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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