‘Miss Representation’: When Documenting Media Sexism Isn’t Enough

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, which I saw this afternoon at Netroots, should have been right up my alley. In a conference that’s full of political and policy discussions, of course I was going to make a beeline not just for a movie screening, but for a screening of a movie that insists on the importance of media and popular culture to understanding our politics. And the movie has some intriguing arguments. But mostly, it reinforced a question I’ve really been struggling with about how to do feminist media criticism. It’s really easy to document hideously sexist depictions of women in every form of media, and we do it all the time. But isn’t what we need to figure out how to shift the market so viewers demand different things and companies feel compelled to give them to us?

One thing Miss Representation does well, if all too briefly, is point out that the range of roles women can play, the things women can be, in pop culture has narrowed dramatically since the moments when actresses like Barbara Stanwyck ruled the screen. “We allowed women to really embody all the contradictions of being a human being back then,” one commentator says during the movie. “They could be the femme fatale, and then turn around and be the mother…and we accepted that.” It would be interesting to actually document trends in the number of kinds of roles women could play in movies and on television, and to try to identify moments when the diversity of roles for women contracted. But the movie doesn’t really do that, or explain why what the market appears to demand changed.

More specifically, the movie spends a lot of time linking media representations of women and their ability to run successfully for office. Sure, it’s insane that Geraldine Ferraro’s dress size became part of her biography when she ran for vice president. And there’s no question that women’s looks and their self-presentation become part of campaigns, distracting from real questions of policy positions and competence. But the movie sort of undermines its point when Newsome compares the United States unfavorably to countries like Cuba and China in terms of the number of elected officials without addressing their media culture. Are depictions of women uniformly better in international pop culture than in the U.S.? I kind of doubt it — there seems to be some real anecdotal evidence that one of the problems with getting better representations of women in American movies is that those depictions won’t play well in international markets.


And look, there’s an obvious domestic market for something else, an urgency about it, a sense that women are wounded by our culture. “I don’t know how we survive it,” Margaret Cho says in the movie. “I don’t know how we rise above it.” It’s awful watching a girl crying as she explains why poor self-esteem lead her sister to harm herself. “What can I do so my little sister isn’t getting hurt by the media? What is it going to take for someone to take a stand?” But there’s a sense of surrender in the movie, and the outside campaign attached to the movie mostly consists of trying to get viewers to take a pledge to “see Miss Representation the film, use my voice to spread the word, and challenge the media’s limited portrayal of women and girls.” There’s a call to go see movies made by women, especially on the opening weekend, but it’s part of a quick montage — and it comes mid-way through the closing credits. It would be nice to see something more actionable, whether it’s asking viewers to contribute to a fund to support women screenwriters and television writers who are working on new projects, or to help raise money for distribution of movies that, unlike this one, aren’t getting aired on Oprah Winfrey’s cable network.

At one point, Geena Davis says that the central assumption of Hollywood is that”Women will watch stories about men, but men won’t watch stories about women…Nobody’s ever really proved that that’s true.” The interesting thing about the media moment we’re in right now is that the market might be about to disprove it, whether through the box office success of Bridesmaids, or through the fall crop of television shows created by and starring women. In a way, I wish I could see the movie Miss Representation might have been a year or two from now, when it might have been able to be about a moment when women, and the men who are their allies, successfully fought back. Maybe the moment will fail. But if it works, even in a limited way, we could be at a really exciting tipping point. And if it comes to pass, it’ll be critical to understand the conditions and people who came together to make it happen.