Girls Rock! is a dirt-under-your-painted-fingernails kind of documentary about a rock in roll camp in Portland, Oregon, where girls between the ages of eight and eighteen learn an instrument, write a song, and perform in front of an audience of 700 people. But the topics explored in Girls Rock! go much deeper than wailing on the guitar or developing the perfect riot grrrl roar. The premise of Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, a non-profit organization founded by Misty McElroy in 2000, is to use music as a tool to help girls develop confidence, overcome self esteem issues, and challenge the mold of traditional femininity. In doing so, it also acts as an experimental exploration of what happens to girls when they are temporarily removed from the context of ‘girl culture’.
When the campers first arrive at rock camp, it is unsettling to witness this herd of girls squirm within the confines of their designated gender role. Their preoccupation with beauty ideals and queen bee politics is somewhat predictable, but their inhibitions to breathe air, be heard, take up space, and be different– to be themselves– results in a lump in the throat. The ongoing apologies and timid, if not censored expressions, is enough to make viewers want to hugs these girls and blubber, “it will be okay. IT WILL BE OKAY.”
Girls Rock! is also a soul warming portrayal of young girls reconnecting with their innocence, and consequently, sinking into their authentic selves. The scene when Palace, a feisty eight year old who has already crafted an eerie, premeditated poise, overcomes her inhibitions and develops her own rocker scream is a celebratory moment that feels like a raised glass to female empowerment. Another focal camper, Amelia, an experimental, self proclaimed musician who writes songs about her dog, Pipi, tickles the heart with her creative character and Jimi Hendrix rock moves.
As rock camp comes to a wrap, many of the girls highlighted in this documentary have begun to climb over the invisible walls that once restrained them. Laura, a teenaged, Korean adoptee, expresses her realization that as a female she is not limited to pining over rock stars from the side lines, but that she, too, is equally as capable as men to write music, rock out, and be in the lime light: a comment that is reflective of much wider gender issues.
With female rockers like Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney and Wild Flag, and Beth Ditto of The Gossip acting as camp mentors, Girls Rock! pays tribute to the freedom culture of rock and roll, a sense of spirit that conflicts with the gender expectations that continue to weigh on young girls, and reflects a social phenomenon that deserves to be challenged with a ferocious, rebel yell.