It’s no shock to anyone who has turned on the TV, read a magazine, spied a billboard or surfed the internet that media representations of women are problematic at best. At worst, they are a both a symptom and cause of a troubled society reaching a tipping point in its relationship with sex and violence onscreen. This is the thesis set out by “Miss Representation,” a searing documentary directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, an actress, activist, and wife of California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. This film, born out of anxiety about the world she was bringing a little girl into, and inspired by her past struggles in life, configures itself as a sort of “An Inconvenient Truth” of sexism in the media. Cutting together talking heads interviews with media experts, professors, actresses, and heads of state with truly shocking statistics, and a barrage of rapid fire images culled from advertising, film and TV, the amount of information and sheer scope of this project is almost too much to bear.
A pre-title sequence sets out the central thesis of “Miss Representation”– that the sexual objectification of women onscreen leads to a trivialization and disempowerment of women in the cultural and political process. This segues straight into a credits sequence where footage of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Heidi Montag and yes, Barbie herself are intercut with images of important women in history such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and more. A head shot of Sandra Day O’Connor in judges robes juxtaposed with Jessica Simpson bumping and grinding a cocktail table in Daisy Dukes communicates the entire thesis in just two shots. The rest of the film consists of experts laying out a breathtaking array of information about women’s roles and portrayal in the media, politics, economy, and culture at large; bolstered by animatics of statistics that float on screen to describe just how backwards the U.S. is when it comes to gender equality.
The narrative through-line is Siebel herself, a survivor of assault, eating disorders and the Hollywood industry, who uses her pregnancy as the jumping off point for inquiry into this system. The initial question about images of women in the media leads us down a rabbit hole that indicts the advertising industry for governing the content of the TV shows as vehicles for advertisements, which need to create insecurity in people so they buy the products, so the companies can keep buying ads on the networks, which have been deregulated by politicians, who refuse to go after the media conglomerates because they need them to get elected over the female politicians, who might actually get something done in this country, which would be bad, because CAPITALISM! You follow that? I’m not sure I even do, but it’s a testament to the filmmaker that these many accusations and illuminations are conveyed clearly and effectively, and there’s no sense of confusion with the argument laid out. The flaw to be found in the film is that the endless deluge of information can feel suffocating at times, but there is no real way around it. Siebel’s own story offers a small amount of personal context to the flood of statistics, as well as interviews with high school students who are both shockingly eloquent and emotionally raw.
The film has made the festival circuit, including Sundance, and it’s been picked up for broadcast as a part of the OWN Network (someone named Oprah runs it, heard of her?) Documentary Club, and will be premiering this Thursday, October 20th at 9 pm. Oprah’s seal of approval has been an indicator of success in the past, so we will see how it holds up now that her show is off the air. But, any kind of Documentary Club sounds a-okay to us.
The film recently screened at the Paley Centers for Media in New York and Los Angeles, and according to the panel discussion at the LA screening, noted broadcast journalist Christiane Amanpour was at the New York screening and she was “enraged” and “pissed off.” You may find yourself having the same reaction about 3 minutes into the 90 minute film. However, Siebel ends it on a positive note, using interviewees during the end credits to lay out ways in which we can personally help to combat the systemic denigration of women in the media and our public lives, and ways in which the “Miss Representation” team has created resources and education tools to take it further. Siebel explained after the film that she feels hopeful for the future and social change she believes is coming. And in fact, Jodie Evans of the Women’s Media Center mentioned that their work has already paid off in helping to get “The Playboy Club” canceled by NBC. The overall message one takes away is that change can happen in the world if you’re willing to stand up and make yourself heard, or Occupy Wall Street, even.
At the core of “Miss Representation” is the expression of the need for enhanced media literacy in our culture, especially now, when we are constantly bombarded with screens and images and advertising wherever we go. Understanding that media is a construct (sometimes a mirror of society and sometimes what those in power want us to see), motivated by the economic endeavors of large media conglomerates, is a concept that needs to be taught in schools along with reading, writing and arithmetic. It is scary, but necessary in our brave new world, which needs soldiers to keep fighting the good fight against the passive consumption of media. “Miss Representation” offers us one point of entry into this bubbling stew of an issue, but really any minority group could take up this argument with their own representations on screen, and it’s high time we all took a closer look. [A-]
“Miss Representation” airs on the OWN Channel as a part of the OWN Documentary Club on Thursday, October 20th at 9 pm.