Girl Talk

Daughters of the Revolution: De'Yona and her cousin in Girls Like Us.

Girls Like Us

KTCA-TV Channel 2

Sunday at 10:30 p.m.

I COULD NEVER bring myself to wear those "Girls Rule" T-shirts that appeared on the racks a couple of years ago (or "Girl Power" or "Girl"-anything). I understood the sentiment, but it seemed crass and self-patronizing to wear it on my chest. Back in college, some political-activist guy informed me that "girl" was a derogatory term to be tossed out along with "oriental" and "illegal alien." I bought the argument for a while and found myself referring to 15-year-olds as women, but it never felt right. My sixtysomething mother and her friends always called themselves "the girls," which I thought was great. I loved the sound of girl, the spirit and scope of it. So I didn't mind when gay men and others took a cue from the black vernacular and recycled it. As with the maligned use of "black," the problem is not the word so much as people's narrow definitions of it--their perceptions of girlhood or blackness as an inferior state.

As those T-shirts demonstrate, girlhood is not only an inferior state these days; it's also a commodity, and whether it takes the form of Batgirl or the Spice Girls, Jewel or JonBenet, the product is still largely about looks. (For graphic proof, take a look at last week's Time with Jewel on the front cover and Marilyn Monroe stumping for Mercedes-Benz on the back.) But behind the marketing fad, girlhood remains an ecstatic and life-threatening crucible--and one that must seem all the more intense to a generation hovering on the crest of the millennium.

The P.O.V. documentary Girls Like Us serves a timely antidote to all the teeth and tits, taking a visually seductive but sober look at contemporary urban girlhood and the pitfalls of teen pregnancy. That subject might sound pretty tired by now, but co-directors Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio adopt an aptly private approach, allowing each girl to develop as an idiosyncratic individual, so that her sexuality takes on a complex logic that transcends the statistics. The girls live in South Philadelphia, all of them come from working-class families, and several were themselves born of teen-age moms. Beginning at age 14, the filmmakers check in with them annually until their senior year of high school.

De'Yona is a gifted singer attending a performing-arts high school, whose grandmother raises her with this firm advice about birth control: "Swallow your pills and do your thing." De'Yona and her adorable best friend (both of whose moms are drug addicts) know all there is to know about surviving girlhood the right way: Use protection, finish school, don't get tied down to one guy for too long, get to know the sort of men you like. Yet another girl born of a teen-age drug user, Raelene, had a baby girl with an abusive boyfriend at age 14 and dropped out of school. Good-hearted but weary, Raelene harbors nascent feminist beliefs, as does Anna, a Vietnamese immigrant struggling with overprotective parents.

But even as these girls cover the basics of Feminism 101, they seem unaware of the political underpinnings of their lives--of how much they sound like poster children for the women's movement. In one especially touching scene, Raelene and her girlfriend cuddle on a couch, talking about sex. Both are wizened veterans of sex without condoms: You can "get all your feelings." "But you know what I never had?" asks the friend. "An orgasm." "Me neither," Raelene says. "I don't even know what it is." Blush, giggle.

Girls Like Us is wholly made up of the girls' own words; the filmmakers never speculate on their secret reasons for doing what they do. In this way, the film is unusually faithful to its subjects, granting them a kind of respect that girls are regularly denied in the media and in life.

Lacking capital, political power, and physical strength (our culture's fundamental triumvirate of values), these poor, mostly undereducated and pregnant people are often looked at as sexual baggage, as if they were only half there. I got my own reminder of this two nights ago from a surly employee at First Avenue, who physically forced me out of the club because he didn't like my "attitude." He looked at me and saw nothing more than a small body he could push; at that moment in the dark everything fell away but my size and my sex.

It's no wonder the girls of Girls Like Us seem to have a twisted inheritance. They're the products of their mothers' textbook mistakes, but also daughters of the sexual revolution, born with all the basics their moms didn't have: reproductive freedom, sexual education, and greater opportunities in the workplace. Theirs is a psychological battle to reconcile their history and their future without the help of role models or stable finances. Some falter, playing roulette with unprotected sex and, once pregnant, calling it God's will. Some make a leap into the unknowns of higher education, careers, single lives. From the front end, these options look like a series of gauzy entrances into unknown hallways. And once you enter, you can never get out the way you came in.

 
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