Welcome to Making Media That Matters, week 4! I flew into our Kaimuki Filmmaking space in a crazy mad dash, as I was running late and fearful I would miss the opening circle. As I frantically burst through the doors, I noticed everyone was calmly talking story and nibbling on refreshments. I looked at the clock on my phone: only 3:34pm. PHEW. I made it. One of the students said hello to me, then said, “Hey - you look a kinda tired!” I laughed that she noticed my hurried entrance and my obvious frazzle. You can always count on teenagers to tell you the truth. :P
I chatted with some of the participants briefly about homework and science projects, then Vera called us all together to begin our opening circle. To start our evening, we all answered the question, “In only 3 words, how would your closest friends define you?” Some students had no problem answering: “Funny, hyper, and creative!” or “Brave, patient, and happy!” Others seemed to struggle profoundly with describing themselves accurately, appearing quite anxious or perplexed when it was their turn to speak. This hesitancy is why we do these exercises…study after study demonstrates that a girl’s self-esteem and self-concept plummets in adolescent and teenage years. It’s important that we demonstrate the importance of a positive self-image, and that we learn to take pride in our accomplishments and the ways in which we are special and unique.
Next, the Teen Alert Program (TAP) from the Domestic Violence Action Center delivered a presentation on teen dating violence. TAP has a variety of programs, such as court advocacy for teens (seeking restraining order or testifying in criminal court against their perpetrator), community education (educational presentations on dating violence to teens in Jr. high and high schools throughout the state), safety planning, and community referrals. TAP spoke to our group about teen dating violence: warning signs, healthy versus unhealthy relationships, gender roles/norms, and power and control. I liked how they backed into the subject of dating violence by talking about normalized violence – how we come to view violence as something typical or even expected in certain situations, because of how it’s portrayed in the media or because of the violence we might have experienced in our home lives. They expressed that statistics in Hawai’i show that 90% of Hawai’i teens know someone that has experienced violence in their dating life. The students seemed to respond most to the examples of power and control that TAP gave…seemingly “harmless” examples that one might not deem overtly “violent,” but actions that do have roots in power and control. For example, someone demanding their partner’s log-in information to various social media sites, or email, as this is actually a way to control or monitor their partner, demonstrating a lack of trust. The TAP team then showed a trailer of the documentary, Miss Representation, to demonstrate the subtle ways in which the media sends damaging messages to girls and women (more examples of normalized violence). I adore the film and use it as a teaching tool, even for graduate students. It’s so wonderfully written and produced, as it touches on the blatant sexism that is rampant in our media (even our news media), as well as the many indirect micro-aggressions that are fed to females through media outlets in every capacity.
After the film short, we broke up into small groups and discussed some of the themes in the film – specifically trying to answer the questions: 1) How has media negatively influenced the feminine perspective and 2) How can we change the media to make it better? I was with a particularly shy and quiet group for this exercise. One of the film mentors and I tried to break the ice by telling personal stories of things we’d noticed in the media (or experienced, ourselves), and this seemed to help the girls start thinking of things they’d also noticed or experienced. One student expressed frustration about Instagram. She follows a lot of comedy filmmakers on the site, and that they often post comedic film shorts (Instagram limits video content to only 1 minute) that degrade women or use women’s bodies for comic relief (like having the wind blow up a woman’s skirt, revealing her underwear for a group of men to see). We came back together as a large group and discussed what we talked about in our respective groups. One example was the recent backlash that surrounded Lady Gaga’s Superbowl performance. I felt myself growing agitated and getting fidgety in my seat, as the Lady Gaga situation irritates me SO. A beautiful, talented, and enormously successful woman writes, produces, and sings original music on one of the largest stages in America, AND creates and orchestrates her own personal light show for the performance, and all we can concentrate on is her stomach, which as far as I’m concerned, looks fantastic. The fact that we ignore her enormous talent and instead insult her based on her midsection is infuriating. And something that would most likely never happen to a male performer of the same caliber. But…I digress.
We took a short break and then got ready for our film lesson for the night. Our film instructor, Lisette, handed out a very short screenplay to a film entitled, “The Only Boy in the World.” We read the script together, with 3 of our students acting out the roles. I giggle as one of the students enthusiastically and hilariously reads her character’s lines, wondering if perhaps she has an interest in acting. The script is about a boy who wishes away everyone in the world because he is being bullied, and just wants to be left alone. And poof! Everyone is gone. At first, he revels in his freedom, eating ice cream for dinner and relishing the fact that he no longer must attend school. Time passes, however, and he becomes lonely and depressed. Because of his immense loneliness, he befriends a ball, whom he names, “Ball-E.” One day, as he is playing with Ball-E, he loses control and the ball bounces into the lake, floating away. The boy is devastated. He is sitting in the grass crying when a young girl walks up to him. He looks up incredulously, as he thought he was the only person left on earth. The film ends with their budding friendship. It’s fun to read an actual screenplay together, because it gives the students (and staff!) a chance to compare the script to the finished product. Next, we watched the short film together. I marveled at how different it was on film that what I had pictured in my mind. Watch the movie, here. We discuss the film briefly and then launch into a group writing/character exercise. We were supposed to create a new script, similar to the one we just read/watched, but entitled, “The Only GIRL in the world.” We were to create a new main character with a reason for wishing everyone in the world away, and another character that she befriends. My group is more quiet and timid than some of the others I’ve worked with in previous weeks. “How old do we want the main character to be?” I asked. One suggested that she be 11 years old, just like the boy in the “The Only Boy in the World” script. “Okay,” I said, “But you know that it doesn’t have to be the same, right? She can be a baby, she can be a teenager, she can be very old woman.” They laughed and someone suggested that our character could be 16 years old and that her name might be “Makana.” We all agreed on this and began brainstorming other aspects of the story…why does she want to be alone? What inanimate object does she befriend? Who appears at the end of the story? We tossed around several ideas but land on the idea that she wishes everyone away because she wants to be the smartest girl in the world. Now, she is alone and has her wish (we all giggle at the irony that this also makes her the stupidest girl in the world, as well). We struggled to come up with an inanimate object to replace Ball-E, until one of the film mentors suggested a Bop-It (a talking, interactive game). I loved the idea of having an inanimate object that could communicate, but the students didn’t seem convinced. I tried to think of other objects that could possibly communicate in the same way. “I’ve got it!” I shouted, probably a little too proud of my idea, “What about a Magic 8 Ball?!?!?!” They all laughed and it was decided. This way, when she was lonely she could ask the Magic 8 Ball questions and “talk” to the object. The rest of our story got a little silly, but no one can accuse these girls of not being creative. Our character, Makana, eventually feels frustrated that the Magic 8 Ball keeps answering, “Ask again later,” so she cracks it open and drinks the strange blue liquid inside. This causes her to hallucinate a girl that looks exactly like her (Makana 2.0) and they become friends. She is possibly no longer the smartest girl in the world, but she is also no longer lonely. We came back together as a big group to share our ideas, and another group’s film was just as “out-there” as ours, with former President Obama even making a surfing cameo. :P After our film lesson, we gathered into a big circle again to go through our word-of-the-week: privilege. We only had a few minutes left in the session, so I decided to simply float the basic definition out there for our students: a privilege is an unearned special right, advantage, or benefit given to a person or a group of people. It can be monetary (or resource-based), political, or social and it can be used (even accidentally) to oppress other people. I also explained that both privilege and oppression (our word-of-the-week for the week prior) can exist simultaneously, in different ways. For example, I am a white person, and as such, I might not always understand, validate, or “get” how much race and racism affects people of color. I have white privilege. However, I am also a woman, so I suffer from gender oppression, as well. I am both privileged and oppressed at the same time. I relayed a great quote about white privilege that has always resonated with me, written by James Baldwin, “Being white is never having to think about it.” This is the essence of white privilege…not noticing or acknowledging that race is a problem for someone else, because it doesn’t affect you, personally. It’s always quite difficult to explain these huge concepts to a group of teenagers, as I know many grown adults that don’t comprehend these complexities. But consciousness-raising and social justice education is a huge part of our program, so we try to infuse MMTM with lessons every week, hoping to encourage the participants to fight for a better, more just world.
We ended our night with our traditional closing circle and closing question: “If you could have any skill/talent/trait that you don’t currently possess, what would it be? The answers ranged from “I’d love to speak like 7 languages!” or “I’d like to play the piano or violin!” to “I’d like to be less socially awkward” and “I’d love for people to pay attention to me.” Every week through these silly little questions, I feel like I get to know our students just a little bit better. I love hearing their hopes and dreams and crazy ideas for their upcoming films. I look around the room and smile, making a note to myself to pay attention to the girl that wants attention, because that’s one little wish I can help grant. ☺