'Miss Representation' confronts stereotypes with powerful women and soft-core porn

A new documentary about women in the media mixes the voices of seasoned female power brokers with young women. The result is a worrying look at the generation of adults Internet media is creating.

Crosscut archive image.

The "Miss Representation" poster.

A new documentary about women in the media mixes the voices of seasoned female power brokers with young women. The result is a worrying look at the generation of adults Internet media is creating.

Objectification of women in the media is not new. Neither is under-representation in government or executive leadership. Still, Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, manages to strike a fresh nerve in her documentary, "Miss Representation," illustrating the social impact of media on a generation that, thanks to the prevalence of the internet, is more saturated with negative female stereotypes than any before it. The film, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was featured at Bioneers’ Moving Image Festival, aired on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network in October. Now “Miss Representation” is screening in spots nationwide, including locations in Seattle.

Siebel Newsom makes her case with a combination of hard numbers and soft-core porn.  Although they make up 51% of the population, women hold only 3% of clout positions in telecommunications and comprise 16% of all writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, and editors. Yet teens in America are consuming 10 hours and 45 minutes of media each day; media full of overtly sexualized images of women. Picture mostly nude women, spread eagle and adorned with dollar-sign bling, casting doe-eyes at rappers. "Miss Representation" is chock full of them and yes, they're serving as role models for teens. 

Still, almost more troubling are the less sexualized aspects of the film. A mash-up of Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke is interspersed with clips of teens today talking about the impossibility of "measuring up" to sexually charged, retouched images of women in media and the complete disregard for intelligence as a desirable attribute. Throw in few Fox News clips featuring pointed questions to America’s most powerful women about their imagined breast implants, PMS, or facelifts and you get an idea of how the average American woman might be measured.

This makes for dire straits in national leadership. As Jane Fonda suggests in the film, media creates consciousness, and if media is created by men, little progress in leadership representation and toward the perception of women as equal will be made. Women represent 51% of the U.S. population, but only 17% of Congress. Worldwide, the U.S. is ranked 90th in terms of the number of women in our legislature. Cuba, China and Iraq all have more women in government than the United States.

"No wonder we are in such trouble in this country, we have been choosing our leadership from 6% of the country [white, heterosexual, college-educated, married males over the age of 35]," notes author and activist Gloria Steinem. Later, an urgent Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, suggests that voices that are vitally needed in public forums are prevented from ever getting to the table.

As Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of Paley Center for the Media and former President and CEO of PBS, says, "The media is the message and the messenger and increasingly is a powerful one."

Collecting new data and the voices of powerful media authorities and women in leadership, including Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, and Rachel Maddow, Newsom creates a collective truth about the struggles of women that hits like a sucker punch. Factor into this a cross-section of celebrities that includes Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Heidi Montag, Margaret Cho, and Rosario Dawson and viewers are left with a new awareness about how Americans see women today — and why. 

Newsom, an actress, activist, and wife of California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, has lived through her own struggles with eating disorders, assault, and Hollywood stereotypes. Still, it took the impending birth of her daughter to spur her into creating the film as a platform for education and change — a hope for the present future, if you will.

As a result, “Miss Representation” is not really about politics or celebrities. It is about choices that adults are making today for their daughters, nieces, and grandchildren. The film opens with a quote from Alice Walker “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” Americans have power in choosing what they consume, in other words, which messages they endorse with their dollars.

Documentaries are designed to inform and sometimes the truth is hard to take. But in the case of “Miss Representation,” director Siebel Newsom has connected these hard truths to an active social media awareness campaign that allows viewers to shake off the funk of bad news by taking social action. The motivation to do so is written clearly in the faces of the teens that speak in "Miss Representation."

If you go: Miss Representation, Friday, Nov. 18, 2011 7 pm at Queen Anne United Methodist, 1606 5th Ave W. and Nov. 30, 2011 7 pm at SIFF Film Center, 305 Harrison St.

“Miss Representation” (90 min; TV-14 DL) had its broadcast premiere on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network and may air again. Check for local listings and get details at http://missrepresentation.org.


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