‘Girls State’: Promising Young Women Take Center Stage in Absorbing Follow-up Documentary To ‘Boys State’

Four years after the release of absorbing political youth documentary “Boys State,” which followed a group of young men in Texas as they set up a mock government, husband and wife documentarian team Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine return with the highly-anticipated follow-up “Girls State.” Filmed over a week in June 2022 just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, this documentary follows a group of 500 young women, all rising high school seniors, as they debate topics ranging from abortion and gun control to a dress code, and eventually elect their own governor.

From the beginning, the girls and the viewer get the impression that Girls State was originally set up to be the little sister to Boys State, a kinder, gentler version of that program. This can be seen as a positive, as while society likes to throw around descriptors such as “mean girls” and “catty” when it comes to teen girls, the young women Moss and McBaine follow avoid the mudslinging that we saw in “Boys State.” There is more of a focus on finding common ground and respecting each other’s feelings and views. One participant is told that Girls State participants traditionally take on more bipartisan issues like the environment and mental health for their platforms. But is avoiding divisiveness reflective of what they will face in the real world? 

Understandably, some of the young women take issue with the status quo. Liberal Cecilia Bartin bemoans how girls are socialized not to be loud about politics. Her toughest opponent for governor is Emily Worthmore, an extremely driven young woman who identifies as conservative. Emily does her best to make friends with everyone, even claiming to “love liberals to death,” and while she says she is all for women’s empowerment, she makes the case that some of the “fluff” at their assemblies that is meant to be encouraging, actually does them a disservice. She imagines that the boys are discussing more hard-hitting issues, and she and Cecilia bond over their shared desire to get into the nitty gritty of politics.

Thanks to recent leaks, the impending overturn of Roe v. Wade is not far from everyone’s minds at Girls State. Maddie Rowan shares a clip of a speaker sent to her from a friend at Boys State. In the clip, the older man declares that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. It’s a moment that is played like a much-needed call to action for the young women. Even some of those who identify as pro-life cannot side with men wanting to regulate women’s bodies.

Maddie, who is liberal and gay, finds herself forming a bond with Emily. We see other similarly moving friends blossom between girls from different backgrounds, including that of Nisha Murali, a progressive young woman from a South Asian background, and Brooke Taylor, a small-town outsider. Both Nisha and Brooke vye for a spot on the Supreme Court, but only one of them can be picked.

While “Boys State” ended with the gubernatorial election, “Girl State” digs a little deeper. After the election, Emily takes it upon herself to do an investigative piece on the inequalities between Girls State and Boys State. The girls have rules that the boys do not, such as a dress code (i.e. no spaghetti straps or short shorts, while boys can run around shirtless) and not being allowed to roam campus without a buddy. In the past, these rules may not have been a big issue, but with Boys State Missouri being held concurrently on the same college campus as Girls State for the first time, the participants are taking note of the double standards. But perhaps the biggest injustice is the difference between the amount of funding the programs receive, which Emily discovers in one of the doc’s most shocking moments. 

Overall, the ladies in “Girls State” leave a positive impression. Even the ones you may not particularly agree with politically wow you with their resilience and willingness to learn and grow. If they are an accurate representation of Generation Z as a whole, perhaps there is hope for the future of our country. 

Girls State” begins streaming April 5 on Apple TV+.