". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Critical Theory at the Smithsonian: A Closer Look at ‘Girlhood: It’s Complicated’

September 2, 2022

As one of the biggest and most prestigious museum systems in the country, thousands of people visit at least one of the Smithsonian’s museums a year — including tourists, families, and school children on field trips.

Unfortunately, like many other educational places in the U.S., the Smithsonian has fallen privy to critical theory and is propagating a radical cultural agenda. In the National Museum of American History, an exhibit called “Girlhood: It’s Complicated,” looks at the political impact of women from a young age — girlhood. The exhibit, created to celebrate the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment (which gave women the right to vote), looks at different ways girls have impacted American history in five main areas: news and politics, education, work, wellness, and fashion.

However, it does more than just that. The overarching narrative of the exhibit not-so-subtly reflects critical theory’s rejection of authority itself and its division of people into categories of oppressed and oppressor.

Throughout the exhibit, phrases can be found like:

  • “They [girls] learn the rules, and they learn how to break the rules. In this mix, girls confront what society expects from them.”
  • “At school, girls confronted the nation’s ideas as to where they fit in,”
  • “Girls’ power over the future made many adults uncomfortable.”
  • “…the belief that girls’ bodies are trouble remains constant.”
  • “They [girls] confront adults’ assumptions about what it means to be a girl…”
  • “Girls’ bodies are full of possibilities. And some of those possibilities have scared social authorities,”
  • “In school, we learn who gets to be a girl,”
  • “How have girls talked back and taken control of their bodies?”
  • “Teens used cheap, thrifted, and remixed fashion to talk back to authority.”

By painting girlhood using these broad strokes, the exhibit sets up authority figures — including politicians, parents, and adults in general — as the oppressors and girls as the oppressed, and sets up schools, government, the family structure, and the idea of objective moral values or duties as oppressive systems that need to be “confronted” and “broken.” It also assumes that the only motivation that those in authority have when making decisions that affect girls, is to exercise power and control over them. The idea that those in authority could be making decisions based on their adherence to a moral standard, is not even considered.

According to critical theory, our ultimate moral duty is liberation or the freeing of oppressed groups from oppressive systems. With this as our ultimate purpose, all other moral values and duties are evaluated based on how well they further this goal. If a moral value gets in the way of this purpose, it is sacrificed on the altar of liberation — even if it really shouldn’t be.

For instance, let’s take the moral claim that people shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage. If women claim that’s oppressive — which they have — and “take control of their bodies,” the claim that sex only within the context of marriage is morally superior to premarital or extramarital sex must go (and any possible consequence that could result from the rejection of this value), for the sake of “female liberation.”

As applied to this museum exhibit, every single action or change instigated by girls throughout history is framed as morally good, since every change has served the ultimate “good” of threatening those in power and chipping away at things that have “oppressed” girls.

Not every historical change highlighted in the exhibit is bad. Many changes highlighted are in fact moral improvements that society was right to change, including but not limited to: the eradication of slavery, desegregation of schools, and rights for factory workers. Other changes highlighted are morally neutral, including many changes in fashion trends over the years. However, alongside these good and neutral changes, the exhibit also highlights immoral changes, like the redefinition of “girl” to include biological males and frames them like the others — as morally good.

In the “Wellness” section of the exhibit, Jazz Jennings is highlighted. The exhibit describes Jennings (a biological male) as a girl who was one of the youngest publicly documented people to identify as transgender. Jazz has become a trans activist and the exhibit highlights Jennings’ nonprofit for children who identify as transgender.

The display about Jazz includes direct and indirect support for the transgender ideology with quotes like, “But Jazz was lucky because her family listened, learned, and supported her,” and “By embracing themselves, girls break barriers every day to change our culture’s definition of girlhood. … Jazz Jennings is one of those girls … and reminds us that girls can be assigned male at birth and that girlhood comes in many forms.”

Unfortunately, woke exhibits like these are not kept in one city — they’re taken on the road and shown across the country. As students go back to school and field trips resume, parents must be wary of the message these types of exhibits convey to children. Exhibits rooted in critical theory encourage visitors to reject all authority that represent the status quo, without evaluating any possible merits of the status quo. It also encourages the pursuit of change for the sake of change itself, rather than teaching visitors that there is a difference between morally good and bad change and how to discern between the two.

“Girlhood” celebrates girls who have worked or are working to dismantle “systems of oppression,” but fails to define what are truly oppressive or unjust systems and which merely (and rightfully) inhibit immoral behavior. In our pursuit of justice, let us not throw other morally good things out with the bathwater.

Claire Gatzke is the Manager of Annual Giving at Family Research Council.