Girls State: Incompatible for Comparison?

In many ways, it feels unfair (and even, sexist) to compare Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ Girls State to their previous effort, Boys State. (After all, the pairing of these documentaries hardly creates a ‘franchise’.) Quite frankly, the two films are entirely different stories, created within entirely different worlds.

But even Girls State can’t escape the world of toxic masculinity.

Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, Girls State follows 500 teenage girls as they gather for an intense week of democracy and political campaigning. Building a government from scratch, these young women have the opportunity to form a Supreme Court, fight for office and the grandest prize, becoming Governor in an effort to help develop the next generation of leaders. Together, they have the opportunity to confront the difficult issues that confront women in the political system, issues that become all too real when they realize the disparities that they face with the nearby Boys State.

With their return to the pre-political arena, McBaine and Moss have created a film that dramatically differs from their previous effort. Whereas Boys State seemed to reveal the birthplace of political poison, Girls Stateshowcases a world where opponents genuinely want to support one another. Regardless of where they sit upon the political spectrum, the vast majority of these young women in attendance seem willing to listen to one another’s ideas. To them, the political aisle isn’t an insurmountable chasm but a chance to build a bridge. Yes, they differ in political leanings but they never lose the value of the other person in the process. 

But this is a very different world than over at the neighbouring Boys State. There, competition is king. It’s not overstating it to suggest that the differences between the two environments are staggering. Perhaps the best example of this comes as girls and boys meet together to announce their governors. For the young women, the pronouncement brings cheers from everyone, even those in direct opposition. But, moments later, as the young men have their moment, half of the room elicit blood-curdling boos for the winner. 

In one, victory for one is a victory for all. In the other, victory only reveals their enemies.

Again, it feels unfair to Girls State to not judge its quality in its own right. After all, these young women have their own political battles over issues of control over women’s bodies and the reversal of Roe v. Wade (which takes place concurrent to the film). This is a space where the young women of tomorrow are preparing to break glass ceilings and leave their mark on the world.

Even so, Boys State looms in the distance.

While these young women debate issues in their mock Supreme Court, their self-awareness begins to point out the very real inequalities that exist between the two programs. Suddenly, as Boys State seems to garner political guests and greater ‘hype’, the girls’ program begins to lose its shine. Although a high-quality experience in its own right, the girls program seems to be secondary when compared to the effort poured into the boys.

Ironically though, it’s this comparison that gives Girls State part of its power. We begin to see them kick at these very real inequalities with passion and fervor. Suddenly, this week preparing young women for the future becomes an eye-opening experience in the present. his becomes especially true through the eyes of Emily, a young journalist who takes matters into her own hands. Without saying too much, her article Incompatible for Comparison provides some of the film’s best insights and pushes back against the accepted (but unacceptable) ‘norm’.

Surprising and enthusiastic, Moss and McBaine have truly offered something unique and powerful in Girls State. However, there’s still a cloud of sadness that hangs over the film. Even in a simulated world, these young women still find themselves hitting walls that attempt to hold them back.

Thankfully though, these young women are strong enough to start kicking back.

Girls State is available on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 5th, 2024.

Leave a Reply