I Am a Girl. Directed by Rebecca Barry. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 88 minutes.
We Are the Radical Monarchs. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2020. 86 minutes.
The two films under review focus on girls’ lives and have the potential to provoke important discussions in the feminist classroom about girlhood as a particular kind of gendered social experience that intersects with other valences of social location. Beyond this commonality, however, they offer different, and somewhat contradictory, narratives about girls and their girlhoods.
Girls’ studies scholars draw a distinction between “girls’ empowerment” programming “focused on incorporating girls into the social order as it stands” and participation in resistance movements focused on changing the social order in the service of equity and justice (Taft 2011, 23-24). Falling primarily into the latter category, We Are the Radical Monarchs provides a provocative case study of girls’ radical social justice activism in the United States in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the contemporary overt visibility of white nationalism.The film chronicles the development of the Radical Monarchs, a social justice organization founded in Oakland, CA, to “create opportunities for young girls and gender expansive youth of color” ages 8-11 “to form fierce friendships, celebrate their identities, and contribute radically to their communities” (“Radical Monarchs”). Interviews with cofounders Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest are interspersed with interviews with girls in the first troop of Monarchs and some of their parents, a format that provides insight into the struggle to grow and sustain the organization as well as the profound value of radical movement building for young girls of color. Martinez explains that they designed the program’s curriculum to go “beyond service learning or volunteering” and in order to teach girls “what it is like to be radical, to actually stand up for something” (4:20). As Lupita, age 11, explains, “if [we] really work together. . . for something that is a big problem, . . . [we] can make anything happen” (1:46:10). Monarchs develop collective approaches to social change through units like Radical Roots, featuring discussions of anti-Black racism with a former member of the Black Panther Party; through discussions of transphobia and transpride with a Latina trans activist in the Radical Pride unit; and through discussions of ableism with disability justice activists in the Radical Bodies unit. Viewers follow the troop as they participate in direct actions like the Women’s March to protest the election of Donald Trump and engage in direct advocacy like lobbying the Oakland City Council and California State Legislature to ensure renters’ rights, protect undocumented families, and end police brutality.
In the feminist classroom, I would pair this film with Jessica Taft’s Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change across the Americas (2011) and Ruth Nicole Brown’s Hear Our Truth: The Creative Potential of Black Girlhood (2013) to prompt a critical analysis of girls’ activism at the intersections of race, class, citizenship status, sexuality, and gender. These texts counter assumptions that “girlpower” approaches to individual personal change, often accomplished through advocacy on behalf of “disempowered” “Other” girls, are sufficient for social transformation while powerfully situating girls’ radical activism in the enduring legacy of resistance movements.
We Are the Radical Monarchs foregrounds collective consciousness and action by focusing on how young girls of color grapple with the intersections of race, class, gender, and other salient aspects of social location in their daily lives in one specific community in the United States. I Am a Girl takes a different approach, centering “a group of people in the world today who are more persecuted than anyone else” through first-person narratives from six girls ages 14-19 living in Afghanistan, Australia, Cambodia, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, and the United States; commentary from their family members; and day-in-the-life footage of their households and communities. Although each girl’s story is powerful and thought-provoking, the structure of the film narratively, and at times even visually, blurs the lines between girls’ lives and girlhood as a social experience in very disparate circumstances with limited guidance for understanding the historical and political forces at work. We Are the Radical Monarchs uses audio clip collages of news headlines that include the relevant year (e.g., 2015) to provide social, political, and economic context as well as situate the events on screen in relation to the Radical Monarchs’ storyline. In contrast, I Am a Girl would benefit from additional political mooring, social grounding, and historicizing. It presents girlhood itself as a composite of extremely traumatic circumstances (e.g., a 12-year-old trafficked as a sex worker by her mother and husband; a 14-year-old giving birth alone in a rural clinic; a 16-year-old’s struggle with depression and attempted suicide; a 17-year-old grieving the murder of her father by the Taliban) and constructs girls as necessarily at risk and yet resilient simply because they are girls. Intersecting elements of social location and identity, like race, are often un(re)marked, as in Katie’s storyline from Australia, while in other narratives, race is presented as self-evident, as in Breani’s story unfolding in the United States. Similarly, in Cameroon, Habibi’s socioeconomic class is invisible, while class is presented as the only lens for understanding Kimsey’s circumstances in Cambodia. In all the stories, discussions of girls’ sexuality are confined to heterosexual and heteronormative relationships.
The limitations of the film suggest that I Am a Girl could be productively used along with readings that require students to question what is missing from the portrayal of girls’ lives as much as they might engage with the stories it does tell. My entry on “Girling” in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood Studies (2020) could serve as a shortcut to using feminist theory as a tool for questioning the self-evidence of the statement “I am a girl.” I would use Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall’s article, “Missionary Girl Power: Saving the ‘Third World’ One Girl at a Time” (2010) to complicate the girl-in-crisis narrative; the authors also discuss how their American/US-based university students grappled with narratives of “other girls” in the university classroom. And lastly, I would use Karishma Desai’s “Teaching the Third World Girl: Girl Rising as a Precarious Curriculum of Empathy” (2016) to trouble the idea of empathy as apolitical and also to contend with the curricular materials that accompany I Am a Girl for K-12 classrooms.
Brown, Ruth Nicole. 2013. Hear Our Truth: The Creative Potential of Black Girlhood. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Desai, Karishma. 2016. “Teaching the Third World Girl: Girl Rising as a Precarious Curriculum of Empathy.” Curriculum Inquiry 46, no. 3 (May): 248-64.
“Radical Monarchs.” n.d. Radical Monarchs. Accessed October 23, 2022.
Sensoy, Özlem, and Elizabeth Marshall. 2010. “Missionary Girl Power: Saving the ‘Third World’ One Girl at a Time.” Gender and Education 22, no. 3 (February): 295-311.
Switzer, Heather. 2020. “Girling.” In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood Studies, edited by Daniel Thomas Cook. London: SAGE. doi: https://doi.org/10.4135/9781529714388.
Taft, Jessica. 2011. Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change across the Americas. New York: NYU Press.