Miss Representation: A critical review

Amidst a sea of accolades and five-star reviews (examples: here, here and here), Natalie Hill offers a dissenting opinion on Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s new film on the representation of women in the media.

 

 

You might say the representation of women in the media is somewhat of an obsession of mine.  Whether at journalism school or studying at the graduate level, research on stereotypical media narratives about women has always been my focus.  I was also recently lured into the core organizing team of the Vancouver chapter of WAM! (Women, Action and the Media), an organization designed to bring journalists, academics and activists together in progressive dialogue about the media.  For all of these reasons I was thrilled when I heard about a new documentary that explores the abhorrent way women are depicted in the media – Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation.  I promptly put together a Facebook event and headed off to a screening with some fellow WAM! members and our collective high hopes for a refreshing take on an age-old issue.

The thesis of the film is clear.  As Margaret Cho, one of its featured interviewees, puts it: “The media treat women like shit.”  Accordingly, the highly offensive content gathered by Newsom – a Hollywood actress turned activist – is  assembled in depressingly cohesive montages: Jessica Simpson writhing on a soapy car in a crimson string bikini; rapper Nelly showering a faceless woman’s pulsating crotch with dollar bills; a young girl featured on Toddlers and Tiaras, no older than six, adjusting the enhanced bust of her glitzy pink pageant costume while her mother glues on fake eyelashes and touches up her bubblegum lipstick.  These make it all but impossible to protest.  In establishing that we do in fact have a problem here, the director succeeds brilliantly.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the way Newsom treats the rest of the doc’s content, comprised primarily of interviews with a select group of experts.   The group with the most face-time includes: Pat Mitchell (MA, President and CEO for the Paley Center for Media, former President and CEO of PBS); Jennifer Pozner (Executive Director of Women in Media & News); Caroline Heldman (PhD, Associate Professor of Political Science at Occidental College); and Marie Wilson (founding President of the White House Project); with more famous faces including Jane Fonda, Geena Davis and Katie Couric.

Don’t get me wrong – these women are very smart, and incredibly well versed on the subject matter.  They are leaders in their fields, accomplished and powerful.  They are exactly the type of role models the makers of the film want to highlight as counter to the sexualized, degraded, objectified women rendered voiceless by other media makers.  But as inspiring as it is to listen to these women speak, the very juxtaposition is a problem.  The film aims to challenge the tight corners the mainstream media likes to paint women into, and yet, in a way, Newsom does it herself: educated and knowledgeable women/uneducated and ignorant women; respectable women who wear turtlenecks and pants suits/sleazy women who wear extensions and tight clothes; women whose opinions matter/women whose opinions are never even considered. Continuing the mainstream media’s attitude that the only people worth quoting are those with PhDs or a long list of Hollywood credits is neither innovative nor productive.  If you want your film to start a revolution, be revolutionary; not just in your message, but in whom you get to speak to it.

The key slogan for Miss Representation is “you can’t be what you can’t see,” meant to drive home the fact that girls cannot become successful, self-assured, empowered and civically engaged if they do not see women who embody these traits on television, in the movies, and in the pages of magazines.  It is a powerful message.  But again, Newsom seems to commit the very sin of which she hopes to rid the world.  Who don’t we see in Miss Representation?  Women with disabilities, for starters, whose large-scale exclusion by the mainstream media contributes greatly to the discrimination they experience every day, as their abilities and intelligence are routinely under-estimated or outright dismissed.

We also see a whole lot of privileged white women doing most of the talking, which means we don’t see a whole lot of anybody else.  Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and a few others (on camera only briefly) are great speakers – women of colour with great insights and experiences.  But they play supporting roles.  Bit parts, if you will.  Just like the world of Hollywood she comes from, Newsom lets the usual suspects take the lead, with a smattering of diverse voices included on the periphery.  In prioritizing academic arguments over down-to-earth truth-telling (in one of the few times Cho appears on screen, she tells of how, after being pressured to lose weight to remain on air, she was eventually replaced by Drew Carey “because, you know, he’s so slim”), Newsom reinforces the typical practice of making formally educated white persons’ knowledge and experiences central and everyone else’s supplementary.  This view was echoed by some of the women who attended the film with me – smart, well-spoken women of colour – who lamented seeing yet another feminist documentary in which time that was afforded to people like Gloria Steinem meant little was left for minorities.

The film also includes small clips from Rachel Maddow, who comically speaks to the amount of hate mail she receives about how she looks.  Here she hints – without saying it outright – at the challenges of being gay on TV.  The critically engaged viewer might take this comment a bit further and ponder the particular challenges women face when trying to make it in the media business if they don’t conform to the ridiculous universal standard of femininity.  Or, they might think of the harm done to young queer or transgender persons struggling to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the media they consume.  They might.  And if they don’t, well it’s safe to say the specific harm done to queer women by the media’s completely distorted view of female sexuality (which excludes them almost entirely, except when included in the context of male heterosexual fantasy) is left unexamined.  You can’t be what you can’t see.

So the key characters in Miss Representation were less than original, but so too was the film’s formula.  Newsom bookends the film with the narrative of her pregnancy and her hopes to improve her baby’s future by overturning the state of this media-saturated culture (complete with dream-like camera techniques and music almost certainly titled “Hopeful”).  In between she bombards the audience with graphic, sexist imagery, shot after shot after shot aimed to elicit gasps and furrowed brows and offended shaking heads (all of which I did while watching it, by the way).

One cannot help but wonder – is Newsom participating in the very objectifying she is trying to critique by replaying these degrading images?   It is an eternal dilemma for a journalist – the ‘if I show the violent imagery, am I further victimizing the subjects?’ question.  It is one that remains unanswered, but it would have been nice to see any proof that Newsom herself had considered it.

 Miss Representation’s format is tired and familiar: 80 minutes of depressing facts (including dozens of statistics with no identified source whatsoever), followed by 10 minutes of ‘we-can-do-it!’ Rosie the Riveter fist pumping designed to inspire the audience to go out and change things.  But what guidance do they get?  One woman speaks of the great mentorship program she created, where aspiring young female journalists rub shoulders with former press secretaries and the like.  The visuals show women in business attire chatting over h’orsdeuvres and white wine in what looks like a hotel meeting room.  That’s wonderful for the tiny subset of the population currently in journalism school or on track to become a press secretary.  But I ask, borrowing from friends currently occupying, what about the other 99 per cent?

Katie Couric laments that if women everywhere spent a fraction of the time they spent fretting about their weight volunteering at a soup kitchen, the world would surely be a better place.   She may have a point, but one that is likely better directed at the type of audience that would have spent the afternoon at a swanky salon, not in a theatre watching a documentary about the state of women in the media.  I for one think that hardworking and politically engaged women are the last group of people who need to be told to do more unpaid labour.

I suppose you are not expected to take all your inspiration from these two examples.  After all, Newsom ends with the Ghandi quote seen on bumper stickers and coffee mugs everywhere: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  That’s enough to prepare you for your journey taking down the massive capitalist, patriarchal mainstream media, right? … right?

There are things that Newsom does well.  The important, albeit brief, overview of how the deregulation of the communications industry in the United States has led to the rise of massive media conglomerates is crucial to understanding the larger political context of the content we consume every day.   Lifting restrictions and allowing the biggest names in media production and distribution to buy up smaller, community-based outlets – and eventually, each other – have resulted in a drastic decrease in diversity of narratives, both in the United States and in Canada.  Simply put, a handful of very powerful people (who, surprise, surprise, don’t exactly give a crap about women) control the majority of messages in the public sphere.  She is also bang-on in demonstrating how capitalist objectives are at the heart of this industry that refuses to veer away from what sells (women’s bodies), and arguing that we cannot approach the problem of the misrepresentation of women without addressing the inherent problems with capitalism.  Finally, a look at all of the subtle ways in which women are belittled and undermined in the news media (one example – reporters describing women politicians as having “whined” when they voiced criticisms, as opposed to the more neutral “said” or “stated” almost always employed in coverage of their male colleagues) was an intelligent and nuanced way to address the film’s thesis, and a welcome break from the montages of overt, blatant sexism far easier to point out.  These are great insights that not all viewers might have had.

But aside from these few educational, big-picture contextual components, the film comes off as a primer for high school students in desperate need of some media literacy, not for adults who have consumed at least a modicum of media in the last thirty years.  I think – or at least I hope – that the average person is fully aware that women don’t exactly fare well in the media they consume every day.  It’s time to move beyond stating the obvious.

In a handful of places in the film, Newsom includes footage from a focus group of teenagers discussing sexist media and the consequences.  They speak of their low self-esteem, their anxieties, their sheer anger and frustration.  I wonder if this incredibly articulate group of young people was given the time to brainstorm a response, to come up with realistic strategies, or to plant the seeds of revolution.  If they were, why didn’t we see it?   What an incredibly inspiring film that would have been – one in which the majority of production time and energy went into finding a solution.  Now that’s a film I’d like to see.

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19 Comments on “Miss Representation: A critical review”

  • OH! RELIEF! I basically disliked the documentary quite a bit – partly because it said the obvious, but mostly because of the lack of a wide range of women’s voices. I spoke briefly to Lindsay Beyerstein (friend of Jen Pozner) about it and her defense was – Margaret Cho and Rosario Dawson! I was deeply disappointed that Rachel Maddow didn’t – or wasn’t allowed? – to talk about being a lesbian. Is there a chance she isn’t allowed to say that? As far as Pozner goes, I know some of her other work and I think she’s terrific. Of course, the women interviewed for the doc had no control over its perspective or how it was put together. In fact, in one advert-trailer, Pozner ended up speaking right after Condoleeza Rice and that freaked her out. But that’s the other thing: Condoleeza Rice!!!! Holy freaked-out feminist!!!! Whining about trying to teach Boy Bush about the importance of Title IX??? Title IX is important alright, but what about all the dead Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani … WOMEN! And the raped and mutilated ones. It’s impossible to take that woman seriously. In fact, I found it very difficult to concentrate after that.
    Thanks for writing this – it’s awesome.

       7 likes

  • Omnia Vanitas

    Yeah Condoleeza Rice is a war criminal, a genocidal murderer and a thug, wtf

       4 likes

  • river

    If all we can do is pick at other women and tell them they did it wrong then maybe we need to hit the play button again.

       34 likes

  • kathy

    Even though I didn’t see the flick, the points are terrific. I would add that it sounds like the film is very victim-blaming- instructing women on what to do, rather than addressing the beneficiaries who profit from these representations of women.

       2 likes

    • No, the film is NOT victim-blaming. Watch it before making absurd comment.

         10 likes

  • Black Kettle

    I hear you, river. For what it’s worth, I have to go back to August to find a post on this blog about a woman of colour, but I suppose the defense will be–”Assata Shakur!” And that post got a whole 3 comments. The rest of the posts tend to be self-righteous ones about the things other white women (and the occasional pervy guy) are doing are wrong.

    Someone let me know when the majority of the production time for this blog and radio show go into finding solutions–that’s a blog I’d like to read!

       8 likes

  • Omnia Vanitas

    OK, so no critiques of other women allowed, girls, got it? Just be nice and STFU. Otherwise you might be shamed by people who stand to profit from the status quo, which incidentally is questioned (and hence a solution put forth–i.e., change/challenge the freaking status quo) every time a radical feminist writes a post. Also no critiquing white women or pervy guys allowed either. :P

       3 likes

  • marv wheale

    I agree that criticizing elite or “prominent” feminists is not simply negative and counterproductive. Nor does it constitute a failure of the imagination for creating an alternative world. Comparatively speaking, why is lambasting a legitmate strategy for social change when it comes to challenging corporate power and military invasions but not when used by women for rebuking sex, race, abilities, sex orientation and class inequalities. Polemics can be a ueful tool in promoting social tranformation. It certainly attracted me to the radical feminist movement.

    In addition, I believe that it is often true that the more invisible the woman (and man) in society the more truth they possess. Women and men who are “leaders in their fields, accomplished and powerful” have a relatively high position among others, like for example, aboriginal prostitutes. Feminists have taught me that accepting male standards and norms as the meaning of success is complicity with injustice. Instead the true definition of achievement is to stand in solidarity with aboriginal and other dispossessed women in abolishing prostitution, pornography and other institutional forms of viloence aganist women. It is not that women and men who climb male ladders of power are bad or traitors. The structures themselves have molded them and us in harmful ways and are not questioned.

       1 likes

  • I lost some associates in the local peace movement over the fact that Condi Rice was in the documentary. To me that is deliberately missing the forest for the trees. I personally championed it, and it seem s to me that to-date, this is the best we’ve got, so I’ll continue to advocate it.

    My worst criticism of the doc when I left was that it was too hokey for my tastes. Thanks for bringing these very valid criticisms to publication. The author is spot-on, every point.

       3 likes

  • May

    although i am a fan of the documentary, just for the simple fact that it’s bringing light to this very important subject in a way that may actually reach more people than just the feminists who give a crap, i still appreciate and enjoyed this very insightful critical perspective!! she really nailed the weaknesses in a way that i think should be built off of to help create the next great documentary of this kind!!

       2 likes

  • Hilla

    well written Natalie.

       0 likes

  • This is inevitable when one focuses on feminism, which deals with one form of exploitation and oppression, without dealing with the underlying issue that sustains and perpetuates that exploitation. Condoleeza Rice, the war criminal, automatically gets to be in the “club” because she is, after all, a woman. The goal for these “feminists” is for more women to climb the ladder so they too can be exploiters and oppressors.

    I suggest you read the works of Klara Zetkin, who long ago warned working class women not to make common cause with bourgeois women who would corrupt their movement for liberation and lead it astray.

       3 likes

  • Kelly

    Thank You Thank You for this! Yes Miss Representation is itself a misrepresentation is it not? The Problem is not that Women need to be more connected to their Male but that We all need to connect with the Female which is not competitive but is instead nurturing. If I didn’t have to go to the Dentist I would write more but I wanted to send you all here a big Bravo! I’ll be Back :)

       0 likes

  • Madison

    Thanks for the article Natalie! I was hoping to further discuss your views on the portrayal of gender in the media. Drop me a line?

       0 likes

  • Katie

    Thank you for your eloquent review! The criticism is spot-on but I’m sure some of its tackiness is deliberate, included in order to reach the broadest audience. To build the foundation for future films and discussions, so to speak.

       3 likes

  • I appreciate this critical review. I like the documentary because it is one of the few – if not only – big media productions that questions and brings to attention the portrayal of women in the media. NO ONE ELSE DOES THIS! Ideally, I would show this documentary to young women (such as high schoolers) as they are the ones most likely to be consuming media featuring sex and explicit imagery, while still impressionable. However, there are some parts of the film that had the cliché “sisterhood/rosie the riveter” feminist soundbytes, like you mentioned. I would have liked it if they focused more on the bureaucracy and funding behind most Hollywood productions.

       1 likes

  • I enjoyed this writing, albeit a bit biased here and there, so thank you. I would just like to make sure you know that there are men out there fighting for the equal treatment of all people, women, men, children and animals. I also feel that when people see the word “feminism,” especially men, they enter the issue with a preconceived notion that the feminist writing it is against ALL males. During my reading of this analysis, I noticed a lot of negative emotion toward men, and that doesn’t help anyone in the realm of equality.

    Regards,
    Maxwell S

       2 likes

    • The F Word Media Collective

      Hi Maxwell,
      We know there are men fighting for equality. We are working alongside them everyday in complex, interesting, challenging, and hopeful relationships and solidarities. Negative emotions toward those that benefit most from the oppressions people suffer are valid. This will change as we see greater strides toward equality, community healing, and those with privilege working just as hard to subvert the status quo and uproot oppressive power structures.
      Thanks so much for your comment and we hope you come back to read more soon!
      -The F Word Team

         0 likes

  • Duane Ackerman

    I tried to watch this film and found it difficult to get through. Many of the images used were not juxtaposed very well. I did not like her use of images taken from Desperate Housewives which was a production that had many powerful older (by TV standards) female characters. Meanwhile, Jane Fonda (one of the earlier Hollywood sex kittens) is interviewed as some sort of champion of the cause. The film only becomes harder to watch if you know anything about the personal life of the film maker.
    A much better documentary is Pink Ribbons, Inc. I however can not imagine Ophera would ever champion this documentary.

       0 likes

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