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Girls Rock! hits nerves of the teen psyche variety 

Wednesday, Mar 5 2008
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I'd like to think gender dynamics enter my work sphere as rarely as holiday bonuses do. I'm not a "female" music critic, just a music critic. I'm not keeping any quotas on boy acts vs. girl acts in my record collection.

But the truth is that industry mixers in San Francisco are pretty guy-heavy. And I'm defensive when someone accuses me of writing about a band because its members are "hot," when they wouldn't make that same remark if I were a male rock critic. And when I recently had dinner with a couple of other female writers, we all admitted to making mistakes typically attributed to women: wanting the subject to like you, thinking this person is automatically smarter than you, not being confrontational enough when the interviewee bullshits you.

It's not as black and white as saying the music industry is sexist, which is an easy way to close the lid on the subject. Our attitudes about how ladies behave are hardwired while we are kids and still need untangling, no matter how many intro to feminism classes the adults are acing. Music is an industry focused on unleashing the id and flattering the ego, terrain that's challenging even in our age of Kim Gordon and M.I.A.

These ideas really percolated when I first saw the locally made documentary Girls Rock! at the Nevada City Film Festival last fall. I was sure I knew what I was in for with this one — a movie about how cute the 8-to 18-year-olds are who attend the week-long Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon. Easy sympathy grab, right?

But the movie instead poked some long-dormant nerves. It took me back to grade school. I remembered watching boys in my class ogle the cover of Madonna's Like a Virgin, making me rush home to rip out diets from my mom's Woman's Day magazines so I could look like Ms. Ciccone. I realized my interest in music drastically shifted at a certain age from wanting to be Debbie Gibson and Whitney Houston belting out the hooks to wanting to be Tawny Kitaen gyrating around Whitesnake's hot rod.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Girls Rock! is indeed a look at the seven-year-old Portland camp (which has affiliates around the world, including at Girls Rock! Bay Area). The weeklong program teaches girls not only the basics of singing and playing instruments, but it also, in the words of San Francisco filmmakers Arne Johnson and Shane King, "gives them the tools to do everything in life that they want to." That breaks down into workshops ranging from self-defense to body image. "The camp skillfully peels off the things that make the girls feel trapped," Johnson explains. "It's not like they were supposed to discover Jesus there; they were supposed to 'spill.'"

"Spill" is a word that comes up often in my conversation with the filmmakers at King's Bayview apartment. By focusing on the raw sentiments ("spillage") of campers, Girls Rock! is an intelligent — and, more importantly, entertaining — look at how girls fight self-imposed stereotypes in very different ways than boys do.

On one side of the film's core conflict are its young subjects: Misty (a teenager who has battled anger, addiction, group homes, and lockdown); Amelia (a spastic livewire who craves experimental guitar); Palace (a preteen raised by a single mother struggling with instilling a balance of beauty standards and brains); and Laura (a death-metal diehard who has one of the best lines in the film: "Why do girls think it's so cool to have a boyfriend in a band? Start your own band.").

On the other side are what the filmmakers call "society's expectations of the girls." This is represented by statistics flashed against an upbeat soundtrack of Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney, which posits the attitude that things can change: "Women on MTV are five times more likely than men to be wearing revealing clothing." "Twice as many boys as girls say their talents are what they like most about themselves." "Girls are twice as likely to say a body part is their best feature." "Girls are the only group in society that starts school with a testing advantage, and leaves with a disadvantage."

Johnson and King say initial Girls Rock! screenings have provoked positive reviews on blogs like Feministing, while an online preview clip of the movie has garnered requests for additional screenings across the country. The documentary resonates for the same reason the camp resonates with its students (and its female counselors, and camp guests like the Gossip's Beth Ditto). Neither offers an academic's take on gender dynamics. Instead you're listening to rudimentary rock 'n' roll and watching kids bash out songs on their instruments while bashing out emotional issues with their bandmates. The girls are open and sharp and funny. When they hit snags (like being scared to make a lot of noise, something the counselors say girls aren't always comfortable doing) a little lesson in breaking down stereotypes follows.

"There's something about rock 'n' roll that's really liberating in a way that's not ideological," Johnson says. "It's not like they're there fighting for women's rights. [The camp] just directly addresses what for a lot of girls feels like an impossibility — to be uncontained." This concept is additionally threaded into a mix of fly-on-the-wall filming as the girls form their bands and write an original song, and in the confessional moments they spend talking to the camera alone in their bedrooms.

Girls Rock! was spawned from King's "intensely emotional experience" at a Rock 'n' Roll Camp showcase in 2004. From there, he and Johnson set out to discover the root of that response. The product of their labor — and the camp's labor as well — is hilarious, hopeful, and unusually moving. Post–Girls Rock!, Johnson and King say the workshops have sent Laura on a "rampage" where she corrects her teachers about stereotypes "so they don't miseducate anyone else." It's broken Amelia's Britney fandom as she embraces more misbehaving feedback. It's helped Palace beat out her aggressions on the drums. And it's made me realize that no matter how much I want to cover an industry that's moved beyond gender differences, being female is as much a part of me as my secret affection for hair metal. Although now I'd definitely rather write about a band than roll around on the hood of its car.

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Jennifer Maerz

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