A group of 12-year-old boys kept interrupting Jeni Bonjean and Nicole Rittenmeyer when they were shooting a documentary about the problems of adolescent girls. They wanted to know why the pair were concerned with girls and not with them. So the two cut a deal with the boys: Answer one question and you can be in the video. The boys agreed. “If you woke up tomorrow and found out you were a girl, what would you do?” The boys’ replies ranged from “I’d kill myself” to “I’d shave my legs and redecorate my room” to “I wouldn’t get raped.” Bonjean says, “If you asked the boys if there were any advantages to being a girl, rarely would they say yes.”
In their not-yet-titled documentary in progress, Bonjean and Rittenmeyer are focusing on the loss of self-esteem in adolescent girls, which they found can result in eating disorders and other self-destructive behavior. “We have made a conscious choice to focus on white middle- and upper-class girls for no other reason than that we are white middle- and upper-class girls,” says Bonjean. “These are girls that are supposed to grow up and be lawyers because they have so much privilege–not just skin but class privilege. They seem to have everything, but then why do they engage in such destructive behavior at such a young age? And why do they carry it into adulthood?”
Bonjean and Rittenmeyer have been friends for five years and stepsisters for three (Bonjean’s mother married Rittenmeyer’s father). Rittenmeyer tends bar and, through the Community TV Network, teaches video production to children who live in Cabrini-Green. Bonjean works with sexual-assault victims at a YWCA.
Two years ago both of them read the book School Girls by Peggy Orenstein, a nonfiction account of adolescent girls’ lives. “It brought back painful memories,” says Bonjean. “Adolescent kids have a hard time of it, but girls particularly do. They have a lot of mixed messages from society. Girls are told they can be whatever they want to be and are expected to succeed professionally and do well academically and participate in extracurricular activities. On the other hand, they’re told that they are not really anything unless they are thin and pretty. Now they have to be everything.”
Bonjean and Rittenmeyer created Cosmic Egg Films and spent nine months conducting research for their documentary. They began shooting in June. Though their work on the video tends to overlap, Bonjean, who studied opera performance, is producer, and Rittenmeyer, who’s completing her master’s in film and video at Columbia College, is the director. Partner Ken Alpart does the fund-raising.
“All women and girls suffer from self-doubt,” says Bonjean. “We’ve suffered. We recognize when we’re doing well and excelling that there’s always this overlying self-doubt that I don’t think men experience so much. They don’t have it hanging above them: ‘Gosh, I don’t think this is really all that good.’ Women always understand what I’m talking about.”
They recruited girls through surveys, flyers, and word of mouth in Munster and Valparaiso, Indiana, where the two grew up. They eventually found 11 volunteers ranging in age from 10 to 18. “All of our older girls are struggling on some level with the eating thing,” says Bonjean. “One girl has disclosed that she’s bulimic.”
Bonjean and Rittenmeyer expect to complete the project, which they shoot on weekends, next spring. They plan to submit it to film festivals and sell it to schools. Cosmic Egg Films recently sponsored a citywide, girls-only art competition to find work to use in the film. They came up with 40 entries; one will be chosen as the documentary’s signature image. All 40 will be on view at a River North gallery this weekend, where excerpts of the video will be shown.
As for those who might suggest that their subjects are spoiled, Bonjean says that privilege has been an additional burden, and high expectations have made them afraid of failure. “They have it impressed on them that the most important things in life are doing well and making a lot of money,” she says.
The art opening and screening will take place Sunday from 2 to 5 PM at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, 325 W. Huron. Admission is free. Call 252-4890.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nicole Rittenmeyer, Jeni Bonjean photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.