The documentary Miss Representation, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, tells the story of women in media in today’s culture. It features interviews with Gloria Steinem, Lisa Ling, Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi, Cory Booker and Condoleezza Rice to just name a few. Before watching the film, I had planned to write a review of it. After seeing it, I decided not to review it and instead felt it was more important to address a few topics that were brought up in the film itself. It’s incredibly powerful and is a must watch for any woman or man, and it definitely needs to be viewed by teenagers. We all know that women are misrepresented in the media, but seeing all the glaring examples one after another can be shocking.
One of the main focuses of the film was the role of women in politics. There have only been 34 female governors in U.S. history, while there have been 2,319 male governors. Men have been active in the political scene for much longer than women, but the fact that there have been so few is still astounding. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the 2010 midterm election was the first time women have not gained ground in Congress since 1979. There are many female politicians in the spotlight, such as Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Sarah Palin, but the reality is that there are few of them. Rice, a former Secretary of State, said that it wasn’t uncommon to walk into a meeting in Washington and be the only female in the room.
What disturbs the filmmaker and the commentators in the film is the way that women who are in politics are talked about on cable news. The media’s representation of these women shapes the views of those watching, even if we don’t always realize it. Greta van Sustren is seen asking Sarah Palin if she’s had breast implants and Hillary Clinton’s “haggard” look discussed. If you type Nancy Pelosi and plastic surgery into Google, a massive amount of sites come up focused only on that, not on her politics. As Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back points out, if the media are derogatory to such powerful women, it calls into question whether media can take any woman seriously.
The people who deliver the news are also unfairly scrutinized. As Miss Representation shows, Katie Couric is routinely written about in gossip columns while Brian Williams rarely, if ever, makes their pages. Rachel Maddow, though more of a commentator than anchor, says that most of the hate mail that she gets is about either her looks or sexuality. It is difficult to see how women in positions of power can be taken seriously if the women who deliver the news about them aren’t even taken seriously.
Beyond the news and political landscape, Hollywood is a bleak place for women. Women are misrepresented continually in films and television. Often they are just there to prop up the man and are seen as sex objects, not fleshed out characters. As Gina Davis says in the documentary, the studios make films based on the assumption that women will see films about men, but not vice versa. This is also true of the people behind the camera. Catherine Hardwicke, who directed Twilight, says that while she helmed one of the most popular films in recent years, she still gets turned away from films where men are the protagonist. Studios tell her that a man needs to direct those films. She points out men have directed films such as Sex and the City and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, both of which are about women. Only 16 percent of protagonists in film are women, so it’s no wonder there are so few successful female directors if they aren’t trusted to make films about men.
Female characters in films are sexualized from an early age. G rated movies generally have just as much sexually revealing clothes as R rated films. Look up pictures of Tinkerbell, Jasmine and Ariel to see that this is most certainly the case. While not mentioned in the documentary, programs like “Toddlers and Tiaras” show the emphasis that we are putting on looks for young girls in today’s culture. It’s unsettling to know that girls as young as five are worried about their looks and weight.
What I’ve written here are only a small fraction of the things discussed in Miss Representation. It seems that we have been talking about women in media forever, but the onslaught of celebrity culture and the internet has made the misrepresentation of women even more prevalent today. I highly recommend that you look at TV listing to find this documentary on OWN, or look on the film’s website to see if it’s screening near you anytime soon. It is eye opening to see just how bad things have gotten, but also inspiring to see some young girls that are trying to make a difference. Miss Representation is essential viewing for any woman.