‘Girls State’ Documentary Reveals Limitations of a Mock Government

New Apple TV documentary Girls State explores the eponymous national program Girls State. If you’re unfamiliar, Girls State is essentially an immersive politics camp for high school girls that runs in every state except for Hawai’i. It brings girls from all over their respective state together to build and run a state government from the ground up for a week. There are rules, of course. Namely that that state government has to mimic the structures of existing state governments in the U.S. There has to be a legislative branch, a judiciary branch, an executive branch. There are elections for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. There’s a two-party system — not Democrats and Republicans, but rather Federalists and Nationalist. Mock cities are formed with little talk of what makes those cities distinct. In other words, girls come to Girls State not to reimagine government or build something that bucks the system. They come to Girls State to see how they might slot into a system that already exists, a system that was designed to exclude them in the first place.

While the documentary never states its implicit critique of the program quite that boldly, this tension between the girls’ ambitions and the opportunities Girls State offers simmers just beneath the surface. The documentary focuses on Girls State in Missouri. It focuses on a few of the girls in particular as they butt up against the limitations of the program and especially the glaring inequities between Girls State and Boys State, the sibling program which is being held on the same campus for the first time in Missouri history. The proximity of the programs highlights their differences. While the girls have to abide by a dress code, the boys do activities shirtless. The girls have to walk in a strict buddy system any time they do anything on campus. The boys have no such “safety” rules. When one girl tries to write an op-ed about these differences — and the vast disparity in how Girls State is funded versus how Boys State is — she ends up censored by whoever is in charge of the Girls State newspaper, a headline imposed on her softening the original argument. And whew, have I been there.

Quite literally, I actually have been to Girls State. I attended the Virginia version of it when in high school a decade and a half ago. It was a formative experience. But back then, my own frustrations mimicked some of those expressed in the documentary. Girls State teaches government and politics in the flattened and often decontextualized ways AP Government classes and textbooks do. There’s little room for radical ideas or building something new. It’s about mimicking the things that already exist. It’s also about dulling the edges of our political imaginations and beliefs. Or, at least, that’s how I see it in retrospect and when watching the new documentary. When running for office at Girls State, most attendees fall into the trap of keeping platforms safe and palatable to as wide of a base as possible — you know, just like real politicians, so I guess there’s something to be said of the experiment’s real-life parallels. In the documentary, one girl laments the fact that everyone is running on save the environment platforms, an issue just about any girl can get behind. There are some more outspoken girls willing to run on stronger platforms of gun reform and addressing racist policing. One girl details her own political awakening, having previously been influenced by her family to have a far right mentality before realizing she was being forced into a line of thinking she didn’t ultimately agree with and then developing her own more progressive beliefs.

But its not the program of Girls State that really encourages this kind of consciousness raising — at least not explicitly. In my experience, though, it does have an unintended effect of showcasing the limitations of electoral politics and of adhering to the status quo. At Girls State, I learned politics and government were a lot of theater and spectacle. And that’s accurate, even if it’s not the intent. Girls State — like similar mock government programs — is all about recreating a system rather than interrogating and reimagining it. It’s about buying into the two-party system, the supposed checks and balances of the U.S. government. Teens are encouraged to have political ambitions but not outside of these strict confines and rules. The Girls State documentary makes it clear not much has changed since I attended. It’s far from an advertisement for the program, though at times I do wish the documentary and its structure were more explicit in its critiques — as explicit as its subjects, the young but perceptive teens, seem to be.

One of the documentary’s central subjects is Maddie Rowan, who makes a strong entrance, right away talking about not only political polarization but also her queer identity. When I attended Girls State, I was deeply closeted, though revisiting my journals and photos from the experience certainly tell their own story, a crush hidden in the margins of the notes I took and Facebook photo album I posted dedicated entirely to photos of one of my fellow attendees. Even though it’s 15 years later, I was struck by Maddie’s candid vulnerability about her queerness, especially set against the backdrop of a state like Missouri. I had a chance to talk to her about the experience of attending Girls State and being in the documentary, and I opened with a question about this decision.

“Honestly, I think it’s kind of impossible to avoid the topic of my queer identity,” she says. “I’m in a serious relationship with my girlfriend of two years, and I absolutely adore her, and I actually never stop talking about her, so it would be literally impossible for me to make a new friend and not be talking about Annie 24/7. I don’t think I can physically do that.”

Maddie says she was a little fearful heading into Girls State, not solely for this reason, but rather because her father had attended Boys State and his descriptions made it sound militaristic. She admits having a bit of fear about being queer in this space, especially since she comes from St. Louis which is a bit of a progressive pocket in a red state. When I ask her about what it was like being a queer teen in Missouri, she’s honest: “I have experienced pretty extensive aggression,” she says. “And it’s kind of exhausting as a teenager to hear that kind of pushback against someone you love. It’s frustrating. It’s tiring. There’s a lot of personal emotion behind that and it feels really, really personal.”

It’s for these reasons she’s surprised she ended up having a lot of conversation with and eventually befriending fellow attendee Emily, who in the documentary says she identifies as more conservative. “I think that the program of Girls State kind of forced me to have those uncomfortable conversations,” Maddie says.

Adding urgency to the documentary — as well as highlighting its central tensions — is the fact that the Roe v. Wade ruling draft leaks while the girls are there. This context heightens the discrepancies between Girls State’s mock political system and the political realities the girls exist in outside the bubble of campus. When I ask Maddie what it was like to be there for the leak, she says definitively: “Nauseating.”

“I mean, I experienced Trump’s election, and it was similar to that kind of gut-wrenching feeling of knowing that your rights are at risk and knowing that the future of yourself like my ability to get married, my ability to have an abortion if I were to be sexually assaulted, that’s me. That’s me they’re talking about,” she says. “And when it becomes so personal, it is agitating and it is exhausting to see those conversations happen in completely white-dominated, male-dominated places.”

All the limitations of Girls State come to a head in the documentary when it’s discovered that official Boys State speakers are taking hardline stances on reproductive justice and women’s bodies. In the documentary, we see as Maddie receives a texted video from a friend at Boys State that shows an anti-choice speaker addressing the boys. She tells me this is a queer friend of hers who she ended up texting with most of the time during their respective programs. Later in the week, Girls State’s mock Supreme Court hears a case on abortion rights and privacy, but this comes after Boys State has a chance to debate these topics. “That was beyond infuriating to see,” Maddie says of the video leaked to her. “That the boys were having those conversations and not us. And it was just the continuous sexism of Missouri that is kind of never-ending that it just wasn’t even a woman’s conversation.”

I also talk with Maddie about those contradictions between what Girls State claims to do and what it ends up being, the fact that more explicit real-world politics are largely ignored or flattened by the program itself even though the girls already have strong political beliefs and identities they’re willing to talk and even argue about. She shares a moment that doesn’t end up in the documentary, as it happened after hours. “Two of the nights we had sleepovers in one of the girls’ rooms, staying up literally all night talking politics, and it wasn’t like we were all being nice to each other,” she explains. “We were pretty head to head.”

“And those moments of uncomfortable conversation I think are really what have pushed me as a person,” she continues. “Being uncomfortable is good for you. Adults are not having uncomfortable conversations in relation to politics, in relation to human rights, in relation to the upsetting standard of what’s happening in the world right now, and that needs to be addressed, and face to face.”

As a documentary, Girls State isn’t quite the explosive takedown and critique of the program that it could be, but it does explore the programs limitations cogently and in a way that ultimately doesn’t just replicate the same type of status quo rhetoric the program leans on. Speaking with Maddie makes it clear these young women’s political ambitions and priorities are so much bigger and more expansive than what they get to do and showcase at Girls State. The documentary nods toward that expansiveness.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 844 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. As someone who was once a gay Missouri teen girl, this is an unsurprising revelation, but wow, what a brave, brave girl. I am in awe of Maddie, and happy she’s using her voice!!

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