I’ve never been less cynical about the benevolent power of United States electoral politics than when I was 17 years old, freshly dumped by my first serious boyfriend, participating in the American Legion Auxiliary California Girls State. Girls State, like its American Legion–sponsored counterpart Boys State, is a weeklong government-in-action summer program designed to educate teenagers about state government and encourage civic responsibility, democratic participation, and patriotism. These typically take place on college campuses across the country, where participants are tasked with creating their own state government through mock-legislating, filing, campaigning, and elections.
The 85-year-old program is also the subject of a Sundance U.S. Grand Jury Prize–winning documentary directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. Filmed under the hot Austin sun of Texas Boys State 2018, Boys State engages with some of the biggest political issues of our time—including civil discourse, election accountability, and ethical campaigning—through the eyes of 1,100 scrawny, overachieving teens as they debate abortion, gun rights, and the preservation of their own masculinity. At first glance, Boys State’s sea of mostly white boys toting American flags and describing themselves as “right-wing libertarian[s]” and “big-time capitalist[s]” might make it seem like a summer camp for, as one politically progressive participant described it, “conservative indoctrination.” Early in the film, another teen interviewing for the chance to attend Boys State glances at a competitor dressed in full military garb. He uneasily remarks, “If there’s a thousand kids dressed like that? I don’t know … you know?”
However, the documentary quickly shifts to consider the perspectives of a handful of Boys State attendees across the political spectrum. While one statesman flaunts his Ronald Reagan action figure (which talks!), another showcases the March for Our Lives chapter he leads on Instagram—a move that comes back to haunt him during his bid for “governor.” In many ways, the frenzied, hopeful week that these boys experience mirrors my own at California Girls State in 2014: the range of political perspectives, the intense community, the passion for making political change. But the documentary also shows how much the program depends on the real-world political climate of a particular place and time.
For much of the film, Moss and McBaine have viewers on the edge of their seats over which of the boys will ascend to the program’s highest, and most coveted, position. I’ll never forget when my counselor looked at all of our eager faces on Day One and told us that the Girls State governor is elected at the end of the program and only holds office “for about 18 hours,” leaving little time to actually govern. I let myself take the more-relaxed route of running for my City Council, getting elected on the first day of the program, and resting more easily knowing that I wouldn’t have to take on the stress of filing and campaigning for statewide positions.
Being on City Council rocked. Sure, it sometimes felt childish when we were coming up with outlandish cheers, making paper hats, or screaming ourselves hoarse in the dining hall. But at other times it felt extremely adult, especially when we advocated for the laws our city cared most about in county meetings and pushed to pass certain positions on education, immigration, climate change, and LGBTQ rights on our party’s platform. Boys State differs, whether because of location or gender or the difference a few years can make, showing restless participants proposing legislation to “relocate all [Texas] Prius owners to Oklahoma,” ban pineapple pizza and cargo shorts, and change the official pronunciation of the letter “W” to “Dubya.” One kid’s pleas for serious debate are met with boos.
That’s not to say that the girls never got caught up in frivolous issues. (I remember how an ethical question about whether to let a community use a water source even if it would destroy a fictional fish population derailed the campaign, even earning one candidate the secret nickname “Fish Killer.”) But the environment that these Texas teens participated in 2018 versus the one I experienced in 2014 has a crucial new element: technology. When I attended, California Girls State was an analog event, and campaigning via social media was strictly forbidden. In Boys State, the old-school manner of elections is quickly abandoned in favor of partisan propaganda, racist memes, and personal attacks via Instagram.
René, a Black participant, debate champion, and one of Boys State’s best orators, becomes the subject of a vitriolic social media campaign in which the very members of the group that elected him to lead their political party have turned on him. He discovers an @impeach_rene Instagram account—but floats far above their digital harassment with a level of self-assuredness and grace that very few other boys his age display, even as the account resorts to racist attacks. It’s an ugly moment in the program, one that illuminates just how the 2016 election has shaped the way some of these teenagers perceive the American political system and has given them a new set of tools.
The naïveté and optimism of being largely privileged teenage girls in the Obama era helped me and my fellow Girls State participants conduct our elections free from the ugliness of social media. Even so, my optimism about the program as whole has largely faded over the years. Noticeably absent from Boys State is any discussion of Donald Trump. In fact, remarkably few contemporary American politicians are ever mentioned, though the rare exceptions include a “Beto for Senate” T-shirt worn by participant Steven on the first day. Given my experience with the program, that’s probably intentional. At California Girls State in 2014, even before the rancor of the Trump administration, we were advised to keep actual politics and politicians out of discussion. “This week is about the state you want to create,” we were told. I have to wonder if Steven was also offered this “advice” off-camera and told to change his shirt.
It’s also notable that Boys State doesn’t name their two political parties after the Democrats and the GOP, instead going by the Federalists and Nationalists—though neither one is as innocuous a name as they seem to think. I loved the program when I attended, but looking back on it now, it’s hard to imagine that Girls and Boys State can effectively argue that our form of government is inherently good, effective, and important when that very argument relies on evading the larger context of our actual (continually failing) democracy. If anything, Boys State shows how those failures are bound to creep in anyway.