Recently the P-Mag crew did a big group watch of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation. According to the official website, Miss Representation “exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America [and] challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.” But, while many of us enjoyed it, we felt that it left some things unaddressed. So, we held a roundtable discussion about how the documentary was great and could’ve been better. The conversation is ongoing, so please jump in and share your thoughts! This is the first of four conversations we’ll be sharing over the next few weeks.
For our first roundtable Selena, our Chief Unicorn, asked:
While the movie did make some effort to include women of color in interviews and data cited, it didn’t address the way media affects LGBT women, or women with disabilities. What data can we find about how these women are represented (or not represented at all) in media both in front of and behind the camera? Who are some of your media role models who are women of color, women with disabilities, or LGBT women? Women leader role models?
Content warning: discussion of ableism, cissexism, misogyny, racism, sexism, sizeism, transmisogyny
Selena MacIntosh: Let’s start with some links and facts and whatnot.
Only one in four communications/media jobs created between 1990 and 2005 were filled by women. The only area where the share of women increased was in the newspaper industry — the lowest-paid industry in the sector, where many of the women are employed in part-time telephone sales positions.
For full-time workers in the communications/media sector, a gender and race wage gap persists: White men are paid 29 percent more than white women and 46 percent more than women of color.
Among communications companies in the Fortune 500, women comprise just 15 percent of top executives and only 12 percent of board members. – NOW Fact Sheet on Women in Media
Since researchers have assumed that black girls were immune to the effects of thin-ideal media(1), communication scholar Kristen Harrison (2006) conducted a study aimed at testing this idea. Using survey data from 61 African American teen girls, she studied how TV exposure influenced the girls’ beliefs about others thought of the girls’ own bodies. She discovered that for larger girls, TV exposure significantly influenced their belief that their peers thought they should be smaller. For the smaller girls, TV exposure significantly influenced the belief that their classmates expected them to be larger. In other words, the larger girls in the group assumed their classmates thought they were too fat, while the smaller girls assumed their classmates thought they were too skinny. Interestingly, Harrison found the same result three years earlier when she found white women’s exposure to TV beauty ideals predicted the large-busted women wanted smaller chests and small-busted women wanted larger chests. – Beauty Redifined|Beauty Whitewashed: How White Ideals Exclude Women of Color
This lack of accurate coverage — or of any coverage at all — relates directly to media consolidation. Mergers have kept female and minority media ownership at low levels:
Women comprise over 51 percent of the U.S. population but hold less than 7 percent of all TV and radio station licenses.
People of color make up over 36 percent of the U.S. population but hold just over 7 percent of radio licenses and 3 percent of TV licenses. -Freepress|Diversity in Media Ownership
Crystal: Here’s a good link on portrayal of disability in the media, including traditional and modern archetypes of disabled characters.
Here’s a link from Afrobella related to the Vanity Fair Young (White) Hollywood issue.
In Clutch Magazine: On “Sweet Brown” and racist undertones.
Zahra: These links offered perspective:
People with disabilities: Why this Disabled Woman No Longer Identifies as Feminist
Disability and Representation: Btchflicks on Glee
LGBTQ representation: Glaad: Where We Are on TV
How Women of Color are represented: Racialicious: Girls that Television Will Never Know
Stephens: I’ve been looking into media portrayals of transgender people and transgender rights in general because it’s an area I frankly have little knowledge of and wanted to amend that. There’s was very little talk in mainstream media until recently and I think much of that is due to the success of OITNB and Laverne Cox’s portrayal of Sophia on the show, plus Candis Cayne as Miss Hudson on Elementary. I love it and Laverne Cox is now neck and neck with Gina Torres as my dream cast of Wonder Woman. There’s also a web series called The Switch that’s debuting sometime in the fall featuring all transgender actors for all the transgender roles.
There are also some resources and articles on how the news media portrays transgender men and women and most of it is not good.
There’s also the way the media is handling Chelsea Manning’s decision to come out as a transgender woman, which has been depressing.
Hillary: There are a lot of parallels between media attitudes toward women and toward PoC. They mentioned someone saying something like, “Why do we need another network for women; they have one!” in reference to Lifetime, but I’ve heard the same thing in reference to BET. “We don’t need to have shows about PoC; they have a whole network!”
There’s an assumption that men won’t watch anything about women (unless she’s a sex object); networks and filmmakers also assume that white people won’t watch movies about PoC unless they’re a Model Minority or Magical Negro who’s surrounded by white people.
Liza: Not to hijack the discussion away from WOC and LGBT issues, but since we’re talking about inclusion, I felt that, though they were talking about weight, fat women were underrepresented. There was the one Congresswoman (?) who got a few seconds of screen time, but they could have included a lot more. While body image issues affect women of all sizes, there’s a special level of vitriol and stereotype reserved for women who are read as really, truly fat. That’s a topic that could lend itself to its own full-length movie, but I would have liked to have seen it addressed here.
Hillary: I liked the documentary as a whole, but it kind of felt like a lot of Feminism 101. It’s great that they got a bunch of celebrities to talk about their experience with sexism, but they sort of glossed over a bunch of issues really quickly without going into much detail.
I know there’s only so much you can do with 90 minutes and it was intended to be fairly basic to appeal to a wider audience, but it wound up not really saying a whole lot that people wouldn’t already know if they’re in any way involved with the feminist movement. It just sort of feels like a wasted opportunity.
They had on a lot of WoC, but aside from Margaret Cho mentioning that she was the first Asian-American woman to get her own show, they didn’t really talk about how their experiences were different.
They didn’t talk to Rachel Maddow about being one of the more prominent lesbians on TV. They didn’t seem to have any trans* individuals. They talked about the unrealistic body images shown, but didn’t address how larger women are treated like a punch line. It’s good that they got the conversation started, but I wish they’d gone farther to be inclusive.
April: I have mixed emotions when I see lists like the Forbes list of Power Women.
The first three American women that show up on the list are Melinda Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama. (Sheryl Sandberg is a whole ‘nother subject. I have strong opinions about the whole “Lean In” thing.)
Anyway, while it’s great that those women are successful and powerful, they started out being known as someone’s wife. Two of them first became well-known as First Ladies and the other is rarely listed under her own name; she usually comes after “Bill and.” So while they are intelligent, powerful, ambitious women, I can’t help but wonder how far they would have been able to go if it weren’t for their husbands acting as Trojan horses. Would they still be at the top of the list? Would they even be on it?
Stephens: I agree with everything you said, Hillary. Also, was it just me or did they seem to give more time to the male producers and Hollywood types than to female filmmakers?
April: No, it did seem like that to me too. I was surprised there wasn’t any mention of Kathryn Bigelow.
Hillary: Yeah, I found it somewhat disingenuous that they had male filmmakers who were like, “Sexism is wrong!” but don’t do anything really to combat it in their films.
April: One of them is responsible for Twilight, FFS!
Stephens: “Thirteen is a cool movie, yeah. Really? Twilight? Really?” *my thought process as I was watching.
April: I took notes as I was watching and that’s exactly what I wrote down! “Twilight?! REALLY?!”
Opifex: I don’t think the fact that she made a film most of us don’t like invalidates her point any though. She made a hugely successful film and still had the series taken away from her and handed to a man. That’s some bullshit.
Liza: It is, but the plot of the movie is sexist in itself.
April: It’s not just a matter of not liking it, though. It’s about the lack of any sort of empowering or inspiring message for young girls other than “Sparkly vampire boys are hot.”
Stephens: It’s a difficult thing because on the one hand, it’s a female filmmaker and there are so few who could be defined as “successful” or even well-known at the moment, but on the other hand I just can’t get past the source material and the underlying message.
Crystal: What I took objection to in the discussion of Twilight was the idea that it was a movie with a female lead that attracted a female audience. Unfortunately, that’s not the case… the audience it attracted went to see Edward, not Bella.
It is still an indication of a problem that this successful series was taken away from its successful female director, though.
Stephens: Or they went to see Jacob. I was teaching high school in Korea when the Breaking Dawn movies came out and the amount of debate over Team Edward or Team Jacob was insane and sadly one of the few times I could get my students to have any kind of lengthy discussion in English.
Opifex: For all its problems, though, it did sort of smash the idea that media created for women exclusively would be a commercial failure. I can’t count the number of times I have heard the same tired old mantra about women watching men’s media but vice versa being impossible.
As much distaste as I have for the plot of Twilight, it is an important franchise. If Twilight hadn’t succeeded, Hunger Games would never have been made into movies. It opened some doors.
Stephens: You bring up a good point, Opifex. I hadn’t looked at it that way.
Selena MacIntosh: I agree with Opifex. I haven’t seen the movies or read the books, so all I know about it is what the Internet tells me, but Twilight has certainly opened doors. Not only for more female protagonists (while they may not all be GREAT female protagonists) in popular fiction and movies, but for women writers. It’s a shame they didn’t let Hardwicke keep the Twilight series. (I liked Thirteen. It was disturbing, but I liked it.)
Zahra: Twilight is basically a feminist nightmare.
Selena MacIntosh: And I think the film came out well before The Hurt Locker, which may be why Bigelow wasn’t included. She does get left off way too many lists, though, so I don’t know. That’s the impression I get, too, Zahra. So my reaction is definitely more “yay?” than “Hot damn!”
Zahra: As far as WOC, it seemed that it ended up being a footnote, I would have liked to see more of a perspective there. There was a brief mention from C. Rice but it was more like a passing thought.
Selena MacIntosh: I did like that they talked to a fairly representative group of HS girls. But I agree; they could have dropped Paul Haggis, Gavin Newsom, and that other white guy to make room for a wider variety of women’s voices. Gavin seems nice, and all, but I felt like he was campaigning. Booker, too, to an extent.
Crystal: There was a lot of Newsom because he’s the filmmaker’s husband, fwiw.
Selena MacIntosh: Oh, I did not know that.
Stephens: I love Cory Booker, I do, but I had to wonder why he was there…
Crystal: I didn’t realize until the end. I mean, I knew the filmmaker was from the Bay area (hence the Stanford over representation), but when I saw her last name, I was like, hey! And, you know, he was a really good mayor by all accounts.
(Can we appreciate the irony of a man being featured in a documentary because he’s the spouse of the filmmaker, reversing traditional gender roles?)
Opifex: The one thing that struck me on the WOC front was that the minute mentors they showed at the end was an awfully white room of people.
April: And then this happens. Hopefully it does as well as Bridesmaids did.
Zahra: I thought that the most thought-provoking interview content was from the teenage girls.
Liza: I agree. And I liked when they focused on the one girl in the student government program.
April: I loved her! That was another note that I made. When her mother said that she asked her why she wanted to run for something or however she phrased it, the girl said something about being a service to people.
It made me wonder how different the answers would be if you asked a bunch of female politicians why they want to run for any kind of office versus how male politicians would answer that.
My guess (and I acknowledge this is my personal assumption) is that more women would see it as a service to the community and more men would see it as a source of power.
Sara H.: The only thing I can say about including Paul Haggis that is a point in his favor is that at least he acknowledged the flaws in filmmaking/writing by saying “Women terrify us and we tend to not write them as human beings and that’s a shame.”
That he acknowledged the fear I thought was at least one step in the self-aware direction.
As far as women of color — they did have the one newscaster (whose name I can’t remember) mention seeing Connie Chung on TV and how it was great to have someone “who looked like me,” but you’re all right that a lot of those things got very minimal mention.
And fwiw, on NBC, Lester Holt is a non-white person who is the weekend anchor of the Nightly News. Not a lady, no, but not a white guy either.
Cory Booker was probably included because he is the superhero politician, and people like him, so… he’s a nice “get.”
I liked that they included Rosario Dawson though.
Sara H.: As far as personal role models go, I had the thought while watching the doc, “Rachel Maddow and Rosario Dawson 4LYFE.” Haha.
(You can tell I am super excited when I start semi-ironically using the 4LYFE CAPSy-ness.)
Also, I think Roxane Gay does excellent work with her essays highlighting the issues facing female writers, and writers of color (male and female) in general. She did a list on The Rumpus awhile back of not-white writers to illustrate that they do indeed exist and are working, and that publications need to notice them.
Opifex: Marjane Satrapi is a super awesome artist and personal idol of mine.
Savannah: A couple Trans WoC who NEED mentioned: Janet Mock (#girlslikeus) is a role model for all women in my opinion, but she’s also done so so so much for her fellow trans ladies and trans ladies of color. And Laverne Cox — she’s a brilliant actress, and is also very vocal about the barriers trans women in media face. If I were doing a film about women and representation in media today, I’d have Laverne at the top of my list for women to include.
DisabilityAndRepresentation might have some suggestions for you on the ways PwD (including women) are portrayed. I’m friends with the woman who runs it — she’s an autistic adult and mother who has a special interest in the subject.
WoC musicians who are freaking amazing and who I look up to: Janelle Monae, who we’ve had articles about before if memory serves. She manipulates the ideas of what women and gender performance means like it’s clay. Temi Dollface’s Patta Patta uses retro/vintage images/representations of women in order to tell a story about deciding to leave a dysfunctional relationship in the face of a culture that says if you only xyz yourself it would get better.
There was an interesting post about perception and how people are treated based on perceived gender on Tumblr.
Speaking of Chelsea Manning, there’s the fact that she will not likely have access to HRT. Additionally, I didn’t notice anything about women in prisons and the ways that gender and race impact experiences of the prison system in the thing, so IDK if there’s anything super relevant.
Asain American woman who is a bad ass: Lucy Liu. “When you do stuff, it’s not always to please other people — it’s to please yourself. For me, the more individual you make something, the more universal it can be. You have to be a pioneer.”
Linotte: I’ve found Joanne Kilbourne’s work fascinating since high school, BTW.
Trulybst: I love Condoleeza Rice and was very glad to see her in the doc. I find it hard to have conservative role models in the media.
Readers, what say you?