Girls, Moving beyond Myth. Directed by Susan Macmillan. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2004. 28 minutes.
Understanding Hookup Culture: What's Really Happening on College Campuses. Directed by Sut Jhally. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2011. 30 minutes.
These Girls (El-Banate Dol). Directed by Tahani Rached. New York: Women Make Movies, 2006. 68 minutes.
These three documentaries all address girls' lives and sexuality, but in very different styles. Thus, showing more than one or all three together could help create a classroom discussion not only about gender politics but also about specific ways films can produce knowledge and challenge everyday assumptions.
Girls, Moving beyond Myth confronts cultural assumptions about girls' sexuality. The documentary combines interviews with leading girls' studies scholars (e.g., Michelle Fine, Joan Jacobs Brumberg), social advocates (e.g., Cydney Pullman, founder of The Girls and Boys Projects), and everyday girls.1 The film makes two interrelated arguments. First, it suggests that culture, media, and peers pressure girls to be sexual at a young age (experts point to media images; girls talk about pressure from boys). Second, the film argues that we need to listen to and talk with girls about sexuality. Here, the social advocates discuss their organizations' programs (e.g., workshops about girls' "changing bodies"). And the girls talk about the double standard they face: they are expected to be sexy, but if they have sex they are labeled a slut. Toward the end, the documentary addresses more subtle aspects of sexuality, such as girls' sexual feelings and how they express them, including through same-sex desire.
A tension between two types of images in the film could lead to useful discussions about filmmaking practices. On the one hand, while the adult experts speak in voiceover the film often cuts to images of girls dressed in very tight clothing, framed by the camera to draw attention to their buttocks and breasts and thereby reinforcing the experts' point that girls are highly sexualized. On the other hand, the girls who actually speak in the film—the interviewees—are dressed casually and comfortably in gender-neutral clothing. An instructor could use this perhaps unintentional juxtaposition to initiate discussion about how film images can make arguments, even inadvertent ones, as well as the fact that any choice a documentarian makes can be understood to be ethical in nature.
In Understanding Hookup Culture, sociology professor Paula England presents an engaging lecture about her research on heterosexual relationships on college campuses. Drawing on both qualitative and quantitative data, she offers definitions of "hookups," "dating," and "relationships"; she illustrates that hookups sometimes do and sometimes do not lead to relationships; and she argues that, despite the fact that the current hookup culture may be relatively new, it continues to be gendered in traditional ways.
England's data challenge assumptions she finds in what she calls "hysterical media portrayals" about the "informalization" of young people's dating behavior. For example, she finds that students define hookups as different from relationships, but also as not always including vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, in most cases the students know each other at least slightly before hooking up and often continue to hook up with the same person multiple times. England's data also show that gender differences persist in many ways, including the finding that men have orgasms and receive oral sex more than women do during hookups, despite the fact that women report interest in both. Men also initiate spending time together and sexual activity more than women do. And, women are more likely to be interested in the hookup developing into a relationship than men are.
These gendered findings suggest that hookups may be disempowering for women, yet England also says women enjoy and seek them out. She ends her talk by stating, it is "unclear if the change empowers or disempowers women, or both," and asks her audience to discuss this. Given that the data England presents are rich, challenging, intriguing, and put into question many assumptions both students and instructors may hold about gender and campus culture, those discussions in our classrooms should be productive and rewarding.
These Girls, a documentary about a group of girls living on the streets of Cairo, avoids the didacticism of documentaries such as the recent Food Inc. (dir. Robert Kenner, 2009). Rather, it intimately documents girls' lives. We see girls fighting with each other as well as with boys and men; caring for their children, including just-born infants; talking with Hind, a self-appointed social worker who visits with the girls in the film; playing, dancing, and singing in the streets; preparing places to sleep, such as up in a tree or on a mix of blankets and cardboard boxes on the sidewalk; and sniffing glue to get high. Director Tahani Rached, a respected Egyptian/Canadian filmmaker, seems to have gained a particularly high level of trust from these girls.2 We see a close-up of a tiny baby's hand, just born to Abeer (who is pregnant when the film begins); the camera is with the girls as they cry with each other and with Hind; and the filmmaker goes with Tata and Maryam to a shack where they report that men hold girls hostage and repeatedly rape them. Despite the trauma and stress the film depicts, because it also captures so many nuances of the girls' lives, the protagonists emerge not as objects of pity but as human beings who make thoughtful decisions in the context of their particular environment.
This is not an easy film. The girls struggle with profound poverty and abuse, and we witness not only their joy and playfulness but also their despair and fear. Yet, the demanding nature of the film is also its strength as a teaching tool. It challenges us to reflect on the relationship between our own and these girls' lives. For our students who may also face poverty and/or abuse, the film acknowledges the complexity of their lives and provides an opening for them to speak of their experiences in the classroom, if they so choose. And, for our students who may have grown up with privilege and without the fear of abuse, the film provides them with a way to understand what those experiences might be like and to reflect on how the contexts we confront impact the actions we choose to take. Thus, while this is perhaps the most difficult film of the three reviewed here, I would argue it is worth the work it expects of us.
1Michelle Fine and Sara I. McClelland, "Sexuality Education and Desire: Still Missing after All These Years," Harvard Educational Review 76, no. 3 (2006): 297-338; Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Vintage, 1998).
2İclal Çetin, "Middle Eastern Women Filmmakers of this Century," Review of Middle East Studies 44, no. 1 (2010): 54-59.