In Praise of Willful Girls

Girl-fueled interruptions are on the rise.


In June a rape survivor addressed her rapist directly in court and then sent her statement to BuzzFeed News. In July Black Lives Matter protester, Iesha Evans, courageously blocked advancing Baton Rouge police in full riot gear. In August, amidst a steady stream of sexist and racist commentary, women dominated the Rio Olympic games.

It’s easy to dismiss each brave act as unique, each remarkable young woman as special. This is our way. We are a country enamored with individual achievement. We’re like the cameras focusing on the few dissenters inside the Wells Fargo Arena, ignoring the mass of human protest outside. We miss the forest for the trees, and so things tend to creep up on us.

But it’s not easy being an interruption.

Events of these past months suggest we have greatly underestimated this generation of girls and young women. Collectively they are way smarter, way braver and far more strategic and powerful than anyone has given them credit for. This isn’t about an exceptional few rising above the many. This is something more like a tipping point, a sea change.

When we see the connections and read the pattern, a few things become clear.

Young women don’t do self-flagellation and shame. “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today,” the Stanford rape survivor asserts. Finger-wagging rebukes and double standards just piss them off. Anger is a kind of lucidity; hurt is a source of knowledge. Audre Lorde reverberates in their hearts: “Your silence will not protect you.”

They don’t do simple. They’re concerned with wicked problems—widespread, complex and interconnected issues like poverty, climate change and human rights. They know glass ceilings aren’t broken by those at the top, but by the work of many; by seismic shifts in the body politic. This is where they live. Their work is relational, intersectional, horizontal.

They don’t do binaries. While sports governing bodies struggle to draw a bright biological line between genders, they refuse to pick sides. Let old-school commentators stumble to explain their best with the worst tropes, comparing them to men, giving credit to husbands, diminishing their accomplishments with demeaning comments, debating whether they should wear make-up, even reducing them to nameless afterthoughts. They are just getting it done.

They aren’t easily duped. They’ve grown up with late show hosts calling BS on the sophisticated underbelly of politics, they’ve been educated in media sexism, racism and homophobia. They understand how privilege operates and what it protects; they recognize white male posturing as a special kind of fragility.

They aren’t immobilized by fear. Trolls, fat-shamers, bigots and racists are motivation. They are emboldened by one another; they carry one another. Don’t expect them to just hand over self-respect, opinions, bodies, power. It no longer works that way.

This is their world to imagine and create. It’s a girl’s generational right to disrupt the way things go. They are what Representative John Lewis calls “good trouble, necessary trouble.” They are inconvenient truths. They are willful. To be willful, race and queer theorist Sara Ahmed says, is to refuse “to give way, to give up, to give up your way.” They have the audacity to interrupt the usual flow of events. “We might need to be the cause of obstruction,” Ahmed says. “We might need to get in the way if we are to get anywhere.”

And we should have expected this. We can’t raise girls and young women to stand up for themselves and to think for themselves and then criticize them when they disagree with us, when they call us on our compromises, our blind spots. They’ve learned–sometimes from us, sometimes in spite of us–how to be a disruption, an interruption, to get in the way of others’ ignorance and complacency, to face hate with a full heart, to stand for a just cause, to dig deep rather than lean in.

It’s astonishing to witness young women as the wonderful, courageous, complex, beautiful and necessary trouble we’ve hoped for and enabled. If they make us uncomfortable, that’s the point. We need them to challenge us where we live if we are to get anywhere.



Lyn Mikel Brown is Professor of Education at Colby College, founder of SPARK Movement, and author of Powered By Girl: A Field Guide For Supporting Youth Activists.