“You can’t be what you can’t see.” This is a quote by Marie Wilson, president and founder of The White House Project, and the tag line for Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary, Miss Representation, a film that looks at the media’s impact on the American discourse of women’s bodies, women in power and the effect of internalization of being sold the same standards of what women should be, year after year. This is thought-provoking, explicit film that I wish my words could even give slight justice to – one that every woman should be required to see. It is currently being lined up for screenings for Rupert Murdoch, the Library of Congress, and edited into shorter versions to be shown in high schools, middle schools, and grade schools across America. It is more than a film, it is a start to a much needed reform of education, collective thinking, and a continuing of the great work of powerful women leaders in this country. Newsom began the film when she was pregnant with her first daughter, Montana, after examining her own internalized body dysmorphia and supposed place in the world. From the idea of absolute perfection as a coping mechanism after her older sister’s death, to an eating disorder and sexual assault that emotionally ravaged her for a few years of her young adult life, to her experience as an actress in Hollywood where she was specifically told to alter her appearance, lie about her age, and take her Stanford MBA off her professional resume to prevent the risk of her looking “too smart.”
The film also rattles off some staggering statistics. In a week, we watch an average of 31 hours of TV, listen to 17 hours of music, and have 3 hours dedicated to movies, creating an average of 10.45 hours a day of media influence – an influence which is best described by the CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner:
We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. We are here to make money.
This same media influence is shaping the dominant political discourse, predominant cultural views of what women should look like and should be, and as shown in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film, affecting young men and women in increasingly negative ways. In an interview with several San Francisco high school students, none older than sixteen, each describes the internal and external pressures they face to “look good,” and the frustration of not being appreciated for anything outside the realms of the physical. We are introduced to a young woman whose younger sister is teased for being “ugly” and cuts herself. The older sister feels responsible for her younger sister, cries at wanting her to stop, yet struggles with the very same issues and feels no power to give a positive message. Viewing this scene alone is one of the reasons you will come to tears, frustrated that you, as a viewer, cannot reach out to her and tell her that she is beyond this garbage; that she and her little sister are worthy and no one should ever make them feel otherwise.
78% of girls hate their bodies by the age of 15. 65% have an eating disorder. 17% cut themselves, and the number of cosmetic surgeries quadrupled on women aged 17 and up from 1997 and 2007, and have increased sixfold since. Women are 56% of the population, yet only 17% of Congress, 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs, hold only 3% of clout positions in media (and in a staggeringly unreal statistic, only one woman is on the board of Fox News out of 15 board members), and are 7% of directors and 13% of film writers. These are all jaw-dropping statistics presented in Miss Representation, and yet the predominant message we hear over and over is that women have broken through the glass ceiling, that feminism isn’t necessary and above all, that empowerment for women is by having control of a sexualized, “good” body.
One of the most indelible arguments of the film is by Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News and author of Reality Bites Back, where she talks about reality TV being the backlash to women’s empowerment; showing women as bitch, catty, over-sexualized gold-diggers, often kept in a harem-like environment to vie for the affections of some man they have not spent more then fifteen minutes with. Pozner says, “The fact that the media is so derogatory to women in power, what does it say about the media’s ability to take women seriously?”
Miss Representation explores cat-fights and “the fighting fuck-toy,” and how the majority of women on TV are under the age of 31 when the majority of women in this country are over the age of 45. How movies with female protagonists exist, but the protagonists are really just looking for a man or to be looked at by a man. How animated characters in G-rated movies on average wear the same amount of clothing as female characters in R-rated movies. These are sly attempts to convince us that women are present, but they exist really just as decoration, as objects, as eye candy.
One of the most pressing issues is the conversation about thin, white models in the fashion industry and the confession that if this aesthetic were changed, then people would get the idea that being anything outside of this one ideal is OK. And being OK with yourself doesn’t bring in money. This opens the question to viewers that when any group of people is not represented, not featured, and not acknowledged; not only consumers, but as people, what is that group’s role within culture? As the film puts it, it’s systematic annihilation.
There is Condoleeza Rice talking about the inanity of being the only woman in the room when the suggestion that Title IX should be reinstated, and how she and a handful of other female senators were the only ones to argue against it. Katie Couric talks about her dilemma of wearing what she wants or wearing clothes to be serious – somehow she can’t be presumed to do both. Each woman has an eyebrow raising story of what was expected of them and what was not. There is the hilarious bit of Rachel Maddow recounting the hate mail she began to receive early on her career, which always attacked her appearance, her sexuality and her gender. As she has risen to fame, the percentage and theme of the hate mail has stayed the same, it’s just spelled worse.
There is the collection of attacks and the vitriol spewed at Nancy Pelosi, especially during the Obama administration, the announcement of Geraldine Ferraro’s first vice president candidacy description as the “First female vice presidential candidate and a size 6!” and the powerful trend of language manipulation when referring to women in power. This speaks specifically to the 2008 election and most recently, the deemed “Year of Women” in which women’s numbers dropped for the first time since 1976 in the political world. Examples point to “Mrs. Clinton” or “Hotty Palin,” versus the proper terms “Senator” or “Governor,” as well as the negative implication of verbs often used to describe women in power, perpetuating the over-emotional female stereotype. And while we are on the topic on the incredible Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, there is alarming footage of her on the 2008 campaign trail, speaking to an audience where several male members are holding up signs that read “Iron my shirt” and screaming it as loud as they can, over and over, until it drowns out her words. It is at best described as logic defying, horrifying, and a personal punch in any woman’s gut.
One of the most enlightening points of the film is the discussion of when television became deregulated in the early 1980s, leading to less oversight of what was being presented on TV. At one point in history, there was the voluntary “family hour,” in which networks agreed to only air shows before 9 p.m. that were family friendly (though the history behind the post-WWII advertising efforts by the government and advertising agencies to get women back in the home will send chills down your spine), and content was regulated. Onward from this deregulation, you have the upshot of media power and the freedom to captivate viewers more, to make more money, to do whatever you have to do to make that revenue. Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 is later passed as an attempt to bring in more regulation of what the media is portraying and yet, completely ignored. In fact, right after it is passed, Access Hollywood and E! are brought into the mainstream, two of the most nefarious media outlets for body shaming and keeping the status quo of what women are supposed to look like, weigh in at, and what women are supposed to be: ornamental objects up for discussion until they reach 39 when they become invisible to society.
The film has an amazing and diverse group of women, ranging from actresses to politicians to CEOs to directors; women of color, queer women, activists and media critics. It does not only stress the campaign for having more women’s voices within the mainstream discourse of America, but for people of color and LBGT groups, noting the different challenges that each faces and how important it is to have these perspectives. But the film also brings in men’s perspectives and how this isn’t just a fight for women, but for men as well. Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, recounts his experience talking with a female mentor about how bad women have it and she one-ups him by saying “Yes, well I think men have it much worse. They don’t even know what they are being sold and they are taught to be emotionally constipated; they are taught that their behavior is normal.” Gavin Newsom, a man raised by his single mother and grandmother, recounts the backlash he received from women when he hired San Francisco’s first female police and fire chiefs, the criticism being, “Do you think they’re ready?”
Men are under the same media spell that women are, being taught that the definition of manhood and what it is to be a man is to be above women. Men are given the OK that women are objects and the first step to violence towards people is by dehumanizing them into others. So when women try to raise themselves up, men will of course view it as trying to bring them down. Booker also points about that men are taught nothing about rape culture, that what they are presented as normal is part of that same culture, while woman have drilled into their heads day after day how to survive, how to cope with rape culture. The burden or the blame is, again, put on women in forms of, “What were you wearing,” “Why were you out so late,” “What were you doing in that neighborhood,” “Were you asking for it?” It is acknowledged that with all this information on rape prevention for women, not once is it publicly made prevalent that for men, feeling the entitlement to rape a women is the root of the problem.
So, what can we do? We would be hard-pressed to say that what we face in changing for the better of the next generation isn’t going to take struggle or come in baby steps, but the film doesn’t leave the viewer without solutions; the most emphasized being the one that starts with ourselves. We internalize so much of what we are shown and what is deemed as “normal” without even realizing it – and that is part of our light bulb moment, psychologically recognizing the garbage. After watching the film, when talking about it with my significant other, I told him that whenever I look in the mirror, I automatically think of something negative – always. That my mother does the same thing, as well as my grandmother – that we look at ourselves, no matter how strong we are, no matter how intelligent or accomplished or successful or hard working and we think we are not good enough; we will be judged by this body we are given. It was a hard thing to admit, because it is illogical, it is ridiculous and it is what the media and advertisers want us to think – that I am not good enough and if I just get, buy, look, do this, that I will be one step closer to being good enough. In turn, my significant other looked at me and said, “I’ve never thought that about myself.” Exactly.
So we need to know we are better than this – and it’s hard because when someone constantly tells you you are not, it becomes difficult to believe you are. Words and images do mean something and anyone who tries to tell you differently has not had the experience of having language directed at them as an oppressive tool. We need to vote with our dollars – we are 56% of this country – think about how much money that is. We don’t need tabloid magazines, we don’t need reality TV, and we especially don’t need to come down on each other for how we look. We need positive outlets for each other and we need multiple, diverse voices. Vote with your dollars. Call out sexism. And as the famous Alice Walker says, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
We as women have to be here for one another, because who else is going to be? Certainly not the people trying to convince you day after day that you’ll be better in their eyes if you just buy this. At the end of the day, no matter how we are feeling, we hold incredible power and we need to exercise it more, however we can. We are better than all this and we deserve more.
To view the trailer and find out more on Miss Representation and its action, education and screenings, go to: