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Dirty Girls Retrospective

Three months ago I turned twenty. I successfully survived the trauma that is being a teenage girl and all I got to show for it was multiple mental illness diagnoses and a fear of walking home at night. It can not be understated how complicated it is to exist as a teenage girl. The entire world unequivocally despises everything about you and there’s no escape from that fact. As a teenager, I couldn’t understand why a world I had so much love and hope for wanted me to live in fear of it. I wanted to both change the world and rip it to shreds because of how it treated me. “Teen Idol” was my anthem for a reason. I felt so alone, so scared. Then, while mindlessly scrolling through YouTube, I fell upon a little documentary entitled Dirty Girls.

Dirty Girls comes from Michael Lucid as he chronicles the experiences of a gaggle of grunge teenage girls in late 90s era high school. The girls are makeup-less. They wear baggy clothes. They make feminist zines. They also partake in a bit of performance art by apparently showing up to school with lipstick all over their faces. Needless to say, the girls are endlessly ridiculed and hated by the rest of the school population. Most of the doc is made up of other students talking about how ridiculous they find the group. The “dirty girls” are led by eighth grader Amber, who responds to the bullying with a kind of calm that cannot be found in most adults, and her sister Harper. When asked why the girls do what they do, Harper explains that it is a reaction to the expectations put on women by society. And this ladies and gentlemen, is where the heart of the issue lies.

Feminism has never been, and at this rate, will never be popular. At least legitimate, action-based feminism never will. It is easy to think that in a post-MeToo world, we have solved the all-powerful beast that is patriarchy. However, the vitriol these fourteen-year-olds face for tackling intersectionality in a zine is just as common today as it was way back in the 90s. At the start of the short, two girls are asked why they think Amber and her cohort act the way they do. The girls explain they could be doing this as an act of rebellion against patriarchy. The two seem to sit with the idea for a second before instantly bursting out into laughter. There is something so incredibly dystopian about that. That feminism is such an out-there concept that it just has to be laughed at. Refuse to shave because of the beauty industry? What are we? Cavemen? It may seem like a small moment, but this kind of flippant attitude toward change is what keeps movements from, well, moving. This is how we end up with people calling police abolition a pipe dream. If we can’t believe something is possible, how would anything progress?

Another stand-out “this boohockey is still happening twenty-three years later” moment is when upon seeing the infamous zine, many students denounce it for being too weird, too scary, and more importantly, that it’s trite and for lack of a better word, cringy. Fellas, is it cringe to call out capitalism as a driving oppressor in a woman's life? The only reason the zine seems trite is because feminists have been repeating themselves for ages now. Pop feminism has made it seem that acknowledging systemic oppression is uncool or overdone. If these systems have gone away, why do so many feel the need to reconfirm their relevance? The other critique of the zine is that its cringe is still such a popular sentiment toward real activism. Cringe attacks sincerity, and any form of activism must involve sincerity. It sounds silly, but if activism is going to succeed, it must be a bit cringe. Be genuine! Have good faith! Oppressors hate when you have integrity! One student claims that “the easiest thing to do is to rebel”. This is untrue since that is exactly what these girls are doing and everyone and their mother seems to think that it’s stupid. If rebellions were easy, there’d be world peace by now.

I can’t believe I have to say this, but teenage girls are smart. They are so smart. It does not shock me at all that a group of high school girls were able to beautifully critique the intersection between capitalism and misogyny. These girls live in that facet of society every day. How could they not be aware of that? The hardest scene to watch in the doc is probably those last few minutes when Amber verbalizes her deep hurt over the notion that she’s too young to understand real issues like rape (she then states that she has been molested. Horrific.) I can say with near certainty that if these were a group of young boys, they would be hailed as wise beyond their years. Male angst and tribulations have been seen as poignant and important for god knows how long. The Outsiders, Stand By Me, Boyhood: all movies that depict young men grappling with real issues like death, class, and familial struggles. Why are teenage girls not given the liberty to explore those things?

I admire these girls so much. I wish I had half of the bravery of Amber and Harper. I wish I had done something with my rage, my isolation. Instead, I stayed in my room and wept to Pure Heroine era Lorde and hoped and prayed that one day I’d overcome this. That’d I make it past girlhood and live to tell the tale. If you happen to be a teenage girl and also reading this, and I am gravely serious about this, do whatever you want. Dye your hair, write crappy fanfiction, eat junk food, dance, sing, whatever. The world doesn’t want you to exist, so stick it to the man and do just that. Make your presence known at every opportunity you get. I wish I’d written songs or told stories or painted pictures, not caring if it was good or bad. Force the world to acknowledge me. Make them see my bloody fists and sharp teeth, the things they’d given me. I think the art I make now will always be informed by the trauma of my youth, the trauma of my gender. I can’t escape it. I will always be an angry thirteen-year-old girl at heart. And I love her. Somebody has to.

Written by Grace Bradley

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