The Staggering Resilience of Teenage Girls

I was invited this year to join Profile Theatre’s newly-formed Community Council where, over the course of the 2017 season, members are invited into the process of bringing a play from first rehearsal to opening night, and to share reflections along the way.  Profile’s season playwright this year is Quiara Alegria Hudes.  On Tuesday I attended the first rehearsal of 26 Miles (synopsis below), a play about which I knew absolutely nothing before the read-through; this post contains my reflections on the work, which are necessarily incomplete and disorganized, since I did not take notes during the read-through and was sitting too far away to hear many of the stage directions.  Over the coming weeks I’ll share more thoughts about the play’s journey to production here.  Thank you so much to Artistic Director Josh Hecht and Associate Artistic Director Lauren Hanover for this invitation!  26 Miles opens on June 15th; more information about the production can be found here.
ABOUT THE PLAY: The custody battle left them estranged for eight years. The road trip destination is two thousand miles across the country. The mother’s skin is brown, the teenage daughter’s, white. So what if reality’s nipping at their heels? This reunited pair runs fast and furious from the secrets in their lives, hunting valuable antiques, chasing arctic explorers, and getting lost in Wyoming’s wilderness.

 I watched the first read-through of 26 Miles the day after a bomb exploded at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, killing 19 people and injuring dozens more, which meant as I watched the play it was impossible to stop thinking about teenage girls.

I spent most of my twenties as a Catholic youth minister.  I also co-host a reasonably-popular podcast about the CW television show The 100.  Those two statements probably don’t seem to have much in common with each other, except that they’re both pretty good “weird fact about me” icebreakers at cocktail parties, but what they actually mean is that I’ve spent an enormous amount of my life as an adult woman around girls.  When you’re a youth minister, you’re often the person they call when their parents are getting divorced, when they’ve run away from home, when they’re threatening self-harm, when their boyfriends broke up with them, when they’re questioning their sexuality.  You’re also there at their high school graduations, their championship basketball games, their school plays, and dinners with their families.  You’re watching them walk through four of the most difficult and vulnerable years of their life and you can’t do anything when things get hard except be on the other end of the phone when they call you.  As an adult, especially one for whom adolescence was often misery, it can be incredibly painful to watch while knowing you can’t help.  You can’t make juggling school and sports and work easier so they can get more sleep.  You can’t make them not feel fat when they look in the mirror and see only flaws.  You can’t make their parents stop fighting.  You can’t give them easy answers about their place in the world or who they should be when they grow up.  All you can do is listen.

In an extremely bizarre way, becoming immersed in the world of teen girl internet fandom mirrors this experience.  I’m a thirty-five-year-old woman who hangs out online with a group of other adults where we exist as a tiny little island in a sea of teenage girls and young women.  So, in a completely different way, I’m suddenly a youth minister again.  I’m the “mom friend.”  Instead of a community of Catholics, I’m in a community of young queer internet feminists, but the dynamic is in some ways very much the same.  I get anonymous asks on Tumblr from girls who are grieving the loss of a best friend, terrified about the state of politics in America, asking for advice about how to become a writer, pouring out their hearts when they find out their crush doesn’t like them back.  The difference here is that these girls live all over the world.  I can’t sit with them in a coffee shop and hold their hand while they tell me that they’re scared they might have serious depression and don’t know how to tell their parents.  I only have the internet, and my words.  I’ve met some of them in person, but most I probably never will.  But the feeling of protectiveness and responsibility, the visceral memories of my own similar struggles to find myself when I was their age – when I was fourteen, when I was nineteen, when I was twenty-two – are just as real.

These are the people who gathered at that concert in Manchester to go have an amazing night out with their girl gang to go see their favorite artist live in person.  None of my girls were there, but all of those girls are my girls.  All of those girls are our girls.  All they wanted was one night to enjoy the perfect freedom to love a thing that they love, without apologizing for it.  Without asking permission.  Without feeling shamed.  Without being minimized.

We love diminishing the interests and hobbies and pursuits of teenage girls.  We love mocking their pop idols – until Ryan Adams covers a whole Taylor Swift album, and suddenly the lyrics are brilliant, incisive poetry.  We love trashing their television shows – until a pair of dudes launch a hit podcast about Gilmore Girls, and suddenly the show is so popular it earns a Netflix revival.  And we love mocking their books – until someone writes a thinkpiece about YA literature as the new forefront of progressive fiction, and suddenly everyone’s reading The Hunger Games.  Selfies mean teen girls are overly obsessed with their looks, narcissistic, shallow (never mind that publicly stating “I feel good about the way I look” is, for women of any age, a radical act).  Constant access to the internet is making them dumber and destroying their relationships (never mind that vibrant online communities provide safe spaces they might have no other access to, spaces that can for many young people be literally life-saving shelters from the pressures of the rest of their life).

This is not new.  It is hardwired into us, from the invention of the novel to the rise of the Beatles.  If girls and young women like something, it must be silly.  It must be trivial.  It must be entirely devoid of significance or weight.  Let’s insult and diminish it – violently, if necessary – and make sure girls know how deeply we will all judge them for liking this thing we don’t like.

If you need further proof of this, look no further than how many male journalists and music critics responded to the news coming out of Manchester with a joke.  Yes, there’s a tragedy to discuss, but first and foremost, let’s remind everyone that Ariana Grande’s music sucks.  Okay, now let’s discuss the loss of real human lives.

That’s where my head was at while I watched this play, while I contemplated Olivia’s quest to find space to love the things she loves.  The moment the play latched onto me and didn’t let go was her recounting to her mother a traumatic moment that happened at school.  She was standing in the cafeteria, passing out copies of her magazine – a documentation of her almost otherworldly precocious thoughts and questions, written with painstaking care on a typewriter that doesn’t even have a backspace key.  Then a group of boys approached to harass her, pulling down her sweatpants and taking her underwear down with them, while she was on her period.

Everything about this story is excruciating, beginning with the visceral memory it awakened in me – and probably many other women watching – of my own shame and fear and trauma about being a teenage girl with a period.  But it was the magazine that I kept coming back to.  That was the piece that broke my heart, that I couldn’t let go.  Olivia already feels like the world doesn’t have a place for her; her white father and his new wife don’t seem to want to make room for her in their lives, and she’s estranged from her Cuban mother, and the two halves of her that represent both of her parents feel, as the play begins, like they’re at war inside her, like she believes only one can win, that she has to pick.

(That this internal conflict is profoundly shaped by race is a factor that the play does not ignore, and I leave it to other members of the Community Council who are people of color to share their reflections on how beautifully Quiara Alegria Hudes illuminates that, since that isn’t my story to tell.)

So there she is, pouring her heart out through her typewriter, this sweet hopeful fifteen-year-old who just wants to be seen, standing in the doorway of the cafeteria and offering the words that she wrote to everyone who walks by, hoping desperately that someone will want to read them.  Is this it, my place in the world?  Could it be this?  Could it be here?  And then it’s snatched violently away, by a group of boys – intent on shaming her, punishing her, reminding her that she doesn’t get to have a place.  That they get to decide who she is and where she belongs, which in that moment is nowhere.

This story happens offstage, and is key to the events that move the story forward, and it’s why it felt right and true to me that the heart of the play is a journey that Olivia and her mother Beatriz take together – a girl and a woman sharing space in the world where the men in their lives are, in many ways, largely incidental.  Olivia’s relationship with Beatriz is not uncomplicated – they don’t speak much, and Olivia’s father Aaron has full custody – but her father can’t help her here.  An impulsive last-minute cross-country road trip with her mother might be an insane idea, but it’s also the safest place she has to be herself, to ask those questions: “who am I?” “what does it mean to be a woman, to be me?” “where do I belong?” And Beatriz is the best person to answer them, not just because she’s Olivia’s mother but because she’s a woman who has had to answer those questions for herself.  She’s vibrant, loud, full of life, tough but compassionate, comfortable in her own skin.  She has gone through her own experiences of being told she doesn’t fit, doesn’t belong – we learn a little about this in the play, about her past relationship with Aaron – but if there was ever a time in her life when she felt obligated to apologize for who she is, she doesn’t seem to anymore.  Which makes her the only right person to help Olivia begin to learn how to inhabit her own skin.  To love the things she loves without holding back.

I don’t know why I latched onto the cafeteria story so forcefully, out of everything else in the play.  I’ll be checking back in at various points in the rehearsal and production process and sharing further reflections, so I’m sure new things will emerge as we go.  But I’m haunted by it, by the thought of Olivia’s sweet hopeful face as she stands there handing out copies of that magazine she typed up herself, wanting so badly to share herself with someone, anyone, and meeting with the cruelest kind of rejection.

And even though it’s a distance of far more than twenty-six miles from a group of boys bullying one girl in a cafeteria to an act of mass violence perpetuated in a crowd of thousands, still, at the heart of it, there’s a core of common truth.  We whisper to teenage girls, How dare you.  How dare you ask for space.  How dare you love things, want things.  How dare you exist in the world without apologizing.  How dare you say a thing out loud without first asking for permission.  Men who perpetuate violence against women – high school bullies, abusive husbands, the inhabitants of dark internet caves of misogyny gleefully torturing female celebrities, men who shoot up college campuses because a girl broke up with them – often begin their journey to violence from that place of How dare you.  You must be put in your place and shown how wrong you are.  And it’s very rarely a nail bomb in an arena.  That’s a massive, world-shaking example of a constant and daily and pervasive and seemingly unstoppable pattern woven into the very fabric of our lives.  The violence we do to girls on a daily basis can be so much smaller, so much more subtle, so much harder to detect.

It’s a comparatively insignificant moment, that story Olivia tells about the cafeteria, when you step back and look at it in the context of a person’s whole life; it’s the kind of moment an adult might tell her to just “get over.”  But we see over the course of the play how it transmutes itself into a desperation and unhappiness that leads her, at the age of fifteen, to an attempted suicide.  All she wanted was to put the words she wrote into other people’s hands in the hopes that they might see her.  So the violence done to her by those boys isn’t just to give her a moment’s shame and themselves a moment’s cruel entertainment; it’s a pointed reminder that the world isn’t going to make a place for her.

That’s why it’s so powerful and beautiful to me that – as complicated as Olivia’s journey and her relationship with Beatriz are – the play is ultimately a hopeful one.  The ending leaves things a little messy, just like real life, but I walked away feeling certain that Olivia was going to be okay.

Good theatre should always leave you feeling like you’ve watched these characters be permanently transformed by whatever moments of their life you observe onstage, and this play definitely accomplishes that.  I’m excited to see more of the journey as it moves forward to production, and to reflect on how it lands after the second, third, fourth viewing.  But for now, what I’m taking away – and what I hope anyone reading this takes away too – is to be thoughtful and intentional about the way we communicate to, and about, girls and young women.  When we make jokes about their pop music and their selfies and their eyeliner, they’re hearing us tell them they aren’t worth taking seriously.  But they are.  They so deeply, truly are.  They deserve to be heard, and seen.

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