Women Across Borders

This month, guest contributor Emily Bent looks at what’s missing in girl power discourse. Emily Bent is Assistant Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University in New York City and the Co-Chair of the Working Group on Girls (WGG) at the United Nations, a coalition of over 80 nation and international non-governmental organizations dedicated to advancing the rights of girls around the world. Her work has been published in the Global Studies of Childhood Journal and Sociological Studies of Children and Youth, where her article, “A Different Girl Effect: Producing Political Girlhoods in the ‘Invest in Girls’ Climate” was recently named Outstanding Author Contribution in the 2014 Emerald Literati Network Awards for Excellence.

BBOG_GR_AvatarIt’s been six weeks since the mid-April abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Northeastern Nigeria. Despite international attention, public outcries, rallies, petitions, social media campaigns, Google chats, and coordinated military efforts, the girls are still missing—and the world (or at least the mainstream media) appears to have lost interest.

According to Hayes Brown at ThinkProgress.org, Google analytics tell us that while the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls reached peak interest around Friday May 9th, it all but dropped off the radar by the following Monday. As of early June 2014, it appears that we might not be any closer to finding these girls than at the start of the #BringBackOurGirls initiative.

So, where do we go from here? What can we learn from the successes and failures of this political project? And perhaps most importantly, how do we ensure the continued educational safety and opportunity for all of our girls?

We should begin by re-thinking the discursive (im)possibilities of #BringBackOurGirls and the call more broadly to “invest in girls.” Too often, this neoliberal, postfeminist, and girl power discourse gets deployed as the only feasible solution to gender-based inequalities in schools. But if we’re serious about the importance of girls’ education across the globe, then we need to start reframing the following discursive threads:

  1. Let’s start talking about girls’ rights and not just neoliberal girl power.

If we look at popular slogans and arguments for the importance of girls’ education, it is rather striking that the discourse of rights is almost entirely absent. From The Girl Effect’s “invest in a girl and she will do the rest” to Girl Rising’s “one girl with courage is a revolution,” we can see similar messages about the capacity of individual girls to overcome all the odds. Moreover, we understand that the possibilities of her transformation stems from her ability to become “responsible for [her] own regulation,” as Valerie Walkerdine puts it. This neoliberal girl power framework removes the role of the family, community, and government. Instead, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it “encourages girls to take personal responsibility for their successes and failures” inside and outside of the classroom.

Because of the limitations of neoliberal girl power, I suggest that we begin using the discourse of human rights to advocate for girls’ education and girls’ human rights more specifically. We have an arsenal of human rights platforms at our disposal. Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right to primary education and access to secondary education, while Article 2 protects children from violence and discrimination based on sex, race, language, ethnicity, birth status and so forth. The Beijing Platform for Action, Section L addresses the unique needs of the girl child in the areas of education, health, labor, cultural practices, gender-based violence, political life, and the media among others. CEDAW similarly calls for women and girls’ “human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, [and] civil” life.

It’s time to start leveraging the weight of human rights platforms in the movement for girls’ education. We need to stop telling individual girls to “start a revolution” and “do the rest” and instead, work more collectively to demand that girls’ human rights be respected. Nigeria has signed onto the CRC, CEDAW and Beijing Platform for Action. Why not start holding governments accountable for what they pledge to do for girls in their country? We can’t do this with the slogan of neoliberal girl power.

  1. Girls are more than investment opportunities or economic assets waiting to be “harnessed.”

One of the most troubling aspects of the “invest in girls” narrative is how this discursive move positions girls as objects and economic assets but never subjects in their own right. The justification for educating girls tends to follow a similar pattern; we document all of the good things that happen to a country’s economy and the global marketplace when a girl is educated, but we never speak about the girl as an actual person.

For example, Nicholas Kristof notes in The New York Times that girls’ education “can, in effect, almost double the formal labor force. It boosts the economy, raising living standards and promoting a virtuous cycle of development.” Investing in girls gives us the opportunity to “harness” and “unleash” the potential of girls’ economic productivity. Indeed, Tara Abraham of Girl Rising states, “the benefits have been well researched… and that is the potential we want to harness and unleash on countries like Nigeria.”

I am deeply uncomfortable with the language of investment returns, of harnessing and unleashing. It makes girls out to be something less than human. It denies girls of their subjectivity and human rights and, as Heather Switzer argues, it “empt[ies] girl subjects of agency.” I understand the purpose of this language is to capture investors and convince the international community that we need to pay attention to girls, but there must be a way to do this without reifying girls’ objectification under the auspices of economic development.

  1. It’s time to complicate the picture: education is not the answer and neither is the girl. So, let’s stop saying that it is that simple, because it is not.

In this fast-paced, media-saturated world, I understand the power of a clear, bold message that captures an audience and inspires individuals to take action. But, I think we need to rethink the overreliance on simplistic stories of sociocultural and geopolitical change. It doesn’t happen just because one girl went to school or one person donated a backpack; it happens much more haphazardly than we would like to admit.

Switzer also notes that the neoliberal girl power narrative “reinforces a fundamental (post)feminist development dictum that simply providing school will de facto empower [girls… even when we know] that education is not a gender-neutral public good; schools are not always safe spaces for girls… and female education does not guarantee the fundamental gendered social transformations… required for her to ‘call the shots.’” In other words, girls’ empowerment takes more than a school uniform; it requires buy-in from her family, culture and society, government, and the global community. It is time to get comfortable with a more complicated (and often contradictory) picture of social change and empowerment. Because the solution is a lot less clear than we would like it to be.

#BringOurGirlsBack represents both the tragedy and opportunities created by injustice. I thus see this as a moment to reflect upon what is still needed to achieve girls’ human rights. What do we, as a global community, need to do to ensure that all girls can attend school safely? And what do we need to do to hold perpetrators of violence against girls accountable for their actions, whether in Northeastern Nigeria or Santa Barbara, California?

Photo by Margaret Fox

Last week, I had the opportunity to check out a day of Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. A lot of it was incredibly powerful. Some of it raised disturbing questions. The pace of the day left me breathless. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the entire production.

The format is unlike any conference I’ve ever attended as either a writer or a professor: audience members sit in the dark while panel after panel unfolds on the stage. It’s highly produced and quite sleek. There’s no time for questions or discussion or reflection; everything is kept tightly on schedule. You can’t digest the stories of genocide and survival told by Rwandan women because you’re immediately thrown into the viewing of a film clip that sets up the next panel. In the course of the morning and part of the afternoon, I watched thirteen panels.

(I missed two because I had to eat lunch, and then I had to leave to cook dinner for my kids. Yes, they have to eat, too.)

This is Tina Brown’s “live journalism,” which she described to Washington Post journalist Emily Heil as follows:

It’s as journalistically intense as anything I’ve done—we spend our time finding incredible stories. We do a great deal of culling to find the most compelling stories and presenting them with a lot of dramatic intensity. It’s like living the pages of a magazine.

Exactly. Like living the pages of a magazine.

To be fair, some panels featured conversations that I recognized as journalism. I was rapt when Charlie Rose interviewed Pussy Riot activists Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova. They are incredibly brave, smart activists who articulated a powerfully trenchant critique of Russia (thanks to their interpreter) along with journalist-author Masha Gessen.

Other panels felt a bit more like corporate PR. This is also the world of WITW: corporate sponsors are all over the summit and in particular, the “Sponsor Solutions” section of the program. A lot of the summit has to do with the promotion of Women in the World as a “global brand” and “global platform” for the “women’s empowerment movement,” which is an accurate name for what this is.

I have mixed feelings. After all, what activist wouldn’t want to gain access to a global platform such as this? It’s a hugely powerful way to spread your message and talk about your work. At the same time, you’re signing on to be part of a media edutainment machine, largely funded by multinational corporations. The forces of neoliberalism and global capitalism are writ large all over this event. As journalist Luisita Lopez Torregrosa puts it:

A hyper organizer and lavish spender, Brown produces a perfect alchemy, mixing glamour and razzle-dazzle (Angelina Jolie! Meryl Streep! Pussy Riot!) with the gravitas of world figures like Hillary Clinton (who has launched her own women’s empowerment initiative), Christine Lagarde and Samantha Power, and the courage of unheralded activists. That high-gloss format draws to Women in the World the sort of media attention few other groups enjoy. It is also a magnet for international corporations like Toyota, Merck, Bank of America, AT&T, Dove, the Coca-Cola Co., Walmart and JW Marriott, all opening their checkbooks to help raise their own profiles among women.

In other words, the revolution is now being brought to you by Walmart.

Earlier this year, Jessica Valenti summed up “corporate feminism” in The Nation as follows:

The corporate interpretation of feminism has more to do with cheerleading all women’s accomplishments than ending patriarchy and pushing for equal rights.

While true, this doesn’t tell the whole story of the WITW summit. I heard many different stories, and a good number of the activists weren’t solely telling a story of individualized women’s empowerment (even when that interpretation was offered by their interviewer). The Rwandan women weren’t. Pussy Riot certainly didn’t. Many of the activists talked about ending oppression and systemic violence of all kinds. Comedian Sarah Silverman (who was there with her sister, Rabbi Susan) spoke out about women’s right to abortion. The activists and feminists at the center of the summit focused on equality, peace, and human rights.

But there were interesting tensions, at times, between what they were saying and the tightly scripted, predetermined format of the summit. The “stories” and the “solutions” didn’t always line up neatly, like the glossy program would have you believe.

The panel that illustrated this the most for me featured Senna, a young Peruvian woman and poet from the documentary Girl Rising (which I wrote about last year). Senna is amazing. She performed a powerful poem that she had written (in Spanish) and, with the help of writer Marie Arana as interpreter, talked with journalist Juju Chang. Then, someone else walked out onto the stage: a young woman from Compton, LA named Marquesha Babers, who had been so moved by Girl Rising that she wrote a poem in honor of Senna. Somehow the WITW team had discovered Marquesha and had flown her to New York to perform her poem in front of Senna.

Let me tell you, this young woman rocked the house. Talk about the power of words spoken by a poet on fire. Everyone was in tears. It was hard not to be deeply moved.

At the same time, it felt a bit like I was watching a daytime TV talk show. Mainly because of the way individual human struggles were being turned into entertainment. And then, as we were all wiping our eyes and everyone on stage was hugging, the journalist—perhaps in a struggle to find something to say? to deal with the overwhelming emotion? to move things along?—commented that she wished she was filming a TV show so that she could fast-forward ten years and see what best friends they had become.

A powerful moment of human connection, instantly packaged into DocuTV. I know she didn’t mean any harm by it. But it startled me.

In 2009, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a memorable TED talk (another powerful media platform) in which she talked about the “power of the single story.” In it, she observed that

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

Precisely. Who knows what the future will hold for Senna and Marquesha? Will they be friends, or not? Will they achieve their potential? Will they be happy? What meanings will they themselves derive from their lives, and how will they express these meanings—in poetry, or in other ways?

I hope these two girls remain strong. I hope they continue to write poetry. I hope they continue to be the authors of their own lives. But the meanings of their lives will likely unfold in complex and multiple ways. Despite this connection, their lives may be very different from each other. (Their lives are very different from each other.) Whatever meaning they will forge—whatever meaning any of us have—will far exceed the format of a segment on TV.

If this is live journalism, then I’d like more poetry.

Follow Heather online @heatherhewett. 

TGMMNest_zpsee9d679aOne of the projects I’ve been working on lately has inspired me to dig deeply in my own backyard. I’ve long been a fan of the many feminist thinkers and writers who have unpacked the elevated (and at times impossible) expectations our culture places on mothers—standards I’ve often found myself internalizing, despite the fact that I should know better. So I’ve been thinking about what these expectations mean for those of us raising kids with food allergies, an increasing population (perhaps as much as 8% of all children in the U.S.) that continues to baffle scientists and parents.

In our case, our ten-year-old has multiple, life-threatening food allergies—something I’d never even heard of when I was growing up. Two months ago, I wrote about how this invisible disability challenges us to rethink inclusion in school for The New York Times Motherlode blog. Now I have a personal essay about the impact of good mother myths on those of us caring for kids with food allergies in the forthcoming book The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality. (Girl w/ Pen founder Deborah Siegel has an essay in it as well.)

Editor Avital Norman Nathman is expanding the conversation and wants your ideas about the following question: what’s a good mother? The details are here:

I want to hear from YOU about what it means to be a “good mother.” The Good Mother Myth shares the stories of women across the country (and a few outside the US!), all breaking down the concept of the stereotypical good mother. But I want to hear more! With each voice added to the collective narrative of motherhood, we are one step closer to showing how rich and diverse motherhood can be. It is not a stereotype that can be boxed up and used to pit women against each other!

So, tell me – what does being a “good mother” mean to you? Write up your response (100-500 words) and send it along with a photo, 1-2 sentence bio and any links to your website/social media to TheMamafesto@gmail.com.

So please join the conversation with your thoughts about what being a “good mother” means to you, wherever and whoever you are.

Follow Heather on Twitter: @heatherhewett.

I just returned from the National Women’s Studies Association Conference feeling inspired and energized. (There’s so much amazing work that I can barely stand it!) Two panels in particular spoke to an issue that I think about a great deal: how can we bridge the various kinds of feminist work going on in different places?

Ileana Jiménez spoke about how to bridge women’s and gender studies in high school and university classrooms at a visionary session moderated by Patti Provance and featuring an amazing lineup: Stephanie Troutman (Berea College), Rachel Seidman (whose Duke University undergraduate students in her Women in the Public Sphere class started the Who Needs Feminism? campaign), and Jiménez, who has been publicly sharing her work as a high school feminist teacher and advocating for social justice education for over fifteen years.

Jiménez talked about “breaking down the silos” of K-12 and university classrooms, which really resonated with me on multiple levels. As a women’s and gender studies professor and a former high school teacher, I’ve felt for a long time that we should collectively think about social justice education in middle and high school, a focus of the recent AAUW Gender Studies Symposium. I’ve been following Jiménez’s work for a while, and it was inspiring to hear her as well as Seidman and Troutman, all of whom are working in innovative ways to break down educational borders.

To move to the boundaries of geography: I had the honor of presenting on a panel with Alicia Catharine Decker (Purdue University), who talked about the development of women’s and gender studies in Morocco and Uganda. Decker’s close analysis of the histories of these two programs suggested some interesting differences in disciplinary focus, a theme that emerged in my own comparison of women’s and gender studies in Africa and North America. (A third panelist, Adrianna L. Ernstberger, was unfortunately unable to present her research on women’s and gender studies in Uganda.) Our panel suggested the possibility of mutually beneficial collaborations that might come out of future conversations between women’s and gender studies teacher-activists based in Africa and the U.S.

As Jiménez put it so eloquently: feminists must break out of our individual silos in order to create a larger movement for social change. I’d only add that we must understand the larger landscape—both our own location as well as others’—in order to cross borders and figure out how each of us can work best with one another.

October 11 is the second International Day of the Girl Child. At my daughter’s school, it’s a half day (that bane of working parents everywhere), so we’re going to the United Nations for the Day of the Girl Speak Out, sponsored by the Working Group on Girls. The summit will be live-streamed at the Day of the Summit website, which explains the event as follows:

This event will give girls the chance to speak with governments and UN Agencies about how they are making strides for girls in their community. Girls selected for the Girls Speak Out will share information about their strategies for creating change and they will talk about how the international community can support their efforts. Approximately half of the girls at the Speak Out will present on issues related to the International Day of the Girl 2013 theme, “Innovating for Girls’ Education.”

After the Speak Out, we’re heading over to Times Square to dance and celebrate with the Brave Girls Take Back Media campaign, organized by The Brave Girls Alliance. They’ve rented a billboard in Times Square that will feature tweets from girls, parents, educators, and other adults about what girls want and need. (What do brave girls want? My daughter listed the following: “Clothes that girls can be active in! Legos with ‘regular’ girls! Legos with girls who wear clothes they can be active in!”)

You can tell my daughter loves Legos. And not the pink variety, either. The “regular” kind.

Needless to say, I’m very excited about tomorrow. I feel hugely privileged to be able to take my daughter to the UN and Times Square and listen to girl activists from around the world. (My daughter is a kid who loved the movie Lincoln and whose list of Fun Things To Do includes reciting the names of the U.S. presidents and several of the Constitutional Amendments, so this stuff is right up her alley.) I’m most excited about the fact that the main purpose of the Speak Out is to listen to other girls. I have no idea what they’ll say, of course, so I’m a bit nervous. My daughter is only ten. But the vibe around the event is positive, and though she might not understand everything, I’m hoping we’ll both learn from listening. And frankly, I can’t think of a time when we’ve ever had an opportunity to do something like this.

At the same time, I have some questions about the global girls’ movement. How to ensure that the missionary zeal that has characterized so much global feminism coming from Western feminists will not also inflect the global girls’ movement? How to make sure that a diverse range of girls from around the world will have an equal voice in this movement?

As a parent, I also wonder: How can parents teach our kids about global inequities and being empowered as activists without disempowering less-privileged girls?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m hoping that listening will be a good place to start. And then, of course, talking about what we hear.

Another challenge for the girls’ movement revolves around this question: How to ensure that girls of all ages are included, and that adult women don’t wield too much power in what should be a movement of and for girls—a movement that enables girls to be its leaders?

I write that last sentence having just seen the film Wadjda, which features the most fabulous girl protagonist I’ve seen in a long time. Ten-year-old Wadjda lives in Riyadh, wears high tops, loves mixtapes, and sells homemade bracelets sporting popular soccer colors. She is fiercely independent and determined. What does this brave girl want? A bike.

Wadjda is the first feature-length movie filmed in Saudi Arabia, and the first movie to have been made by a Saudi woman, Haifaa al-Mansour. It’s quiet but memorable. I won’t say much more, only that the film reminds us of how change happens: one girl—and one bike—at a time.


I just finished reading the June issue of Poetry magazine, which features the landay, an oral form of poetry popular among Pashtun women in Afghanistan.

You should really just go read the issue here. But here’s a quick description:

The landay is an anonymous and collective tradition with origins in the Indo-Aryan caravans of thousands of years ago. These couplets were traditionally sung to the beat of a hand drum. “Landay” itself means “short, poisonous snake,” and it can indeed bite like a snake: quick and frequently acerbic, the landay is only twenty-two syllables long, with nine syllables in one line and thirteen in the other.


Here’s an example of one:

You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.

Landays are a form in which women can voice a rage of feelings—love, longing, anger, desire, lust, pride, nationalism, and grief—while remaining anonymous. Because they’re constantly repeated and remixed, they’re not about the speaker personally. At the same time, they are about the speaker, because different landays resonate with different individuals.

Landays are often shared in secret. Men don’t hear women speak or sing them. As a consequence, they can be subversive in multiple ways.

The poet-journalist who translated these landays, Eliza Griswold, worked with photographer Seamus Murphy in Afghanistan to collect as many landays as possible. Their collaboration resulted in the stunningly beautiful issue of Poetry (which also features some fabulous commentary by Griswold) as well as a forthcoming collection, I Am The Beggar Of The World: Landays From Contemporary Afghanistanpictured above.

(If you’re really interested, Seamus Murphy has made a short film, Snake, with more images and audio that includes recitations of landays in Pashto and English. There’s also an older collection of landays, called Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women’s Poetry, originally collected and translated into French by the poet Sayd Bahodine Majrouh during the civil war in the 1980s, and then translated into English by the distinguished Marjolijn de Jager. Oh, and check out the Facebook page on landays as well.)

Despite all the writing about Afghanistan in the West—the journalism, the policy papers, the political pronouncements—these poems remind us of the voices that are shut out of the halls of power. Their lines suggest deep and often bitter feelings about the U.S., the Taliban, and the years of war and foreign occupation. One landay dating back to the nineteenth century used to be about a British soldier, but today it has changed:

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.
To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.

Many of these poems are political and speak with rage about loss and destruction.

The speakers of these landays aren’t voiceless victims. I’m reminded of Lila Abu-Lughod’s critique of the rhetoric around “saving” Afghan women that was used to justify the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. What happens when we construct the Afghan woman as someone as in need of saving, she asks: “What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her?”

By contrast, these poems reveal a complex portrait. They speak of the ongoing oppression of Pashtun women, many of whom are illiterate—but they also suggest women’s agency and depth as human beings.

They also hint at the complex position of Pashtun women in ways that resonate with women’s postcolonial writing from other regions of the world. Feelings of nationalism—fostered in resistance to occupation and imperialism—vie with critiques of patriarchy. Gender matters, but it’s certainly not the only problem.

Most of all, I’m struck by how many of these landays speak openly about desire and lust. More than anything, this theme counters the image of Afghan women as victims. I won’t quote the bawdiest ones (they might make Shakespeare blush!), but here’s one to end on:

Is there not one man here brave enough to see
how my untouched thighs burn the trousers off me?

I’m eager to see more feminist scholarship on Afghan women’s poetry—and to read more landays.

On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot on a bus in Pakistan. Last month, she addressed the UN about the need for free, compulsory education for all children around the world.

Malala has inspired many people in the global campaign for girls’ education—a campaign that has partly provided inspiration for a new Pakistani female superhero, “Burka Avenger.” Created by entrepreneur and pop star Haroon Rashid, Burka Avenger is a cartoon series centered on the adventures of Jiya, a mild-mannered schoolteacher. Disguised as Burka Avenger, she fights for justice and education with her martial arts skills and her weapons of choice: books and pens. (Think Clark Kent in a sleek burqa.)

Much of the coverage in the West has touched on the feminist critique of Burka Avenger’s costume. The BBC quotes Marvi Sirmed, an Islamabad-based journalist and human rights activist, who observed the following problem with the show’s message: “you can only get power when you don a symbol of oppression.” Karachi-based writer Bina Shaw asked the following on her blog:

Is it right to take the burka and make it look ‘cool’ for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burka gives you power instead of taking it away from you?

In defense of his character’s burqa, creator Rashid said the following on NPR:

We chose the burqa because of course we wanted to hide her identity the way superheroes do. She doesn’t wear the burqa during the day—she doesn’t even wear a headscarf, or a hijab or anything like that; she goes about her business as a normal teacher would. And so she chooses to wear the burqa, she’s not oppressed… and on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of female superheroes in the West are objectified, and sort of sexualized in their costumes, like Catwoman and Wonder Woman, and that certainly would not work here.

What remains to be seen is what kids in Pakistan will make of the show—arguably what matters the most. As an English professor, I think about this all the time. As a parent, I think about this every time I talk with my kids about what they read and watch. It’s really quite remarkable, the way we all can create such different meanings out of the stories and images that surround us.

I’m reminded of a review written earlier this year by Lori Rotskoff, one of the editors of When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made, about her experience watching “Charlie’s Angels” as a young girl in the 1970s. She observes that

In hindsight, I see that my nine-year-old mindset didn’t jibe with second-wave feminists’, who viewed the Angels as braless bimbos or, worse, as promiscuous pawns in a misogynist enterprise. While the Angels were hardly poster girls for radical feminism, many of us young female spectators regarded them as tough and talented, not titillating.

How will Pakistani children view Burka Avenger, and what messages will they take from her and her superhero costume? Only time will tell.

8577353141_d3f5a69df4_nI can’t remember the last time I wanted to like a nonfiction film as much as I wanted to like Girl Rising. It promised to shed light on many of the issues I feel most passionately about: girls, education, gender-based oppression, and social inequality. Focused on the lives of nine girls around the world, the film’s creators paired nine women writers with each girl in order to write their story. A different American actor then narrates each story: Meryl Streep, Salma Hayek, Cate Blanchett, and so on. The roster of writers included several of my favorites (Edwidge Danticat, for one). So did the actors.

Perhaps predictably, I didn’t love it. I did like parts of it—I was moved by many of the stories and the way several of them were rendered into prose, and I left feeling with a much better sense of the complexity of the challenges facing these nine extraordinary girls. But while the film succeeded in places, it failed in others.

Let me start with what the film does well.

As Natalie X. Baker points out in Bitch Magazine, the strongest part of the film is its exploration of the “bravery and self-determination” possessed by all of these girls. Although they face significant obstacles, these girls aren’t victims. Here are some details from a few of their stories:

  • Fourteen-year-old Senna lives in poverty in an Andes mining town in Peru. Named by her father after the heroine of Xena: Warrior Princess, she discovers Peruvian poet César Vallejo and memorizes his poetry, which she reenacts with passion at school competitions.
  • On the streets of Kolkata, India, eleven-year-old Ruksana paints pictures and attends school. Both her parents work wherever they can and insist that both of their daughters will complete their education and go on to a better life.
  • In Freetown, Sierra Leone, sixteen-year-old Mariama attends school, hosts her own local call-in radio show, and dreams of becoming a scientist.
  • Eight-year-old Wadley survives the earthquake with her mother in Haiti, but they have to relocate to the Carradeux tent camp in Port-au-Prince. Although her mother can no longer afford the school fees for her daughter, Wadley pesters the teacher until she relents and lets Wadley join the class.

Like many other viewers, I found these individual stories far more compelling than what came in between: mostly, stark statistics narrated by a solemn Liam Neeson. I didn’t mind the inclusion of the actual statistics (which do provide a broader picture) as much as the mode of presentation: important facts about girls and education are presented on charming posters held by a beautiful and diverse assortment of girl child models cavorting in the fields. From garbage dumps in Cambodia to the pages of a Garnet Hill catalog.

These precious scenes on the hillside feel like ads. And they are: they are selling the issue of girls’ education. In contrast, the stories about the nine girls are moving. Even when they do not unfold in realistic modes, they generally convey a sense of the girls’ lives.

I just alluded to the fact that many of these stories push at the boundaries of documentary storytelling with playful artistic and poetic flair. Some viewers do not like this. Natalie Baker, for example, criticizes the film for letting the writers take “linguistic liberties in translating and transforming each girl’s story.” She would rather the girls speak for themselves, instead of hearing the girls’ stories as they have been shaped and crafted by writers, and then spoken by actors.

In principal, I agree with Baker—allowing subjects to speak for themselves can be crucially important for informing our understanding and knowledge about their lives and the conditions in which they live. But for some reason, the writerly interventions of Girl Rising didn’t bother me so much. For one, I trusted many of these writers, most of whom were born in the countries in which their subjects live, and many of whom have spent years navigating the tricky ethical territory of writing about others. I also liked the result in many (though not all) of the stories. And importantly, I had a sense of the process. At the beginning, the film explains that each writer spent time with her subject and then did her best to render the girl’s experience in a form that captured the truths of her life. Girl Rising isn’t “straight” documentary, and it doesn’t present itself as such.

All nonfiction is crafted, including “straight” documentary and personal narrative. So I took these stories as stories, based on each writer’s understanding of her subject. That said, I did prefer the way some of the writers approached and crafted their subject’s story more than others; some of the narratives deeply moved me, while others felt overwritten.

A larger problem emerged when stories were reenacted. In general, the girls were played by themselves—so, for example, the character of Wadley is played by Wadley, and presumably some of the other characters in her story are played by those people. But I’m pretty sure that the earthquake scene wasn’t actual documentary footage but rather a reenactment, and it seemed to me that there had to be other actors—in her story, perhaps, but also in others. (The film does tell us that the two girls who live in the Middle East, one in Afghanistan and one in Egypt, were played by actors in order to protect the girls’ identities.)

I’m not a fan of this kind of docudrama, most of all because the film didn’t signal when we were viewing reenactments. As a result, I sometimes wasn’t sure what I was watching: was it “real”? was it fiction? The film crossed some kind of line without informing me. As a result, I had difficulty gauging my emotional reactions.

If part of the success of a documentary (or of any film) is how well the story is told—how it impacts us emotionally as well as intellectually—Girl Rising failed when I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Girl Rising is a film with high production values, expertly directed by documentarian Richard Robbins, and backed by what appears to be a fair amount of money (Intel Corporation is one of the “partners” of 10×10, the “global action campaign” that produced the film, along with The Documentary Group and Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions). This is neither an indie film nor the Women Make Movies documentaries that I frequently show in my Women’s Studies classes. Rather, it’s a new kind of collaboration that brings corporate money to documentary/narrative filmmaking and social issues.

This kind of collaboration generates the money and resources that documentary filmmakers, nonprofit organizations, and social programs need. But it also means that Girl Rising is part of Intel’s program of Corporate Social Responsibility. So should it really come as a surprise that the film’s good intentions get mired in what Natalie Baker calls “cinematic chivalry”? That it leaves out feminist activism on girls’ issues in these various locations? That it lacks any kind of structural analysis, as articulately pointed out by an anonymous commenter over at Bitch? (Never mentioned, for example, are the neoliberal economic policies that have contributed to the existence of school fees in countries like Haiti, or the behavior of multinational gold mining companies in countries like Peru.)

I’m not condoning these omissions. I’m just pointing out that Girl Rising isn’t about economic or political revolution. It attempts to do one thing, and to do it well: to give names and faces and stories to an issue—girls’ education—that is precisely the kind of issue that many people agree with in the abstract but which has failed to become a priority for individual governments, the United Nations, development and human rights organizations, and private foundations. 10×10 wants us to put girls’ education at the top of our list, and they want to make an impact on policy makers and donors—as well as girls in the U.S. And girls and their mothers might well constitute a major portion of the viewing audience. (While I think my nine-year-old daughter is still a little too young to watch Girl Rising, I do wonder whether the film might be particularly well-suited for middle and high school students.)

Which brings me to my last point: the film’s assumptions about its subjects and its viewers. Clearly, girls in the U.S. will be among its viewers. But what about the girls who struggle in this country? We all know that there are groups of girls in the U.S. who face extraordinary challenges in attending and graduating from school. Where are these girls? Don’t we do ourselves a grave disservice by perpetuating the idea that only girls who live elsewhere need help? How hard would it be, really, to include one segment focused on the life of one girl living in this country? That would go a long way towards breaking down the us/them binary that troubles so much U.S.-based activism—and might bring a sense of urgency to the social inequalities affecting girls’ lives here at home.

Girl Rising will premiere on June 16 at 9pm EST on CNN.

51m4CwmluUL._SY300_In yesterday’s issue of The Washington Post, I review White Dog Fell from the Sky, a new novel about an unlikely friendship between an American expat and a South African refugee (“Eleanor Morse’s White Dog Fell from the Sky”).

While I liked many parts of Morse’s novel, I gave it a mixed review. I’m really grateful for the story it tells and the issues it raises, but perhaps most of all, for the author’s courage in writing about Botswana and South Africa during apartheid—places and experiences that (at least judging from her online bio) are mostly removed from the places and experiences of her own life. But in my opinion, at times the novel fails to accomplish what it sets out to do: tell the stories of both of its characters.

More broadly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the courage it takes to write across differences—in this case, race, class, gender, culture, nation, citizenship status, and education. I’ve also been thinking about the perils of this journey—specifically, the way that stereotypes and myths can sometimes surface in the writerly imagination. Even when we are trying to write past them to get to the human truth.

I don’t think the answer is to retreat to that old adage, “write what you know,” and I don’t think the answer is to clamp down on the imagination. On other hand, I think we need to talk about the power of all the stuff swirling around in our heads—with compassion and understanding, but also with an eye towards how we can create a truly diverse range of truthful, honest, and relevant stories.