- Vancouver, British Columbia - Miss Representation was first brought to my attention through seeing the unusually long eight-minute trailer on a colleague's Facebook wall. For the most part, I'm not a big viewer of documentaries, as many seem to be focus on some ill in the world and spend the entire film trying to convince me why I should care and take up the cause. Few of the causes are truly ones that are worth getting upset about, nor are they really personal to the lives of the average citizen. It is difficult to inspire someone to action when many documentaries simply illustrate how powerless a normal person should feel. Miss Representation, however, is necessary and compelling, because few of us, except those seemingly living in denial, can say that we don't know a woman or a girl who is suffering as a result of media's inaccurate portrayal women and the pressures that it puts upon women, and how it subtly suggests men look at women.
Miss Representation begins with writer/director/producer Jennifer Siebel Hewson discussing her initial thoughts after the discovery that she was pregnant with her first child, a daughter. She worries about the world that she will be raising her daughter in and whether her coming child will succumb to the pressures and demands upon women in society, using her own biography as evidence to the stories that are all too common for women across the United States. She begins with the personal, which connects immediately to anyone who is open and honest with their own family. The focus of the documentary takes aim primarily at the marketing industry and looks at how it has played a role in the evolving picture of women.
The greatest strength of this film is easily its scope and its depth. It is very broad, but never feeling like it is too far reaching. It traces movements in media from the Second World War to present day, analyzing the move to conglomerate media companies in recent years, as well as looking at the disintegration of such staples in television as the "family hour" and the formerly accepted notion of media's need to be conscious of its effect on society. Hewson courageously attacks the deregulation of media as having had a detrimental effect on society, particularly on women. She effectively shows how the deregulation came about and traces its roots from the beginning to where we are today and how the American Congress has done practically nothing but waste opportunities to protect our children and our young girls from the business of media, which seeks profits more than the betterment of society. Hewson's documentary serves as yet another argument against the deregulation of business, simply because the marketing industry has continually proved itself irresponsible and careless in regulating itself, particularly in continually trying to one-up competitors by being more shocking and more offensive to garner our attention. We accept regulation for ensuring the safety of many things like cars, appliances, hospitals, lawyers, boats, and planes, but for some reason, we feign having regulation for other areas of society such as marketing and media that have a much more subtle, yet blatant effect on society, affecting our safety and mental health.
Furthermore, it looks at the development of cable news and gossip media as being influences in the degradation of women, particularly "cheap media" in the form of gossip rags, which have been among the most damaging for women with their advertisements, but also about the ways that women are primarily judged for their appearance, clothing, or body, setting up an impossible standard for most women to attain unless they have a personal gym and an on-staff cook on hand to provide for all of their nutritional needs. Even these women though don't seem to be able to live up to the standard, argues Hewson.
Hewson also points to the lack of dynamic, multi-layered female characters in film and television, demonstrating how most female roles are based off of engendered and simplified stereotypes of women. Among the most striking points in the film was the analysis of the female roles that appear to be portraying women as strong and powerful, such as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider or Elektra in Elektra, which one of the contributors of the film, Jennifer Pozner, dismisses as only amounting to "fighting fuck toys." These women cannot exist as powerful unless they are portrayed as sexy, adhering to popular conceptions of the perfect woman's body, since the subtle message is that a woman cannot be powerful unless she utilises her sexuality. The idea being that a woman without sexuality is nothing, but useless. Miss Representation also argues how the marketing industry not only affects women, but also young boys growing up, particularly on the pressures of how it suggests that they act and thereby treat women.
In the past, it has been easy for many people to dismiss the unequal representation of women in American politics and business as a mere statistic, but in Miss Representation, Hewson makes the case that unless we, as a society, must continue to strive towards getting women into these positions of power, we will continue to see a society that places men on top and portrays women as subservient, largely only valued as long as they can procreate. It would be easy to dismiss Miss Representation as merely a collection of statistics, but the strength of this documentary is in the interviews and the stories of women who have fought the system with some varying degrees of success. In one of the more startling realizations of the film, another contributor points out that in media, it were as after the age of 40, women need disappear, since they are no longer useful to a media bias that praises female youth, beauty and sexuality.
Another strong element of the film was its examination of the media's treatment of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the run-up to the 2008 election, documenting how Clinton attempted to campaign in a more masculine manner, while Sarah Palin campaigned playing up her femininity, while both being torn apart by media figures, including by women, particularly on cable news and editorial radio programs from both spectrums and both sexes. Hewson makes the case that if we are silent on the treatment of women in politics like this, we only discourage other aspiring young women from bothering to enter politics if they will primarily be judged by their appearance, their body, their sex appeal, or their lack of youth, rather than their policy and principles. Hewson eloquently asserts that male and female political candidates are judged on different levels with women being dismissed as emotional and incapable of dealing with the pressure of leading, while men get a pass on this same tier.
Hewson does something that is remarkable for a documentary about the treatment of women, by examining the role of women in creating and perpetuating this media bias that is unfavourable towards women. It is a courageous and bold move. Rather than simply ragging on men the entire time like some feminists have been stereotyped as doing in the past, Hewson draws attention to how women must stop tearing down and dismissing other women, without ever sounding as if she is trying to create a women's bloc where dissent is never voiced. She points out how women in general tend to be harsher on other women than on men. Additionally, one of the most stunning confessions of the documentary comes from Katie Couric who worries that, as the first major female news anchor on ABC, she may have contributed to the portrayals of women working in televised news media. Rosario Dawson also contributes in this documentary, discussing her own experience in the media, which was admittedly surprising due to her very sexualized roles in Sin City and the grindhouse film, Death Proof. I struggle with her inclusion in the film, since it would appear on the surface that she has only re-enforced many of the media's messages with some of her role choices and with her magazine covers that she had done work in. On one level, it would seem to be a somewhat regrettable inclusion, but on another level, I can see her honesty and candidness in discussing her past work becoming a positive for the film. Miss Representation makes no pretensions that women have been guiltless in allowing society to evolve to where it is today with its treatment of women.
The film would seem to suggest that women in general find themselves in a position much like any person who is trying to keep their job, even though their boss abuses them by putting unreasonable expectations upon them, while not allowing for overtime to complete the extra work, since in reality, there is always going to be someone else who would happily take that worker's job. In a capitalistic sense, the worker becomes a commodity who is easily replaceable, in the same way that if one woman stands up against abuse or an unreasonable expectation on the part of a film producer or a magazine editor, she can just as easily be replaced by another woman who is willing to allow herself to be degraded in hopes of etching out a moment of a patriarchal society's view of success for a woman in her own life.
While Miss Representation focuses on the many negative aspects of society and media, the film remains hopeful throughout, which is an accomplishment considering such discouraging statistics and examples of the abuse of women in media. Many documentaries make the fatal mistake of painting the scenario as hopeless, leading to their cause garnering little traction. Why fight for something that cannot be achieved? Miss Representation is a call to action not just for women, but also men.
Miss Representation is an important film for folks of both sides of the political spectrum, as both liberals and conservatives have an interest in enabling our next generation of women to live in a better world free from pressure to maintain unnaturally youthful bodies, or from finding their self-worth in their sexuality or their ability to lure a man. I strongly encourage you to watch the film. If you can't do that, then at least watch the trailer, as I suspect it will make you want to seek out a screening of the film.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes