I watched Rachel Simmons’ A Girl’s Life last night on PBS. It offered four in-depth profiles of girls from different class and ethnic backgrounds facing four different major challenges in adolescence today: body image, cyber bullying, violence among girls, and academic achievement. Interestingly, there was no discussion of sexuality whatsoever–neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality.
My one word review? Meh. Longer version: the show’s four main subjects and interviews with other groups of girls were interesting and their stories poignant, but I didn’t think that their stories were framed in terribly interesting or useful ways. This is clearly a matter of taste and disciplinary training, but I thought that framing the stories around a theraputic model–using sociology and psychology, primarily–made the show rather limp. (Then again, PBS’s marketing of the show is aimed at parents of girls, and suggests a somewhat more serious and specific self-help-program-for-your-daughter-and-you than Dr. Wayne Dyer or Suze Orman offer during those endless pledge week marathons.)
There was no historical context (as in, how new are these problems? How does girlhood today fit into a longer view of U.S. female adolescence?), and zero political context, either: the word feminism was never, ever used by Simmons or any of her subjects (or their parents). Although many of the questions Simmons asked throughout the show were clearly feminist, the overall message was one of postfeminist individual uplift. (Let’s just say that Simmons will fit very comfortably on Oprah’s couch, if she hasn’t visited her set already.) Simmons is the author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, which is about girls bullying girls, which may also explain why patriarchy and the aggression of boys against girls plays no part in her movie.
In this respect, A Girl’s Life shares the same flaws with a Denver Post article today about the opening of a single-sex public girls’ school in Denver. The article refers repeatedly to the “social distractions” that begin in the middle school grades as the rationale for girls-only middle and high schools, but they don’t define these “distractions” clearly, implying that it’s just hormones and heterosexuality that are the likely culprits. (One parent specifically mentions seeing girls defer to boys in math classes, but that’s the only indication that “distraction” may in fact be intimately intertwined with male privilege being exercized by boys and reinforced by teachers.) I’m all for single-sex education, but let’s not wrap it up in the language of Mars-versuu-Venus “brain differences,” as do many of the experts quoted in the article. After all, it’s that “different brains” ideology that gives us crap like this–science for girls, which apparently means pink, underpowered microscopes! (H/t to reader and commenter Kathie.) I loves me my pink–but give me full-strength full-on feminist pink, please.
If you watched it too, what did you think? Even if you didn’t watch it, how do you think adolescence today compares with your adolescence? I have to say that although technology clearly can make bullying feel more pervasive and aggressive, Simmons’ film forced me to remember very clearly teh suckity suck of junior high school nearly 30 years ago: 7th and 8th grade were the only years in my life in which I was tripped in the hallways, threatened with being beaten up after school, had my budding breasts groped in a classroom by a boy, and was mysteriously and cruelly dropped by friends who I had been close to since 5th grade. Good times, good times. I have a number of friends with middle school and junior high school children now, and I always, always, always try to reassure them that everybody hates these years and that things will only get better after junior high.
Now, friends: over to you.