Highlighting Girls in Youth Media

When I was a producer/director at the Twin Cities Public Television, I had the unique opportunity to be the birth coach for one of my best friends. As I held this baby girl in the first few minutes of life, I was struck by how hard it is to grow up female.
Although half our population are girls and women, less than one quarter of them are in positions to make major decisions. That seems odd. Or maybe not, if you understand how rarely girls are supported to share their perspective.
And I realized a big part of that was the industry I worked in.
Knowing the power of media to shape the public’s cultural perceptions with stories and images, I thought that media could be used to help girls’ asset development. When I pitched this angle to my boss, he claimed that no one cared about girls (ironically, at the time he had an eleven-year-old daughter). TVbyGIRLS was created that morning.
Like many of our girl-specific youth media peers—such as Reel Grrls, BeyondMedia, Rock and Roll Camps for Girls, Teen Voices, Girls Write Now, and Khmer Girls in Action—TVbyGIRLS recognizes that the unique psychological development of adolescent girls flourishes in gender-specific media programs.
Every youth media program can provide a program that has a focus on girls. Working with an awareness of girls’ development, we can help teenage girls construct images and stories that empower them and add diversity to the media landscape.
The Psychological Development of Girls in Adolescence
In adolescence, girls make a transition from literal thinking to abstract, metaphorical thinking and they begin to place a deep importance on fitting in and belonging outside of their families. Carol Gilligan, professor of psychology at Harvard University and the NYU School of Law, wrote the first comprehensive study of adolescent girls, Making Connections, in 1990. She shares that girls reach a critical juncture at around age 12, when fitting in and building relationships becomes more crucial than her independent ideas.
For example, Leah, a 13-year-old producer at TVbyGIRLS, explains a scenario of mixed gender projects in schools: “Everyone will have different ideas and if a girl has an idea, the boys will just sort of withdraw. They’ll let her do her idea but they won’t be much help or engage much. [However,] if a boy has an idea, the girl will drop her idea and work real hard to make his idea work. You might be disappointed at first but you learn real fast that to fit in, you don’t push your ideas.”
Too often, the message girls receive is boys have ideas and girls follow through to make these ideas happen. Sounds like any movie, sit-com or commercial you see any day—a paradigm of gender that we instinctively play out. Girls usually lose in this equation, surrendering their ideas for the rewards of fitting in.
Youth media educators need to be aware that girls often silence their ideas in exchange for belonging and need support to share their stories, pitch their suggestions, and have equal footing with their male counterparts. If educators are more informed of gender dynamics, they can quickly identify opportunities to engage students, both individually and as a group.
As practitioners in youth media, we have the opportunity to support the long-term development of girls.
Collaboration and Leadership
What I’ve seen work at girl-specific organizations is educators consistently encouraging young women to collaborate and co-create; specifically, to share leadership roles within a working group. This is about shifting the paradigm. Instead of surrendering to fit in, girls experience that this environment is about having ideas and sharing them to fit in—a perspective she carries into the other components of her life.
To begin teaching collaboration skills, educators need to make clear what collaboration means—that it is not a watered down version of a good idea but a process by which good ideas build into better ideas and richer intellectual thought. This is an active co-creative process that brings into play different skills and interests and gives the team a sense of ownership and commitment. This is the leadership model needed for the 21st century—a way of working in which diverse points of view can be harnessed into collaborative, fully realized partnerships for solutions. Youth media programs can help girls lead the way.
Girls need opportunities to see how their work—or final product—connects with others and how making a media project can have an impact. It is very important that girls experience how their points of view matter in a larger context than their small support group. From TVbyGIRLS, we recommend screenings of girl-specific work and engaging girl-led discussions with an audience to seal young women’s awareness of the power of their unique voices. The result of having a collaborative and leadership experience is likely to afford girls continued expectations for leadership skills and sharing inside and outside youth media organizations.
A TVbyGIRLS Suggestion to the Field
At TVbyGIRLS, we have a project that can help start girls on this road to leadership and voice. We call it the “Challenge Piece,” and it is designed to help girls use the power of visual thinking to communicate emotions in storytelling. This process utilizes adolescent girls’ refined skills of relationship building and connection.
• First, we encourage girls to look at images or photographs and ask them, before intellectually processing the question, simply answering “what do you feel when you look at this.” We ask girls to work in pairs with others they do not know well. We explain the idea of images evoking emotions and their use as visual metaphors in storytelling.
• Second, we ask girls to share a challenge they have and to listen to each other carefully. The goal is to understand what their partners are feeling without giving advice.
• Each girl is then asked to make a 1-minute piece that authentically and compassionately reflects her partner’s challenge. Her instructions are to list the emotions she heard her partner evoke and what visual metaphors communicate these emotions. Girls plan, shoot, edit and finish the 1-minute piece within 2-3 weeks.
• Girls work with an adult mentor to help clarify and shape the idea (of course, with her taking the lead).
When all the 1-minute videos are completed, girls share their pieces and the processes/intentions in a mentor-guided conversation. As a result, the media makers see their ability to connect and create while featured girls feel their perspectives/challenges were heard, understood, and recognized. Both the story-teller and the creator decide if they want to share the film with an outside audience to continue the dialogue.
Next Steps
If youth media organizations can highlight girls’ developmental skills with gender specific programs, we can help girls construct images and stories that reveal their unique voices. As youth media organizations nurture and share girls’ work, we are able to influence the mainstream media idea of gender roles, which impact all of us within and outside of the field. As a girl sees her work in public, she becomes more powerful, her perspectives matter, and the effect ripples throughout her life and society. All youth media programs can help expand girls’ leadership and experience of cultivating and showcasing their ideas. We have an opportunity to develop half the world’s population—where girls lead the way.
Barbara Wiener is the founder and executive director of TVbyGIRLS. She works directly mentoring and teaching girls and developing curriculum. Barbara is also an award winning documentary filmmaker and brings a 30-year career in arts and media to her work with girls and women.
Gilligan, Carol, Nona P. Lyons and Trudy J. Hanmer (1990). Making Connections, the relational worlds of adolescent girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge: MA. Harvard University Press.