“All things considered, it’s the girl who sets the level of conduct on a date.” As a female voice speaks, you see a couple in a car. The camera for this circa-’50s educational film peeps in from just outside the windshield: he’s in a jacket and tie, she’s wearing pearls and a sweater over her shoulders. They’re kissing, so chastely. And yes, it’s her job to set boundaries, his to press up against them. And when lines are crossed, well, it’s her problem.
The scene closes as they exit the car: she slides across the seat to get out on his side and he walks her up the concrete steps to her home, here a distant light set across a green lawn, and the couple walks away from you, toward safety and a carefully preserved reputation. Here, A Girl Like her cuts to a set of anatomical cartoons, a man and a woman, their crotches designated by red triangles. Another woman’s voice begins to speak, an interview subject looking back on a time when “sex was never discussed.” She recalls sitting with her mother: “She would knit, knit, knit, to avoid conversation. And I remember her knitting away there and all of a sudden, I said to her, ‘What is sexual intercourse?’ And she looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Don’t bother me, I’m counting.'”
Precise, daunting, and also allusive, this story recalls those bad old days — here, in the United States — when ignorance, silence, and repression were the preferred social strategies, efforts to make girls submit to limits and feel blameworthy when they didn’t. If the overarching story isn’t new, the individual recollections in Ann Fessler’s documentary, based on her book, also titled A Girl Like Her and screening on 21 and 23 June at Silverdocs — are heart-wrenching. The film brings together many such memories, audio interviews laid on top of vintage footage and instruction, in the forms of high school informational films, advertisements for household appliances, full color movies imagining the perfect living room, complete with a husband in a tux at the piano. The effect is decidedly anti-nostalgic, reminding you that this bygone era was nightmarish. If you didn’t “set the level of conduct” on your date, the story went, you’d become pregnant, and if you became pregnant, your life would be changed forever. As the film reports, “Between 1945 and 1973, 1.5 million women in the United States lost children to adoption.”
Through bits of interviews with over 100 women, A Girl Like Her recounts the ongoing trauma of these losses: girls were forced to drop out of high school and college, young women lost jobs and their hopes for the future. Sent to “maternity homes,” they were deemed errant and unmarriageable, their parents disappointed and their secrets “buried.”
Another film at the Festival, Virgin Tales, suggests that these days are not necessarily bygone. Screening on 19 and 20 June at Silverdocs, Mirjam von Arx’s documentary follows the experiences of a Christian evangelical family, the Wilsons, living in Colorado Springs and adhering to ideals and expectations that sound awfully ’50s.
Patriarch Randy Wilson, the National Field Director for Church Ministries at Family Research Council, structures his own family as a model of proper and eminently admirable behavior. The father of five daughters and two sons, he first appears in the film bestowing on them his expectations, in a ritual during which each girl kneels before him as he explains her name and her role. Your name means “life-giver,” he tells 20-year-old Jordyn, “free-flowing river.” She looks up at him, he smiles, he moves on to the next child.
The film goes on to observe the several sorts of rituals the family — including Randy’s wife Lisa — uses to confirm their belief and the daughters’ pledges to remain virgins until marriage. Chief among these is the Father Daughter Purity Ball. This event, attended by like-minded fathers and daughters from around the United States, is “not just a dance,” explains Lisa. “It’s a beautiful moment with their father,” in which they see that their father is saying “I care enough about you to pay for expensive meal and expensive hotel.” Indeed, the images of the ball and preparations for it suggest the beauty made possible by such expenditure: a ballroom, white gowns, dads in perfectly tailored suits and carrying… swords.
The pageant intimates something of the militancy with which the evangelical family guards its reputation. “There are men out there who are saving themselves for you,” the girls are instructed, and so they must be ready to give themselves correctly. Two of Jordyn’s sisters have waited and been rewarded, as has her brother Colten. Her mother describes the process she and Randy endured: “We dated like everybody else dated,” she begins, “We went out, we spent a lot of time kissing and being together. We definitely chose to save sex for marriage,” she concludes. “That was not a decision that we came to lightly.” When an offscreen interviewer asks how they might feel about a hypothetical daughter who has a boyfriend with whom she might have sex before marriage, the parents pause. They would feel unconditional love for the daughter, they agree. But they’d caution her concerning a “dangerous” relationship with a young man, “a physical relationship with our daughter that he didn’t even value or cherish.”
Randy insists that his beliefs are just that, and no political, even as the film follows him to DC, where he means to right the nation’s wrongs. “We see in the United States that we are a nation in decline,” Randy says. “It’s about influencing decision-makers, that’s really my work, influencing the influencers.” At one point, the camera watches from across the room as an associate wonders aloud about what they’re doing. According to the Constitution, “do we have the right — I’m asking, I’m not telling — what right do we have to say these are the morals?” Randy resists the question: what they’re doing is right: “God has given us all that we need.”
Back home, Jordyn doesn’t quite worry about the fact that she hasn’t had a boyfriend yet — though she surely prays the Lord will bring her one — but focuses instead on the class she’s teaching to 10 girls, on women’s proper behaviors and roles. Citing a book of etiquette from 1921, she quotes, “Charm and beauty are the heritage of a woman and the world it expects it of her.” Just so, she tells the girls how to make perfect pastries and how not to bend at the waist at a water fountain (“It’s unattractive” to position your bottom so it might be “noticed,” she instructs, “Not graceful, not elegant at all”). Her young students nod and watch her. One slouches on the couch, her eyes wide and, maybe, bored.
As the film observes the Wilsons’ activities, it doesn’t offer confrontations or even pose very hard questions. It does, however, provide images where some slippage might be seen: Jordyn’s face appearing pensive or concerned, framed by Thanksgiving decorations on a table, as she sits on the floor across from the family. “All things considered,” the expectations for her remain clear. Her future cannot.