Film Review – Miss Representation
One of the reasons I am so passionate about film is because of the emotional experience the medium can provide. This is true as well of other types of stories and media; the narratives and images we are fed have incredible power. Obviously, this is also why they can be dangerous. As a person who is tuned into the media and who is also a feminist (let me tell you some other time why all of us who believe in gender equality should be comfortable saying we’re feminists), I am frequently distraught by images and depictions of women that permeate popular culture. The bad far outweighs the good, and progress sometimes feels non-existent.
This is the subject of the documentary Miss Representation, from actress and first-time director Jennifer Seibel Newsom. Through discussions with prominent scholars and media figures about the common portrayals of females in our society’s media, and how these portrayals have real, spiraling consequences in other realms, Newsom creates a compelling argument for why we all need to demand better. Especially if you know a young girl whom you want to consider all options for herself without being brainwashed as to what those options are, it is your responsibility to demand better.
To be honest, as someone who pays attention and talks about this stuff all the time, this film didn’t have a lot “new” to tell me. I notice these ridiculous depictions of females every day, everywhere. I see the way shorthand for a guy being “cool” is having multiple nameless “hot” women in his entourage. I see the Kardashians being set up as role models for our youth. I notice every single time someone calls Hillary Clinton “Mrs. Clinton” rather than “Secretary Clinton,” as she damn well should be addressed. These are all things I think about frequently. But it’s still effective and motivating to see the many examples strung together, and inspiring to hear such a large variety of people—Rachel Maddow; Katie Couric; Margaret Cho; Senator Dianne Feinstein; Newark mayor Cory Booker; former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice; Senator Nancy Pelosi; writer/director Paul Haggis; CEO of Common Sense Media Jim Steyer; director Catherine Hardwicke; mothereffing Gloria Steinem; actresses such as Daphne Zuniga, Rosario Dawson, Jane Fonda and GEENA DAVIS (I really like Geena Davis); others I am forgetting in this moment—talk frankly about the issue. It’s infuriating to be succinctly reminded how swift progress in the women’s equality movement was slammed back, with purpose, by the conservative government of the 1980s. It is an excellent reminder to hear it stated that those who spout “family values” in their political campaigns are the same people who support deregulation of the media, which results in the corporate conglomerate mess that feeds us the trashiest reality TV and stifles independent voices.
If that last paragraph feels ranty, it’s because that’s what this film is—a well-reasoned, well-argued rant. And anger is what it should inspire in anyone who watches it. Newsom’s argument is one we should be able to put together for ourselves—that without proper role models and respect for women’s accomplishments shown in the media, young women are at a disadvantage to attain their own positions of leadership and power as they grow up. The emphasis on youth, beauty, sexuality and the body over education and ambition is crushing, and the way powerful females are treated by the media versus their male counterparts is deeply problematic. But to see it all laid out in montage is stunning. Women still make up a depressingly small percentage of politicians, CEOs, and media leaders. And the numbers are just not improving. In order for young women to grow up with the tools to fill the gap, they need to be told that it’s possible. The current media climate isn’t doing its job in that regard, as the film lets real teens discuss.
While this film is powerful, and I’d love to show it to every teen I know (and a few adults who need a reminder as to why these things are important to talk about), it’s not perfect. Newsom does very little to state the sources of much of the statistical information she presents, and some moments made me wish for this. For example, if you’re going to make a bold statement such as that 65% of women and girls have an eating disorder, you’d better cite a source or at least define what you mean by “eating disorder.” (A Google search for statistics from reputable organizations leads me to wonder if Newsom saw a single survey’s results about the prevalence of disordered eating behaviors—not the same as actual eating disorders, confusing as that might be—and took the info too far.) There are also several moments of awkward transition as Newsom slows the momentum of the film to discuss her own life, a story thread that could have been woven in more deftly. Though her overall message is strong, Newsom’s inexperience in the area of documentary filmmaking often shows.
Despite flaws, Miss Representation presents a great summary of the problems with representations of women in the media today, and is very worth watching. Newsom is using the documentary as a calling card for a larger, fascinating project called the Represent Pledge, an effort to get consumers not to buy products that use sexist imagery in advertising or otherwise support marginalizing attitudes toward women, and to call these companies out on Twitter using the hashtag #notbuyingit. After the anger the film stirs up, you will want to join this call to action.
Miss Representation begins a week-long run at SIFF Cinema at the Film Center today.
The film: B
The cause: A+