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A new documentary follows hundreds of high school girls forming a mock government

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The documentary "Girls State" follows hundreds of high school girls as they participate in a weeklong program building a government. If that sounds familiar, it may be because it's a follow-up to "Boys State," which won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GIRLS STATE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I think boys feel like they can speak louder about politics because I think women - often when we start talking politics, we get shut down. I think we're just less respected. So you know, by the time we're 17, we're already socialized to stop talking about it, but we do have strong views about politics.

RASCOE: Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss filmed "Girls State" in Missouri in the summer of 2022, just before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and they join us now. Welcome to the program.

JESSE MOSS: Hi.

AMANDA MCBAINE: Hi. Glad to be here.

RASCOE: "Girls State" happens all over the country. Why did you two choose Missouri? And I guess we'll start with Amanda.

MCBAINE: So we shot "Boys State" in Texas, but we knew we wanted to get out of Texas. But we also needed a program that was big because democracy gets messier the more people who have to - who are involved. So Missouri had interesting, complicated politics and a giant program of 600 girls.

RASCOE: And you filmed this days after the leak of the opinion on the Dobbs decision, the case that removed federal protections for abortion. How did that show up in the conversations the girls were having?

MOSS: We knew that abortion was on the minds of these young women. Girls State Missouri has a Supreme Court, too, and we were curious to see if the girls would argue an abortion case. So it was on their minds. The Dobbs leak really just supercharged the proceedings, and actually, the girls initially were held back by the program and a little bit tentative to get into wrestling with abortion. But slowly in the film, you see they do get into it, and ultimately, the court hears a really interesting case around privacy.

RASCOE: I mean, it seems like even among the really civic-minded girls who participate in Girls State, it took a while for the actual kind of politicking to get started. Did that surprise you?

MOSS: It did surprise us. What we found at Boys State in Texas, it was like running of the bulls. The moment the program started, the boys just dived into it. And Girls State, there was a lot of what the girls call fluff. It was sort of like traditional camp activities, and it took about three days before, really, the training wheels came off the bike and the girls were able to build their government.

And in some ways, the program is kind of old-fashioned, and you see the girls are really bristling. And once they dive in, it gets really interesting, and we were curious to see how girls do politics differently. Would they do it differently? The boys' program in Texas was so tribal. There were dirty tricks, and we didn't know what we would find.

MCBAINE: I maybe was a little less surprised by what I saw than Jesse, and I think that might be because I'm a woman. I knew that girls have been socialized to be more polite, and I think that's part of what the initial caution was in going to talk about the meat-and-potato issues in politics. Part of it was programmatic. Part of it was internalized sort of truly sexism that's baked into the system. And I think part of that is being very, very hard on yourself.

In terms of likeability, what's an interesting question is that these are - part of the old-fashioned part of this program is that they're gender segregated, so it is an all-female space. And like - the likeability question is a little different in an all-female space than, say, a co-ed space. I'd love to see if a girl can win in a People State session, which will happen someday if some state will merge their programs. And can a woman win in that space? And those dynamics would very much mirror the adult state and what female politicians grapple with.

RASCOE: A point of tension in the film is, like, these differences between Girls State and Boys State, and something that the girls expressed in the in the film was their frustration with, like, the dress code. And there was, like, a buddy system that the girls had to use when they walked around campus. And the boys don't have to, you know, have some of those restrictions. Can you talk about that?

MOSS: We did not set out to pair the programs. We very much wanted to give Girls State its due. It's actually girls who drive the conversation. And because the programs are being held on the same campus at the same time, the girls look over and see how the boys are doing things, and they're frustrated because the boys are going faster. They have more resources. They don't have the same rules and restrictions around what they can wear and how they can walk around campus. Girls have to have a buddy. Girls have to wear tops with shoulder straps that are not too narrow.

But more fundamentally, the boys are getting into it politically, and actually, the girls begin to question that. They challenge their counselors, and one of our protagonists, Emily, begins to investigate. She writes an article for her Girls State newspaper that explores the disparities of funding that exists between the two programs, which is actually quite shocking. The boys have more financial resources to run their weeklong session than the girls do.

RASCOE: These are teenagers that are talking on camera about issues, and because they're teens, they may have very different opinions and convictions when they're older and have seen more of the world. So how do you, as documentarians, approach that? What responsibility do you have, you know, not just to these girls but to the women that they'll become?

MCBAINE: It's a great question and one we think about a lot. And I'd say that that really starts with casting. It's really important to find the right people that we're going to go on this journey with. In the five months leading up to the kids going to Girls State, we talked to hundreds and hundreds of kids.

But to find the right people who have a confidence in who they are and what they think and how they think and then also an emotional confidence, frankly. Like, a maturity to be able to look in the mirror at that age, you know, is a certain somebody. And then to go on a journey with filmmakers is another somebody, and we need them to be both those things. So I think also just caring for them on a parental level - and again, I think that's where our skills as parents, I guess, of teenagers ourselves come into play.

RASCOE: What do you want the audience to take from both of these documentaries when thinking about teenagers and politics and how they grapple with issues?

MOSS: Well, I think we're all curious about our future as a democracy. And I think these programs and these films are really tests of the proposition that we can find a kind of common ground and confront the existential problems that we have in our world and in our country. And we see, in both "Boys State" and "Girls State," people actually trying to do politics in a healthier way than they do in the adult state. They look to listen. They look to build connections and find common ground, even around these divisive issues. They're also not naive. They're actually really smart and sophisticated about the world they're sailing into, and yet they are not daunted. They are not cynical. They are really hopeful.

RASCOE: That's Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. They are the directors for "Girls State," now out on Apple TV+. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MOSS: Thank you guys. Thank you so much.

MCBAINE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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