What is the media telling us about women?
Watching a documentary is generally not the first thing that comes to mind when you end up staying in on a Friday night. Documentaries can be dull, didactic and not very sexy (unless you’re a doco tragic like myself), and make us uncomfortable when they force us to rethink our previously held assumptions on a given topic.
I get this, and I’m a documentary filmmaker myself. Yet, the challenges that Miss Representation presents (directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom), makes it a must see film. Not because it sheds a new light on this issue, which is pretty much self-evident, but rather because of the accumulation of detail that collates the many different ways in which women are under-represented, undermined and discriminated against in the media. Newsom’s perspective, as an ex-actress and new mother of a baby girl, adds a particular resonance to the documentary as the effect of media representation is direct and personal.
Miss Representation takes a look at what narratives the media is telling about women – what their roles are in society, how they should be and what they should aspire to. It looks at how these stories are impacting women and in what way are they influencing future generations.
The film includes of interviews with a range of American journalists, politicians and Hollywood actresses such as Geena Davis, Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi, Margaret Cho and Condoleezza Rice. The interviews are intercut with depressing statistics. For example, “American teenagers spend more than 10 hours a day consuming media, most of it filled with content that objectifies women and distorts their bodies”. We are also shown montages of highly sexualised images of women from various music clips and also other examples of women being treated in derogatory ways in the media. Miss Representation canvasses a broad range of issues – the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in politics, the sexualisation of female anchors and journalists on prime time TV (with Katie Couric discussing the inappropriate clothing she has worn during her career), the lack of any women on TV who are over 40, and the influence of porn culture on music videos.
The media has an extremely powerful influence on our lives and has the power to dictate cultural norms. Newsom argues that we need to see a greater range of role models for women in the media that are not solely based on their sex appeal, beauty and age. She maintains that we need to see women role models in all spheres of life to empower girls to follow in their footsteps. Without these positive role models, new generations of women feel disempowered in this culture and may feel that they are only valued for their looks and not their achievements. A perfect Australian example can be found in Tony Abbott’s recent response to what he thought of Fiona Scott, one of his female colleagues. His immediate reply was not that she was a good Liberal candidate but that she had ‘sex appeal’, in this way trivialising her input as a politician.
I must admit that the effect of Miss Representation is quite powerful and reveals how much further America has gone, not only in sexualising women in the media, but of normalising the insulting way women are treated in the media. Who wouldn’t feel terrified of running for President or Prime Minister when we’ve witnessed the merciless cruelty with which female politicians such as Hillary Clinton or Julia Gillard have been treated?
It’s all pretty grim watching and Newsom has attempted to end on a positive note by a call to arms for change. She proposes a few ideas, such as encouraging mentorship schemes, but these are hardly going to create the vast cultural change she is after. I feel that the strength of this documentary lies in raising awareness of the extent of the sexism and in helping new generations become more media aware. We all have the power, more so now than before, to turn our backs on the media channels that promote sexism and treat women in derogatory ways. We can vote for politicians and parties that do respect women as equal leaders and create our own social media networks where our voices are heard.
Despite the weak solutions, the documentary serves as a good reminder of the forces that shape our perceptions and values. Whether you are a woman or a man, and especially if you are a parent or grandparent, it is vitally important to watch this film.
Miss Representation is available for rental or purchase on iTunes or at iTunes Australia.
Dominika Ferenz – Moving Pictures
Dominika is a filmmaker, photographer and mother of two girls. She studied film and photography at UTS, completing a Bachelor of Communications (Honours). She now spends her time chasing the perfect shot or her girls and often both at the same time. You can see her photographs and films on her blog dominikaferenz.com or check out her company, ikonfilm at ikonfilm.com.au
Life Balance = Laughter. Yoga. Solitude.