And the winner is…
...Miss Representation. Not Miss USA or Miss Universe. The documentary title winkingly pays homage to women’s misrepresentation in the media. The film claims, You can’t be what you can’t see…
It’s an extraordinary film, in part because its argument is complex, covering broad territory in a neat hour and a half. It starts with the simple fact: representation of women in the media is skewed. Currently, in movies, reality TV, news, radio stations, music videos, and more, we see the same thing, women who are stupid, promiscuous, gold-diggers, or just “body props” for the scene. The film isn’t asking for patron saints. We’re just not seeing women as they really are, human beings with personalities, and their own narratives.
It sounds like a hefty accusation, but the documentary shows that when you think about it, it’s true. Pulling montages from a dizzying amount of familiar film and ad scenes, we see the same image, of women stuck in there for their “distracting” looks, their sexuality wielded like a weapon. I personally believe you should be able to do whatever you want with your body--flaunt your sexuality, keep conservative, or anything in between--but actresses are being forced into roles that tend toward blank eye candy, because those are the only roles there. It’s a system set up to please the male viewer, as a study shows men are significantly less likely to watch TV. And even women who seem to be making independent artistic choices are often pressured into more and more audacious getups in order to stand out through the noise of mass media. Stories that appear to center around women can often be rephrased as films about women whose lives really center around men, and reacting to their actions. Although it isn’t featured, it made me think of the Bechdel test, which a film passes only if there are at least two women who speak to each other about something other than a man. It’s stunning, when I start thinking about how many of my favorite films wouldn’t pass.
So what? Real girls’ confidence plummets, statistically, in their bodies, but also in their abilities. They get the message that their importance lies in the duration of their youth and beauty, however long they can make it last. And if we don’t have girls who trust in their own power, we have fewer ambitious girls, and even fewer running for important offices, at leadership conferences and national conventions. In news articles, the women we do see in power tend to be described with pointed language, as women who “complain,” are dominatrices, snakes, who threaten to incite “cat fights” with other powerful women. This same trend, by focusing on campaign outfits over campaign messages, also takes away from their accomplishments.
And so the legislation that passes doesn’t reflect women’s needs. The film shows we have generations growing up believing, even subconsciously, that women shouldn’t really be in power, that they are threatening, “intimidating.” For men, it’s not a win-win situation either, nor for any gender, especially those less accepted in the mainstream. By blackening the lines between man and woman, we’re blocking off who should have strength and who should have sensitivity, as if they were mutually exclusive.
The film is groundbreaking in so many ways, but mostly in the way it starts important conversations, ones you might not have even thought of. It hits the nail on the head, and in a pretty elegant format: facts swirl on the screen, accompanied by an urgent, pushing soundtrack. It features feminism’s foremost voices, like Gloria Steinem, firsts like Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, as well as actresses, stars, and specialists from universities to start a discussion. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, director, writer, and producer for the documentary, begins and ends the film with intimate anecdotes. When she finds out she is bringing a baby girl into the world, she reflects on how she wants the world to be different for her daughter.
The solution the film offers is to support women, no matter who you are, and to promote better representation in whatever way you can, to go see women-led films on opening weekend, support girl's leadership initiatives, and start conversations. Even though it’s been years after the film was released in 2011, in a digital age where videos get outdated faster than your phone, Miss Representation feels more relevant than ever. And even as the newest Star Wars trilogy opens with a female lead, women begin to dominate TV series like Game of Thrones, and 2017’s Wonder Woman finally brought the superheroine’s origin story to the screen, they are still the “exception that proves the rule,” à la Riz Ahmed, because they stand out. Until diverse types of women are paribly represented in roles big and small, and don’t make a splash, simply because it’s what we’ve come to expect, then we can start to see, and feel, a culture shift. Until then, we’re still missing representation from Miss Representation.