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Girl Trouble

Reviews of "Run Like a Girl" and "Smile Pretty"

By Gentry Menzel

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Childhood isn't easy for anyone: social mores, mass media messages, issues of race, gender, sexuality, even survival. When one is an adult, these issues are tough enough. For children, though, who have had little chance to form confident self-images or to develop a solid psychological framework in which to contextualize new experiences, these pressures can become almost insurmountable, and can mold them in negative ways. Many of these pressures are gender specific, and this is where documentarian Carol Cassidy ("Baby Love," "Wildwood, New Jersey") comes in. She is interested in how girls deal with the vast array of social pressures to be "feminine," and she explores these issues in two of her most recent works, "Run Like a Girl" and "Smile Pretty."

"Run Like a Girl" profiles girls participating in three sports--rugby, synchronized swimming, and double dutch jump rope--and tells of how sports have given them the strength to thrive under the pressures of growing up. Jen is a 16-year-old who finds salvation in rugby after battling bulimia and surviving a suicide attempt, problems brought on by feelings of never belonging. Another girl is trying out for the junior nationals synchronized swim team, and is under pressure to perform well, and to look good while doing so (although in her case the pressures of perfectionism seem to negate most benefits of competition). Tammy, a double dutch jumper, rattles off the names of all of her friends who at age 15 are already pregnant. "They don't have high self-esteem," she says. "With double dutch...you can be what you want to be." All of these girls find a home in sports that gives them a sense of belonging, of accomplishment, and, to varying degrees, of self-confidence.

While "Run Like a Girl" focuses on girls doing what is often seen as masculine (sport), "Smile Pretty" does just the opposite by turning the spotlight onto what is the epitome of "girliness," the beauty pageant. Cassidy takes a look at a handful of prepubescent and adolescent girls as they make their way through the rigors of pageantry.

At her best, Cassidy uses the uniqueness of the girls to explore secondary issues in relation to the competition. Monique, a 15-year-old of mixed racial heritage, seems self-aware and comfortable with her participation in the contests, but reveals vulnerability when she speaks of possibly having surgery to narrow the "wide nose" she inherited from her African American father, and when she talks about her friends who tell her she needs to be "more black." Andrea talks of being a tomboy growing up, and of realizing when she turned 13 that it was time to "grow up and be a girl like I was supposed to be when I was born."

The most disturbing--mainly because she seems the most disturbed--is 12-year-old Cheri. Cheri was first enrolled in these competitions to help her develop motor skills diminished by corrective heart surgery at an early age, according to her mother. But in the interviews with the mother (which include her own "better" performance of one of Cheri's routines) we see nothing but an over-ambitious, controlling mother with a helpless daughter seemingly on the verge of a breakdown--despite the protestations of both to the contrary.

Both of these hour-long documentaries feature young girls speaking their minds, and are important for giving us access to their often profound insights. Still, each has its problems, the primary of which is a too widely cast net. In both, Cassidy suggests race as a complicating factor, but then does not explore further.

The documentaries would have benefited, too, from a limiting of subjects; some of the girls' inclusion feels like an afterthought. "Run Like a Girl" has some further missteps in form: since we live in a world where girls' confidence often is chipped away by the relentless judging of their bodies and their behavior, I was surprised Cassidy didn't focus more on sports like soccer, softball, track, or swimming. Instead the focus is on synchronized swimming and double dutch, where the girls are even reminded to smile during competition. The synchronized swimming is especially confusing because it emphasizes so much the female figure. And in "Smile Pretty," Cassidy's target is perhaps a too-easy one for a feminist filmmaker. But despite the overall negative portrayal of pageants, Cassidy, to her credit, respectfully includes the girls' positive views of the pageants in a way that convinces the viewer that not all girls will come out of this damaged.

But faulting Cassidy too much would be a mistake. There is, unfortunately, a dearth of information to help young girls through the pressures of growing up--no matter what those pressures may be--and both of these documentaries are very welcome jumping-off points for further discussion. The editing style and music choice should be attractive to the younger (read: MTV) crowd, and both films contain enough different points of view to get people really thinking about the environment in which girls grow up here in America. And this is Cassidy's goal. "Ideally, adults will watch the series with girls they care for," she says, "and when the show's over, they'll turn to those girls and listen more keenly, more carefully than before."

"Run Like a Girl" and "Smile Pretty" are both scheduled to air on PBS in November 1999. Check your local listings.