'Girls State' provides hope and disappointment for the state of our democracy : Pop Culture Happy Hour The new Apple TV+ documentary Girls State asks: how would high school girls do things if they were in charge? The film is a follow-up to 2020's Boys State, and this time, follows an annual high school program that gives hundreds of girls a chance to create a mock government, complete with elections and a Supreme Court. It was made during the 2022 session, which ended days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and the case is very much on the minds of the girls in the program.

'Girls State' provides hope and disappointment for the state of our democracy

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

How would high school girls do things if they were in charge? That's part of what the documentary "Girls State" is about. It follows an annual high school program that gives hundreds of girls a chance to create a mock government, complete with elections and a Supreme Court.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

The film was made during the 2022 session, which ended days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and the case is very much on the minds of the girls in the program. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about the fascinating film "Girls State" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

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HOLMES: Joining us today is our co-host, Aisha Harris. Hello, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello, Linda.

HOLMES: So if the setup of "Girls State," which is streaming on Apple TV+, sounds familiar, you're not imagining things. We covered the documentary "Boys State" in 2020, which is about a session of the Texas Boys State program. The same directors, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine now turn their attention to Missouri and to Girls State. The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary run the Boys and Girls State programs in just about every state.

And while the boys' and girls' programs are usually separate, one of the things that comes up in "Girls State" is that in 2022, when they were filming, Missouri held them on the same campus during the same week. So the boys and the girls were more aware of each other and their programs than usual. And, yes, the girls notice the ways in which their program is treated a little differently, and we will get into that. There are a few girls who are highlighted in the film. Emily is a personable, conservative Christian who's running for governor.

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EMILY WORTHMORE: When people ask me what party I am, I don't want to say what I am and then have half the room stop listening before I even get a chance to speak.

HOLMES: Cecilia, on the other hand, who's also running for governor, is a progressive who has a fiery way with a campaign speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GIRLS STATE")

CECILIA BARTIN: God can save the world. Women, we will save America. So be prideful, be selfish and vote Cecilia for your Girls State governor. Thank you very much.

HOLMES: So much energy.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: It makes me smile listening back to it, I've got to say. Nisha is a serious and thoughtful participant who decides to take part in the selection process for the Supreme Court.

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NISHA MURALI: I want to be on a Supreme Court because they make the decisions that, like, really affect people's lives. We're seeing that now with, like, abortion, gay rights, housing, the amount of money spent on a federal campaign. My parents...

HOLMES: This is happening just as the real United States Supreme Court is about to announce its decision in Dobbs. As was the case in "Boys State," there is a lot going on here, so let's dive in. Aisha, what did you think?

HARRIS: Well, whereas the documentary "Boys State" really left me scared for our country...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...It just had a completely different vibe, and it seemed like, despite the fact that it follows a few very fascinating and progressive boys in the program, there's a lot of backstabbing going on there. And what I like about "Girls State" is the fact that we get to see this other side. We also see, like you've mentioned, the inequities between the way girls in this program are treated and boys in this program are treated. And my biggest takeaway from this was that - what I appreciate is that this documentary finds these girls at this time in their life when they're not yet jaded by politics, but they're also very fully cognizant of all the adversity and double standards that they're going to be up against in politics and just in life.

And so this is also depressing, but in a different way, like, the program itself and the way it treats the young girls is depressing, and it really shows how dealing with basic misogyny and sexism is just, like, the first uphill battle before they can even start talking about the actual bigger issues of misogyny and sexism. So, like, uplift and dress codes versus fighting for abortion rights. But also, like, I left feeling as though these girls, at the very least, all of them, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, are ready to fight these battles. And it made me feel a little bit better than "Boys State" did, to be honest.

HOLMES: Yeah. Stephen, before I turn to you for your thoughts, I want to play a little tiny, tiny piece of the conversation we had in 2020 about "Boys State."

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THOMPSON: If I have one complaint about this movie is I just immediately want to see the sequel that is set at Texas Girls State. I would be fascinated to see how "Girls State" plays out differently, how much...

(SOUNDBITE OF HARP)

HOLMES: What?

THOMPSON: What?

HOLMES: Hiyo (ph).

THOMPSON: Hey.

HARRIS: Look at that (laughter).

THOMPSON: It turns out the filmmakers had already had the same idea.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, I mean, not surprising, but it was interesting to me to listen back to that and realize that that was the topic of your curiosity. And now, here it is. So what did you think?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I loved it. As my high school's runner-up to go to Boys State back in 1989, we called it Badger Boy, I took a keen interest in both films. And watching this one, it is such a fascinating companion piece to the first film. It is much less chilling to watch large groups of girls than it is to watch large groups of boys. The crowd energy - anytime this film shows you, like, a little peep into the crowd energy at Missouri Boys State, it has this strangely chilling effect because the vibes are so different.

HOLMES: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BOYS STATE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting, inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting, inaudible)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting, inaudible)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting, inaudible)

HOLMES: Well, and it reminds me of watching "Boys State."

THOMPSON: It does.

HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.

THOMPSON: And I immediately found myself very attached to basically every person in this film because, among other things, you're not only seeing people come into their own ideologically and sort of figuring out who they are ideologically, you're sometimes seeing people moving ideologically. It's really interesting to see particularly the journey of Emily, whose conservatism is sort of stated more than it's shown. We see her sort of talk about her identity without necessarily giving you a deep sense of the ideological firmament that it's built on.

And so seeing her journey and seeing her sort of figuring out who she is and what she stands for and how being in that process makes her a weaker candidate for governor is really fascinating to me. And I felt like watching her. I'm not just seeing a foil to these more progressive girls. I'm seeing somebody who's figuring out who she is as this is going along. And to me, that's sort of the best thing about these programs, which have a lot of hardwired flaws in them. I really just hung on this film's every word. Its...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Ninety-seven minutes goes by in what feels like 20. I rooted for everyone, obviously to varying degrees, but, like, at the end, you get a little sense of, like, what they're doing next. And I got emotional. I'm just, like, take over, put them in charge...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Skip my stupid generation completely and put these people in charge.

HOLMES: Yeah. I really was fascinated, also, by the differences between these films and going back and listening to the conversation, Stephen, that you and I and Glen had with Bilal Qureshi about "Boys State" at the time. When I think about "Boys State," and I compare it to this film, I think that "Boys State," to me, was a portrait other than, as we've acknowledged, there are individual kids who are all over the place in these documentaries. They are not all alike. They are not all alike in "Boys State." They're not all alike here. There are some boys in "Boys State" who are very impressive, who I would be happy to turn over the future to, but the - kind of the mass background crowd energy in "Boys State" is a sense that they are coming into what they're going to get access to.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: And in "Girls State," they are coming into a sense of what they're going to have to do. And I think the stakes are completely different.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: And it's interesting to see that play out both, obviously, the proximity of Dobbs and the fact that they are talking extensively about reproductive freedom, these girls are, and I think, you know, if it were 2024 instead of 2022, it would probably still be that, but it would probably also be other things - right? - you would see other questions on their minds, as well.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: They very specifically shoot this. And it's a very interesting moment. They shoot this in that strange little interregnum that happened between when the Dobbs decision was leaked and when the Dobbs decision actually came out. So everybody kind of knows what it's going to be, but they're kind of preparing for it. And it's this very odd moment, and the girls are all really thinking about it. And there are stakes not only in that sense, but also stakes in the sense that you've both alluded to, where they're noticing things about how the programs are run that are profoundly different. And obviously, the "Boys State" documentary is Texas, and this is Missouri. So they're not a direct comparison between the programs and the two films. But Missouri Boys State and Missouri Girls State are taking place on the same campus at the same time. And the girls are noticing things, like, at first it's smaller things, like...

THOMPSON: Yeah, a lot of dress codes and a lot of singing.

HOLMES: All sort of aimed at being adequately modest.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: The girls are told they have to have buddies. They're not really allowed to just explore the campus by themselves. And probably the most...

THOMPSON: Oh, man.

HOLMES: ...Glaring one...

THOMPSON: Oh, man.

HOLMES: ...I think.

THOMPSON: I'm still mad about this. How do you step in this, this hard?

HOLMES: I don't know who didn't realize how this was going to look, but both Boys State and Girls State elect a governor, and the actual governor of the state of Missouri shows up to swear in the governor of Boys State...

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...But not the governor of Girls State.

HARRIS: Oh.

THOMPSON: I'm not sure he...

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Wanted to be on the same stage. I'm not sure the newly-elected governor of Girls State would have...

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Let him off the hook as easily.

HOLMES: But here's the thing. They don't even seem to bother.

THOMPSON: Oh, it's shocking.

HOLMES: The way it comes off is that they just don't think it's important.

HARRIS: Right.

HOLMES: And when you combine that with, as I said, the sense that Boys State is all about entering your moment of access to power, right? Swagger and bombast. And I always remember...

THOMPSON: Oh.

HOLMES: ...The kid in the "Boys State" film...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Saying our masculinity will not be infringed, which is a quote...

HARRIS: Yes. Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Thundered from...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...The voice of a real person. It's so striking how different these programs are. And I think those stakes are part of what - you know, Emily winds up being kind of interested in journalism, and so she's writing a story about the differences in these programs. And there being actual stakes, there being actual things they're trying to accomplish within the program changes the complexion of the whole thing, I think.

HARRIS: Well, I mean, the other just baffling thing is that the girls bring it up to the counselors multiple...

THOMPSON: Right.

HARRIS: ...Times, and the counselors are like, we're not talking about that. It feels like probably maybe their first or one of their first tastes of being just completely shut down. And it's, like...

HOLMES: Hundred percent.

HARRIS: ...Really disheartening to watch this. But also, it's just, like, I guess this is just the rite of passage to becoming a woman. It's like, this is going to happen. Might as well happen in this environment. What - again, this goes back to this idea that, like, the girls in this program are fighting, like, the basic, basic tenets of, like, misogyny and sexism, which is, like, they're getting all this story about, like, being uplifted and, like, fixing each other's crowns - like, that's what a counselor actually says. And I'm just like, oh my God, this is such fluff. And at one point, one of them does say...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...I'm sick of this fluff. Let's actually hear a little bit of what they say.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GIRLS STATE")

CECILIA: (As Cecilia Bartin) I'm a little sick of the fluff.

EMILY: (As Emily Worthmore) Yeah. When does it get...

CECILIA: (As Cecilia Bartin) They know exactly...

MADDIE ROWAN: (As Maddie Rowan) Right. Like, everybody says that they want to represent their people. Everybody says that they want to be friends with everyone and have everyone's voices heard. OK, let's have a real conversation.

CECILIA: (As Cecilia Bartin) If we want a genuine experience on something, we have to talk about real-world issues, and we have yet to do that in any aspect.

HARRIS: It's just really disappointing. But also, I think it's really another reason why it's important for this documentary to exist because it really does show how women tend to be coached into politics versus - and in life versus how boys are.

THOMPSON: There is a point where Emily is doing this reporting on the disparities between the two, and she talks to several boys who've been part of Boys State.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GIRLS STATE")

EMILY: (As Emily Worthmore) Like, are there any things that you wish that you could do like Girls State does?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You all, like, have a lot of free time. We're like, go, go, go.

THOMPSON: And they're talking about, like, it would have been nice not to have the schedule so tightly packed with activity.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GIRLS STATE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I don't - I feel like I don't know enough about Girls State. We had a packed schedule, that's for sure.

THOMPSON: And she's just sitting there seething as she's had to, like, make friendship bracelets and decorate cupcakes.

HOLMES: Yeah. This is another thing that really stood out to me when I listened to our conversation about "Boys State" is the ugly undercurrent of "Boys State" to me was, in part, these boys who were coming together as a group and becoming worse.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And when they got around each other, it seemed to really build this kind of - it was almost like the way that sometimes, like, online forums can do.

HARRIS: It was giving a lot of Charlottesville energy there.

HOLMES: You get them all in a room together, and these boys who, as I said, they're not all alike - I'm talking about the kind of general energy that you got from the crowd.

HARRIS: Right.

HOLMES: There got to be a very kind of kidding on the square way that they would talk about sort of becoming dominant and telling everybody how things are going to be, and isn't power going to be freaking great? And they're sort of kidding, but not kidding.

THOMPSON: Well, and remember that the "Boys State" film, there's a lot of those guys getting together and bantering back and forth and discussing what to do about abortion.

HARRIS: Right.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Part of the experience of watching it is you are watching a bunch of 17-year-old boys deciding what should be done about women's bodies...

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...And so that comparison between the two films is really striking as well.

HOLMES: In some ways, the girls are fortunate in this way. I think the social pressures on them are a little bit more pro-social, we would say - right? - not the part that is, like, the sing a little song about being in Girls State - that song...

HARRIS: Oh, God.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GIRLS STATE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) And we come from Girls State, the best state in the land, ra ra ra (ph).

HOLMES: ...Not the friendship bracelets or the cupcake decorating. Although, like, if you like friendship bracelets...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...And cupcake decorating...

THOMPSON: No shade against each of those things.

HOLMES: ...That's fine. And if that were not in the context of all the other messed up stuff that goes on in terms of the Girls State program, I probably wouldn't have cared about it.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: Not that stuff, but the stuff that kind of encourages - they kind of encourage each other to be supportive and friendly. There's an interesting little side story about Nisha becoming friends with...

HARRIS: Brooke.

HOLMES: ...A girl - with Brooke, who also wants to be on the Supreme Court. And it's such a tricky dynamic because, like, they are friends, but at the same time, like, Brooke is white and seems to have otherwise all-white friends, and Nisha is not white. And, Aisha, you reacted when I mentioned this friendship.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: And I want to know kind of what you're thinking.

HARRIS: Yeah. Nisha and Brooke had such a really heartening friendship, and they were going up against each other for Supreme Court justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GIRLS STATE")

BROOKE TAYLOR: (As Brooke Taylor) Nisha came up and talked to me, like, and I was like, OK, this is cool. You're cool. You're a cool person. You're so much different than me. And I think that's great for both of us. Let's talk. Let's hang out. And...

HARRIS: For all those sort of, like, ra, ra fluff that, like, I'm glad the girls were kind of pushing back against, I do think it was also nice to see that there was still a friendship to flourish. And...

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...It was interesting to see because, you know, Nisha's South Asian, I believe, and they don't really talk about that. But they find each other, and none of it feels fake.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GIRLS STATE")

NISHA: (As Nisha Murali) Do you want to know the first thing I thought when I saw you?

TAYLOR: (As Brooke Taylor) What?

NISHA: (As Nisha Murali) I was wondering how someone could make being here look so easy.

HARRIS: I love Nisha.

THOMPSON: I know.

HOLMES: I love Nisha, too.

HARRIS: She's self-admittedly very awkward, but, like, she sees this as a chance for her to not only, you know, sharpen her skills in politics, but also to just come out of her shell and practice her social skills.

HOLMES: She's going to be an astonishing adult, no...

THOMPSON: Oh, my gosh. Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Matter what she decides to do.

HARRIS: Yeah. And, like, she has no problem saying, like, I'm really disappointed that I don't wind up getting this, but also, like, I'm very happy. And I think that that sense - again, coming back to them not being quite so jaded yet and in that, like, kind of prime moment - is really what makes this flourish. And I love seeing that little side friendship because we didn't - again, the "Boys State" documentary, we don't really see that - much of that. Instead, we get so much backstabbing, racist attacks, like, against each other - members of Boys State, like...

THOMPSON: And also in "Boys State," this weird undercurrent of, like, I just said I believed all those things to get power...

HARRIS: Yes.

THOMPSON: ...I didn't really believe it. I don't actually...

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Really care about that.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: There's much less of that here.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I also like the fact that I think they leave space for you to also, though, continue to contemplate what is the relationship between those friendships and things that actually impact power - right? - because, in the end, Nisha and Brooke are friends, but only one of them is going to be on the Supreme Court. And in the event that it is Brooke, maybe you stay friends, but Brooke still becomes just as powerful...

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.

HOLMES: ...Whether she's friendly to Nisha or not - which I don't know what the relevance of that is in this situation. But it also comes up - there's a moment where one of the other girls is talking about Emily and basically saying, well, I don't really agree with any of her policy...

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...But I think she's a good person, and she goes about politics in the right way. And I was like, oh, God.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GIRLS STATE")

ROWAN: (As Maddie Rowan) She heard a lot of voices she didn't necessarily want to hear. She had a lot of hard conversations. And that's not easy. That takes guts. Guts I don't have. And I don't agree with the policies she would create, but I think she is a good human being.

HOLMES: This kind of, like, niceness also has such a dark side when it comes to how it interplays with actual politics because being somebody's friend doesn't result in you actually sharing power with them, if that...

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: ...Makes sense.

HARRIS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Or administering their policies.

HOLMES: Exactly.

HARRIS: Exactly. The - yeah, that friendship was a little more concerning to me because the other girl, she was queer - openly queer, and, you know, look, I think Emily - what I liked about Emily is that she at least seemed like she wanted to hear other people's opinions, which is a low bar to clear, but this is where we're at now.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: And so it was interesting to me because I'm like, girls, just wait five years, see if you still feel the same way...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Because I don't know if you will.

THOMPSON: Well, and you're hitting on a point that I really wanted to make here, which was when I watched "Boys State," I immediately wanted to see "Girls State." Watching "Girls State," what I want is a series of "Seven Up!" style sequels in which we...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Revisit these women as they grow up and grow older, see how their politics shift, see how their positions shift, see how their relationships and friendships shift.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: And I'm...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...So curious to see and hear how some of these ideologies will shift.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: You know, somebody who's extremely hard charging at 17, some of those edges get sanded down, some of them get sharpened.

HOLMES: Exactly.

THOMPSON: I'm so curious in part because these young women are so intelligent. I'm also just, like, curious to hear their ideas as they get older and hopefully...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Take power.

HOLMES: Right. Because Emily, in particular, I think is a good portrait of a person who is at that point in life where what she believes, and to her credit, she's still willing to listen to people about things, as Aisha kind of alluded to, which I think is - that's a good thing.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: And somebody who is at that point, she's at this moment where I think her ideology could either become more complex - right? - or could ossify...

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...You know?

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: But you kind of see the promise of having her in a program like this where she does have a chance to meet a lot of different people. And that's true for everybody of any political persuasion who goes through a program like this. She's still figuring out - how does my politics fit together with my religious beliefs, right?

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: And she's still kind of navigating that, which makes a lot of sense to me.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, the last thing I'll say is that regardless of where they all stood and their identities and how they were forming their ideologies, they all seemed to unite over just how much it sucked that they had so many inequities. And I think it's telling that the girl who does wind up winning governor, she's very charismatic, but also, she doesn't have any policies involved in her speech at all. It's just about being told to smile by older men and how I don't want to be mistreated, and we're dealing with all this stuff at Girls State. It's terrible. And she runs on that, and she wins on that. And I don't know if, you know, bonding over misogyny is going to - it's going to save the world per se because there's so many other things to worry about as well, but it was kind of the perfect ending for this documentary.

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, we really liked "Girls State." We also really liked "Boys State." You can watch them both on Apple TV+. And that brings us to the end of our show. Stephen Thompson, Aisha Harris, thank you so much for being here.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

HOLMES: This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.

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