Capturing Girls' Strength on Film

Caitlin Johnson
October 1, 2001


Three years ago, documentary filmmaker Maria Finitzo set out to make a film exploring why girls "hit the skids" when they reach adolescence—why their self-esteem falls, why they struggle. But after talks with members of the American Psychological Association's Task Force on Adolescent Girls and sociologist Lyn Mikel Brown, Finitzo decided the story lay elsewhere.

"There has been a wealth of media done around all the problems that girls face," Finitzo says. "And while I didn't want to ignore those problems, I felt the best way to empower girls would be to focus on positive stories, so those are images that girls have in their minds, as opposed to always seeing themselves as victims, or failing, or bulimic or anorexic."

Her new film 5 Girls, part of the PBS POV series, is a look at five girls from different Chicago-area schools who are succeeding, despite obstacles, and the people who are helping them make it.

Different Voices, Different Stories
Finitzo and her crew deliberately chose girls with diverse backgrounds and experiences—not just "the smartest or most troubled," she says. Meet the girls.

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    The issues each girl faces are widely varied. For Finitzo, the challenge was weaving their stories together in a way that captured the complexities of their stories, and captivated viewers.

    "We had to find the points of connection through the most powerful themes that emerged," she says. Some of themes that are believed to loom large in girl's lives—like body image—didn't figure as strongly in these stories as others: mothers and fathers, expectations, relationships, sexuality and goals.

    "We Just Don't Connect Anymore"
    5 Girls opens with footage that Finitzo didn't take—home video from several of the girls' childhoods. Corrie, a young blonde child with glasses, dances around the living room with her father, both of them giddy, grinning.

    "When I was growing up my dad and I got along really well and we'd play around a lot," Corrie says. "And about freshman year things started to change. Because I [dyed my hair and] looked weird and because everyone thought I was a freak. And I really would have liked to have him understand, but he ? couldn't do that for me because he has to blame me for it."

    After her parents divorced and her father moved out, Corrie, then a teenager, began questioning her sexual identity—a struggle her father could not accept. The scenes Finitzo captures between them are full of love, but fraught with tension. A lot of things are difficult for the two to talk about, and not just because there is a camera there. "While in Corrie's story it may be around her sexuality, all of us at some point can't talk to our parents. And as parents, at some point we just can't talk to this kid we've loved and cared for our whole life," says Finitzo.

    For each of the girls, parents play a large role in shaping who they are and how they define themselves. Since her parents' divorce, Aisha has lived with her father, who is fiercely dedicated to her—and overprotective, in her eyes. Eager to please both of her parents, she often feels torn.

    "I don't think my parents understand that I'm back and forth between them," she says. "I try to please both my Mom and my Dad [and] I know I have to please myself first, but it's hard when your parents don't even really want to talk to each other."

    Haibinh was 10 when her family immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. She strives to do well in school, in part to make her parents' sacrifice count. Her father left behind a job where he oversaw employees. "There, he was in charge and in control, he feels needed. ? Here, he goes to work and he feels silenced for the whole day. That's why he thinks that he just stays here temporarily, you know, so that [we] can go to school."

    When Amber was 6, her father died—he was killed, she says, by her mother in self-defense. Although she says she never knew him, and his death "doesn't bother" her, his absence looms large over her youth.

    "There's a myth that girls—or teenagers, really—don't want to be with their parents and I think the film dispels that myth. I don't care who you are, you really want a connection with your parents," says Finitzo.

    In one scene, Aisha and her friend Sarah are in a bowling alley. Aisha is trying to decipher the scorecard while Sarah bowls strike after strike. The two are easy with each other, quick to laugh. But, although they've been best friends since first grade, high school threatened to break their bond.

    "We both know we're not as close as we used to be," Aisha says. "When we were freshmen, we just both met separate groups of friends. And most of my friends happen to be black and most of hers are white. ? I guess it's just human nature."

    Haibinh looks to balance two cultures. "I have Vietnamese friends and then I have American friends, but they don't mix," she says. "Sometimes it might seem like I have dual personalities, like when I'm with Vietnamese people, I act this way and when I'm American I act another way. I like being both ways though."

    A supportive network of friends helps each girl through some of the difficult times she faces as a teen. "All of the girls had pretty good friends," says Finitzo. "I think it would be very difficult to go through high school without a strong connection to somebody ? a best friend who likes and admires you back."

    Building Resilience in Girls
    Over the years of filming, each girl faced challenges. Haibinh struggled to define her own cultural identity, Amber worked to stay on track despite upheavals at home, and Aisha strove to stand up to her father's "overprotective" love. Corrie faced problems at home and school related to her sexual identity. Amber fell into a relationship with Antoine, a 20-year-old with a drug record.

    By the film's end, all five girls are headed in positive directions—Corrie, Haibinh and Aisha are in college; Toby is still in high school, but headed to college. Amber, with help from an understanding teacher, stayed on track academically and was accepted to the University of Illinois.

    So how did they do it? "If you look at the definition of resilience," says Finitzo, "part of that definition is a positive outlook towards the future. You have to think that the future's going to bring good things for you."

    Adults can help girls develop that belief by placing setbacks in a life context. "Rather than making small failures seem huge, [we can say] 'Yeah, right now isn't so great, but we all stumble and we all have to pick ourselves up.' As adults, we realize there are few moments that impact irreversibly on your life."

    Connection to a community helps girls stay strong. For some, it's a sports team, for others it might be a church. "For Corrie, she's really passionate about politics, very engaged in the world ? She's engaged in the struggle of all people, and that moves her beyond her own struggles," Finitzo says.

    Supporting Girls As They Discover Themselves
    In her senior year, Amber finds a critical connection: Sheryl Barnes, her former French teacher, steps in to mentor her and help keep her on track with college applications. Ms. Barnes' involvement is especially critical after Amber leaves home to live with her elderly grandmother, and begins dating Antoine.

    Like Amber, each girl in 5 Girls has at least one adult who offers support and helps put the rough times in perspective. And each girl ends up taking steps towards defining herself.

    By the end of the film, Toby has joined the track team despite protests from her mother, who worries she'll be frustrated doing something at which she does not excel. "That's why I love Toby's story," says Finitzo. "She runs [track], even though she comes in last. It's a much more interesting story to me than the kid who runs because she comes in first."

    Near the end of the film, Aisha gives words to what most of these girls seem to be feeling. "[All the times] I felt I couldn't talk to my parents, I kind of dug out a strength within me. And now it seems like it's just flourishing, that's the best way I can explain it ? I don't want to sound conceited, but I'm so proud of myself."

    Resources for Adults
    The PBS interactive Web site 5 Girls has curriculum, essays from the girls and adults in their lives, and tools to nurture girls in your family and community.

    The film airs on October 2 on PBS. Check local listings for times.

    Connect for Kids has a Girls topic page, packed with sites and programs designed for girls and the adults who care about them.

    Meet the Girls


    "I set goals for myself where I put my heart into it. That's how I know that I loved to play basketball because I just kept pushing...[to] do the best that I could."


    Amber Amber:
    "Am I popular? No. I'm regular, I mean nothing about me is noticeable. I don't really say much, I keep to myself and my friends, cause a lot of things start when you start talking."


    "I wish that people could learn to love more and learn to be more concerned about the world because ? life gets meaningless if you're just concerned about what your hair looks like and if you're going to the right party Saturday night."


    Haibinh Haibinh:
    "Your achievement is supposed to be separate from your personality ? from who you are, but I [keep] saying that that's the only thing that will make me happy. If I do good in school then everything's going to be okay."

    "I don't have huge problems, but I still have the small problems that are not as important to some people who have the big ones. But to me, I still think about them."

    View a clip from the film (1:45 seconds).



    Caitlin Johnson is staff writer at Connect for Kids.