Well, I intended to write about something else altogether. I went to a screening of the outstanding documentary Miss Representation today, so I was going to write about the appalling lack of female leadership in the United States (did you know that there have been, to date, only 34 female governors in the United States, all since 1975? I didn’t either); how children of both sexes are bombarded with images of women and girls that are sexualized to the point of absurdity every single day, and how the malleable human brain doesn’t completely form until the early twenties, making it impossible even for teenagers, much less five-year-olds, to make reasonable decisions based upon what they see in media; how the United States ranks 90th in the world for the number of women in national legislatures; how utterly vulgar and hate-filled is the speech of male television “pundits” of all political stripes toward female political leaders. By the time the 90-minute film ended, I had a giant lump of outrage in my throat, choking me. I could not wait to go home and write it all down.
And then came the panel discussion and questions from the audience. You see, I went to the screening at the downtown Detroit YMCA with my friend Janet. We were two of only a small handful of white women (and no men) there. Most of the rest of the group watching were teenaged girls who were seeing the film thanks to the sponsorship of the Skillman Foundation. Many were with groups from alternative girls’ schools such as the Catherine Ferguson Academy, Vista Maria, and Alternatives for Girls. All but a few were black. They spoke of being mothers, of losing mothers, of having mothers who never cared about them, who kicked them out of the house when they got raped, who no longer spoke to them at all. They spoke about their dreams, their fears, what they want for their children, what thoughtless adults have said to them, of illnesses and death, of grandmothers who raised them and encouraged them, fathers who left them, boys who “only wanted one thing,” and of being completely alone in the world. Almost all of them cried when telling their stories–probably out of relief for just being heard.
These are the girls the world has thrown away. They’re the “very poor” that Mitt Romney doesn’t care about because he assumes a magical safety net will appear at just the right time to–what? Rock them to sleep every night? They’re the “welfare queens” that Ronald Reagan imagined driving around in Cadillacs and that Bill Clinton “reformed” out of the system altogether. Helping them to develop media literacy is a step in the right direction, but developing their actual literacy–in a city with a sensationally reported adult functional illiteracy rate of 47 percent–is a matter of grave urgency. And these girls are the lucky ones because they found their way to extraordinary schools like Catherine Ferguson, where they will have a greater than 90 percent chance of graduating despite a society that thinks of them as “crack hos,” if it thinks of them at all. Untold others in Detroit and virtually every other large American city will fall asleep trying to heat their crummy rental shacks with a kerosene heater, and they and their children and nieces and nephews will die in a senseless house fire, having no working smoke detectors. It happens all the time.
Is this a bleak view of life for urban-dwelling girls in America? Yes and no. A 2010 report found that in some Detroit neighborhoods as many as one in four births was to a teenaged mother. At the same time, the overall dropout rate for girls in Detroit has gone down to 14 percent from 20 percent. Alternative schools, mentoring programs, and local media figures who are willing to give out their e-mail addresses at YMCA film screenings can be the difference between the tragic house-fire scenario and a confident, successful young mother who controls her own subjectivity.
All girls need to know that they have options. And I’m not talking about the option of being either a princess or a fairy, which is the one option that seems to be consistently offered to girls. Having options in life shouldn’t be limited to those of us in positions of privilege (i.e., middle-class white suburban women like me). But how do you know you have options when not one female you see on television or in movies looks like you do? You will inevitably have this problem if you are over 40 and weigh more than 89 pounds. But what if you are an unmarried black teenaged female with two or three kids? Nobody wants to put you on TV, except perhaps to exploit you on a reality show. To whom can you relate? The bikini-clad dancers stuffing dollar bills down their g-strings in a rap video or Gabourney Sidibe in the movie Precious? There isn’t a lot of space in-between.
So I left the film screening shaken and angry and disturbed in a way hadn’t foreseen. I was angry about what I’d seen onscreen–and I do strongly recommend seeing Miss Representation–but, true to the experience of seeing an excellent film that opens your eyes–I was angrier about what I saw when I looked around me. Angry about those girls, young enough to be my daughters, who never had a damn chance for their lives to be any different but who desperately want to give their own kids a chance.
I don’t pretend to know where the problem begins. Do violent and sexualized media images play a role in the social breakdown that leads to family distress, teen pregnancy, and high school dropouts? Will awareness of the level of media manipulation help? Well, it can’t hurt. My concern is that so many girls are in so much trouble that staying on top of that one issue is the least of their problems.