Jennifer Siebel Newsom frames Miss Representation, her documentary about women in the media, around her anxieties about the world her baby daughter is going to grow up to face. After talking about the pressure she felt as a young girl to be completely perfect—athletic, smart, and beautiful—she unleashes a barrage of images from American media. Cleavage, reality show stars, guns, ads and music videos flash onto the screen insistently, showing how pervasive this limited vision of women has become.
This film is an ambitious undertaking, attempting to both portray and resolve the troubled position of women in the media. Be forewarned: it’s a lot to take in at once. Interviews with women in powerful positions, like Rachel Maddow, Katie Couric, and Nancy Pelosi make a thoughtful counterpoint to some troubling statistics. For instance, according to Newsom, women hold 17 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives; female representation in the equivalent legislative body in Rwanda is 56.3 percent. An even more disconcerting statistic: 25 percent of women in the U.S. are abused by a partner at some point in their lifetimes.
Though they present a sobering picture, these facts are displayed artfully. They come into focus against a stark white background, linger to make their point, and then transform into smoke, to be blown away. It makes a visual statement, transitioning worrisome numbers into a visual representation of hope for change.
Focusing on the far-reaching impact of the under-representation of women in positions of power in government, the film gives men their say as well. Interviews with Newark mayor Cory Booker and author/filmmaker Jackson Katz (Tough Guise and The Macho Paradox) highlight men’s efforts to be part of the solution. The filmmaker’s husband, former San Francisco mayor and current California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, contributed his thoughts to the documentary as well (though he declined to stay for the panel discussion after the screening I attended.)
Working to listen to and help mentor younger media consumers, the director also reaches out to middle and high school students. It’s wrenching to see these young men and women talk about their experiences–hating their bodies so much that they starve or cut themselves, and wonder if they can be loved.
Bringing together these experiences and commentary from such a wide range of women highlighted a sense of community and responsibility. Condoleezza Rice spoke particularly eloquently to the issues of sexism and racism that extend beyond politics.
There’s so much that’s rich and urgently necessary in this discussion that some aspects of the film can be frustrating. At times, the montages of film clips felt overwhelming. Focusing on the clips (and wincing away from some of the more graphic ones) all but crowded out the thoughtfulness of the commentary and the sense of the film’s larger project.
Focusing exclusively on American media offers a wide range of problematic perspectives on women’s bodies. But the film demonizes the media as the sole catalyst for this skewed perspective, without taking into account the idea that the media can often be a reflection of a larger society’s constructs. There’s a brief nod to this, highlighting how few women hold positions of power in the major television network conglomerates.
The work of the film continues on the Miss Representation website. With the aid of nonprofits, screenings are scheduled to take place on university campuses. There are plans to bring an abbreviated version to high schools and elementary schools, and to screen the film for Congress and the FCC.
And maybe, one of these days, at a theater near you. For now, check the site for upcoming events.