In response to the glaring under-representation and objectification of women in mainstream media, actress turned filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s new documentary “Miss Representation” seeks to reveal how the sexist and violent objectification of women onscreen is a driving force behind the objectification and disenfranchisement of women in U.S. culture.
While the premise of “Miss Representation” is by no means a new concept, the film certainly evokes a gut-wrenching response as it juxtaposes pop-culture icons like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears grinding their way across TV screens with images of powerful women throughout history like Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, and emphasizes statistics that prove the major underrepresentation of women in popular media, corporate roles and political offices.
Throughout, the film’s thesis is abundantly clear—in the words of interviewee Margaret Cho, “The media treats women like sh**”. But the intention of Miss Representation isn’t very clear beyond that. It spends the first half hour or so flashing scary statistics about eating disorders, sexualization of the very few female roles in mainstream movies, increasing violence towards women, and the disturbingly low representation of women in positions of power; then quickly moves to a series of interviews with women in powerful positions in media, business, and politics, such as Nancy Pelosi, Condoleeza Rice, Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow. These women all give interesting and powerful insight into what it’s like to be belittled and overlooked even in elite positions, but the film casts too wide a web in trying to encompass the different ways media portrayals affect women in different industries.
Furthermore, the film’s main slogan, “you can’t be what you can’t see”, intended to emphasize the idea that women cannot become self-actualized and influential if those characteristics are not portrayed in the mainstream media, inadvertently highlights a major weakness in the film’s direction—in “Miss Representation,” we see women already in positions of power, but no representation of women whose voices need to be heard the most—women in poverty, women without employment opportunities and education who struggle with race, class and sexuality in a media-driven society that seeks to capitalize on female bodies. Additionally, “Miss Representation,” for all its criticisms of the media, fails to offer any methods working towards media equality and literacy beyond Gandhi’s coffee-cup quote extraordinaire, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Perhaps if “Miss Representation” went further than a crash course in media objectification, and delved deeper into providing advocacy for women whose voices aren’t already being heard throughout the media, and searched for realistic solutions that support women of all demographics, it could be a radical tool for empowerment, instead of being stuck regurgitating statistics and the experiences of privileged women. As it stands now, “Miss Representation” is yet another film that serves to shock and anger women without offering constructive theories for change, and without adequately representing a wide range of female experiences.
By Anna Robbins