What kind of images and norms does the media present to viewers? Why do we as a society accept these stereotypes? In an industry where all genders, but especially women, are stereotyped, Miss Representation challenges us to think critically about how women are portrayed in media. The film goes further to expose the link between negative portrayals of women in mass media and their under-representation in positions of power and influence in the United States. Although targeting an American audience, its message of misrepresentation is relevant across cultures and borders.
We live in a media obsessed world—from the Internet to cellphones to television, our society is constantly inundated with images. Most people under the age of 30 have been raised with this technology and this barrage of negative stereotypes. Men are supposed to be hypersexual, aggressive and dominant, while a woman’s value is her beauty, youthfulness, and overt sexuality. God forbid if she has a brain or leadership skills.
Miss Representation raises an alarming truth about how women in government or powerful positions are portrayed. From Sarah Palin being asked if she had breast implants to the constant criticizing of Hilary Clinton’s ‘haggard’ look, women who challenge men in positions of power are continually hassled about their appearance, placing them back in the confines of youth and beauty, reminding them and viewers that a woman’s number one priority should be looking beautiful at whatever cost.
What I find most disturbing is that these negative stereotypes aren’t even created by female writers, producers or directors. Women hold only 16% of behind-the-scenes entertainment industry jobs. What’s worse, only 3% of those in executive positions in media are women. Women aren’t even able to influence how female characters are portrayed; instead, they are a false fabrication invented and approved by a hypersexual middle-aged white male executive (who buys into the image of an overtly masculine male). These characters should not be role models to any woman, especially young girls.
However, there is hope. Writer and director Jennifer Siebel Newsom interviewed prominent women in media and politics such as Margaret Cho, Condolezza Rice and Katie Couric. They spoke of the mentorship given to young women who enter these professions by women who have come before them. Their stories show the vast amount of opportunities for women who push through the barriers. The most important part of this film is its conversations with the next generation. Newsom talked to young women and men about their experiences growing up under constant media pressure to conform. My favourite moment is the interview with a young man who says he refuses to follow the misogynist behavior expected of men. He thinks outside the box, and challenges others to do the same.
The sheer response to this film is a testament to its importance. It has been screened at film festivals worldwide, most recently at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). It has been widely reviewed, including twice for Schema Magazine. Even Oprah approves, having acquired the broadcasting rights to the film, which aired on October 20 on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Hopefully as more people watch Miss Representation, we as a society will become more critical of the media and create healthy alternatives to the images presented to us.