The Woyingi Blog

Documentary Review: girlhood by Liz Garbus

Posted in African Americans on Film, Documentaries, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on May 29, 2010

At the opening of the film girlhood by Liz Garbus, viewers are informed that the rates of young girls being charged with violent crimes is on the increase in the United States. Well, it’s also said to be on the increase here in Canada. As much of my work is with teenage girls in high school, this issue is both personally and professionally relevant to me, however, I often wonder if girls are really becoming more violent or if our society is just admitting something that has always gone on but we didn’t know how to label because of our stereotypical image of girls and women as somehow less aggressive than men. I don’t think girls are really less aggressive than boys, nor do I think we should somehow pathologize aggressive and violent behaviour by girls but see it as a given among boys. What is more important is that both boys and girls develop a sense of agency in relation to their aggressive behaviour, and take responsiblity for the consequences of their violent actions.

girlhood tells the story of Shanae Owens and Megan Jensen. We follow them over a period of about three years. We are introduced to them while they are incarcerated in Waxter Juvenile Detention Center, just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Shanae is 14 and has served two years at Waxter for the murder of her friend, a crime she committed when she as only 12 years old. Megan is 16 and is in Waxter for Assault with a deadly weapon.

Shanae Owens and Megan Jensen in girlhood

Early in the film it is apparent that Shanae doesn’t really feel remorseful for the murder of her friend. At one point she tells her parents that the girl she murdered actually has it easy because she’s just dead whereas Shanae is suffering because she is in detention. Thankfully, her parents point out that being dead is definitely WORSE than being in detention! Shanae’s ability to feel remorse for her actions is seen as a key benchmark that needs to be achieved before she can leave Waxter.

Megan, we are told, has been in 11 foster houses by the age of 16. Her mother is a heroin addict and is herself often in and out of jail on prostitution charges. Over the years, Megan has run away from most of her foster homes in a desperate attempt to reunite with her mother. Megan admits that when she leaves Waxter she will only be going back to another foster home. When we meet Megan at Waxter it is clear that she is something of a troublemaker but probably more out of boredom than any malice (Garbus in her DVD commentary says that Megan is actually a very respectful young woman and that one of her main criticism of the Waxter Facility is that there is not really much structured activities for the inmates.). It is also quite clear that the staff at Waxter have a special affection for her despite her antics. At one point, Megan states that she feels that she is an old woman trapped in a young woman’s body because she has so much to regret. In contrast to Shanae, who has a great deal of family love and support, Megan only receives letters from her mother sporadically, and in one scene in the film desperately wants to call her grandmother to see if she is going to visit her. During this scene Megan whines that nobody loves her, she seems to be half joking but one has to wonder. Megan admits to having a special relationship with a fellow inmate which seems to be of a romantic nature. At Waxter, Megan’s need for attention and affection, her vulnerablity, are on display for everyone to see. She is also silly and childish which is what you expect for a girl her age. But one is left wondering how this silly girl took it upon herself to attack another young woman with a box cutter (the main reason why she is locked up). Is the Megan inside Waxter the same Megan outside Waxter?

Liz Garbus has made other films about life in prison, such as the Academy Award Winning The Farm: Angola. Before starting the film girlhood, she actually meant to do a film about young men in juvenile detention centres because from her work on the film Angola, she was intrigued and disturbed by how many of the inmates there said they had learned the tricks of their trade from their experiences in juvenile detention. But while researching junvenile detention centres she met Shanae who suggested that she make a film about girls. In her commentary on the film, available on the DVD, Garbus admits to being struck by Shanae’s intelligence and cutesiness (she was wearing pigtails at the time) and then shocked to discover that Shanae was locked up for murder! Garbus followed Shanae’s suggestion and was determined to include her in her film. She then had to go about getting permission to film. The extent of Garbus’ access to the girls while in detention is remarkable (she states that she eventually had keys to the inside of the Waxter facility because the staff got tired of her and her crew’s constant requests to get into different rooms). Garbus remarks that the structure within Waxter allows the girls to actually be girls. This comment is echoed by Mr. Godsey, a staff at the facility, who states in the film that although the girls don’t like structure they need it because they haven’t had it at home. He also states that although many of the girls leave Waxter and go on to live lives free of crime, others’ lives deteriorate when they get back home because of the dangers and tempations of life in their often crime-filled neighbourhoods (remember most of the inmates at Waxler are coming from Baltimore!).

So what will be the fate of Shanae and Megan when they leave Waxter?

The second part of Garbus’ film follows Shanae and Megan’s lives after leaving Waxter. Shanae moves into a lower security halfway house because her mother does not feel ready to take her back home. Megan, after a failed escape attempt from Waxter, goes into another foster home.

It is during Shanae’s interview to get into the lower security facility that we learn that she was also gang raped by five men. We have already learned that starting at the age of 10, Shanae began drinking alcohol heavily, was running away from home and having unprotected sex. This led to a pregnancy at the age of 11 which her mother arranged for her to have terminated because it was feared that because of Shanae’s heavy-drinking the baby would have fetal alcohol syndrome. Garbus in her commentary points out that Shanae does not believe that the gang rape should be seen as some sort of excuse for her murdering her friend. As the film progresses we see Shanae go from feeling very little remorse or even understanding of the consequences of her violent actions,  to feeling real remorse and a sense of responsiblity. A lot of this seems due in part to her mother Antoinette’s support.

One of the most educational parts of the film I felt was the example set by Antoinette. She demonstrates that you can support and love your child while not making excuses for them. Too often, I have seen parents make excuses for their children and this I feel has actually stunted their children’s moral growth and led to them continuing to commit violent acts. Antoinette refuses to allow Shanae back home until she is convinced that her daughter has really changed and has gotten all the help that she needs. I think this is key to Shanae’s eventual success. One may wonder how Antoinette could be a good parent considering all the trouble Shanae got into at such a young age. But if the viewer pays close attention to the film and Liz Garbus’ commentary we learn that Shanae’s mother was a single parent working two jobs trying to support Shanae and move her family out of the projects.  Unfortunately, this meant that she wasn’t around to supervise Shanae. Shanae started drinking with her cousin. Sometimes, it is members of our own families that expose our children to drugs and alcohol, something I have often seen growing up in my own neighbourhood. Antoinette does her best in extremely difficult circumstances.

In contrast to Shanae’s successes, when out of Waxter, Megan soon runs away from her foster home with no consequences (despite the fact that staying in foster care is a requirement of her patrol), couch surfs for a while and eventually gets her own place with her cousin. You watch Megan go from being a silly little girl at Waxter to being a bitter, angry and hard woman so quickly that you can’t help but be reminded of Mr. Godsey’s point about these girls needing structure. The structure of Waxter allowed Megan to be a child, the streets provide no structure and force her to be more of an adult than most adults ever have to be.

Garbus remarks during her DVD commentary that she was torn while making this film because her ultimate conclusion during her experience following these girls’ lives was that Family Matters. As a left-wing filmmaker, she worried that this appeared to be some sort of right-wing Family Values advocate conclusion. But the reality is that Shanae, because of the support of her family, is able to overcome the trauma of her childhood and the impact of her crime and graduate from high school and go on to community college whereas Megan, without really any family support, is only able to struggle, her greatest achievement being that she doesn’t return to crime or become a hardcore drug addict. In my own opinion, considering that Megan has to do all this on her own, hers is the greater achievement.

I don’t think it’s a right-wing conclusion to say that everyone needs family and that strong families raise strong, healthy, happy children who can grow up to be adults who can contribute positively to our society. But not everyone has families like this. So the question is to what degree do we all have to support children whose families can’t? This is where politics comes in and things get ugly.

I remember being struck at the end of the film that one of the staff at Waxter came to Shanae’s home to congratulate her on graduating and see her off to the prom. The staff person made it clear that she wasn’t there on official business. She was there as a member of the community and Shanae was a child of the community and therefore her child.

Further Reading:

Profile of Liz Garbus by the Center for Social Media

Video Clip from girlhood

Movie Fire Craker Website (Liz Garbus’ Film Website)


One Response

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  1. autimia gonzalez said, on June 30, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Megan is doing great for herself
    she has come a long way from this documentry i love and am so proud of my sistrr

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