mostly theoretical, with few participants professing any personal stake in the topics at hand. But the 2022 Missouri Girls State took place weeks after the Supreme Court’s Roe-killing decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked in May, with the program ending mere days before the verdict was formally announced in June. In the film, there’s considerable urgency as the young women discuss abortion or make the issue part of their campaign platforms; real life imparts a more vivid lesson in how politics affects them than any college-transcript-padding activity ever could.

In this context, some of the girls take note of other ways in which they are at a structural disadvantage, particularly since the Missouri Girls and Boys States are happening on the same campus for the first time. The girls face restrictions that the boys don’t, such as more stringent wardrobe standards and needing a chaperone when traveling in public. Whoever is elected governor of Boys State gets to be “sworn in” by the actual governor of Missouri, Republican Michael Parson, while the governor of Girls State gets no such recognition. On a more mundane but no less damning level, Girls State receives less funding than Boys State — though what this tangibly means for how the program operates isn’t always clear. This is part of how both films sometimes frustratingly avoid in-depth looks at logistics, presumably out of fear of boring the viewer, but these students thrive on following rules and procedures. With the right cinematic attention, their enthusiasm would be infectious.

But then again, neither Boys State nor Girls State is truly about politics as it is practiced in the United States. The exercise is too simple, too far removed from the vagaries of how power actually operates. Boys State was more interesting as a look at how masculinity operates within this specific enclosed ecosystem, while Girls State ends up revolving around its characters’ awakening to the limitations of the environment around them. (One can draw myriad conclusions about the luxuries of privilege and how they affect these respective milieus.) This might be the most worthwhile part of segregating the films the same way the programs do. One film constructs a premise, only for the subjects of the second to dismantle it. That alone gives me more hope for the future than any platitudes or earnestness the kids may espouse.

Girls State (2024), directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, will be available for streaming on Apple TV+ starting April 5.

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