Girls State: what we learned when teenage girls were put in charge of everything

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss tell us about their new documentary Girls State, following a campus in Missouri that allows girls to form a mock government.

5 April 2024

By Faye D. Effard

Girls State (2024)

Amid the turbulent political landscape following the leaked Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization draft opinion for the Supreme Court overturning of Roe v Wade in 2022, 600 young women piled into a campus in Missouri to take part in a summer-camp style political leadership programme that asks the question: “What would American democracy look like in the hands of teenage girls?”

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss chronicle the programme in their coming-of-age documentary Girls State, a sibling film to their 2020 film Boys State, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Both films offer a glimpse into the week-long process of teenagers electing a mock government with character studies of the politically diverse participants. However, Girls State takes on a different narrative with the added element that, for the first time in the 80-year history of the programme, the boys’ and girls’ programmes run adjacently on the same campus. And as it is now possible to view the programmes side by side, the inequality of opportunity and gender expectations becomes unmistakeable. This result is a film that captures a microcosm of patriarchal governance.

Directors McBaine and Moss joined us on Zoom to discuss their approach to a film that poignantly speaks to societal structures, girlhood and political participation. 

Girls State (2024) directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss
© Apple TV+

What were the key themes or issues you wanted to explore in Girls State?

Amanda McBaine: We went in with a lot of questions, not a lot of answers. Finding the right people and holding on to them is our north star through any project. We knew going in that we wanted to explore how young people are coming of age in this incredibly trying and difficult time in our country. 

Jesse Moss: The fundamental questions were: is this project that we call democracy irreparably broken in this country? Do we have a political future? What can these young people tell us? As the future political actors in this country, are they able to talk to each other across the divisions that we see in our adult state? The boys’ experience was very tribal in its division, and we, as parents of two teenage daughters, were curious to see how young women are coming of age four years later, and what they could tell us about being a woman today.

McBaine: With Boys State, people were like: “Oh, Lord of the Flies.” And then with Girls State, people were like: “Oh, Mean Girls.” It’s so interesting, the preconceptions people have in their minds. What surprises people in watching our film is the acts of compassion, the acts of listening and community-building in these spaces.

When making Boys State, was it always part of the plan to have a Girls State sibling film?

McBaine: The short answer is yes; it was just a matter of when, where, how and whom. We did talk to Texas Girls State while we were making Texas Boys State. It just didn’t work out. 

Did you anticipate that Girls State would take on such a different narrative compared with Boys State? 

Moss: We didn’t know when the filming started what was going to happen. These projects take on a life of their own. In Texas, it was 1,000 boys. In Missouri, there were 600 girls. It gets messy and complicated in interesting ways, and the joy of making a project is you just hurl yourself into this maelstrom and see what comes out. 

McBaine: I’m also glad Girls State was so different to Boys State. My fear was that it was going to feel the same. Our country has changed four years on, Missouri is different from Texas, and girls are certainly different from boys. There are a lot more rules that the girls have to follow, which was immediately apparent to us and frustrating to the kids too. It was a microcosm example of women in the world who face different structural obligations, demands, internalised patriarchy. All this stuff suddenly became very noticeable.

Girls State (2024)
© Apple TV+

How did the girls react when you approached them and asked them to participate? How do you get people to trust you? 

McBaine: There was a very long process of finding the girls. Way before filming started we had Zoom meetings with hundreds of the kids who wanted to talk to us. We whittled it down to a small group that we visited at their home. We saw their homes, their families, their dogs, their after school activities… we really got to know them. From there, we handpicked our core team of kids who were smart, politically savvy and emotionally vulnerable enough to share their internal life with us on camera without any kind of performance.

Moss: I went to a prom in Missouri as part of this development process. You follow them around and figure out who you think has those qualities, and then you’d take that leap of faith and they take it with you. 

How do you hope that Girls State will contribute to the larger conversation around political participation, especially among young women? 

Moss: For us old fogey parent types, it was a goal to make a film that young people can connect with. It is serious, but it is also funny. It’s hard, because we are so traumatised by our politics and everyone is terrified of the future. To invite people into a political conversation right now is difficult, especially people who come from different political perspectives. It’s the same challenge of the camp itself. However, young people are a secret, sneaky, backdoor way to do that. It’s disarming. Even though what we’re talking about is very serious – representation, political leadership and even abortion – it’s a different way to have a conversation about this. That’s what we strive to contribute through the film. 

McBaine: Any story or piece of entertainment that shows an image of a woman in a leadership role, even when it’s these kids doing it in a fake government way, helps add to the conversation by enabling women to see models of behaviour. There is a reality to how many girls at Girls State wanted to run for Supreme Court versus governor. Part of that is because what’s modelled in the adult state is a Supreme Court that’s basically half female. There’s much less of them in governorships or presidencies. To get people to see themselves in these roles is part of the process on the road to equal representation.