Earlier this year I served on a panel to discuss the documentary Miss Representation. Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the documentary made its debut at Sundance 2011, and it entered into educational distribution before finally hitting the consumer market in early April. The documentary got picked up by the Oprah Winfrey Network, and the DVD features introductions both by Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell. I wanted to see the documentary again before analyzing it further, in part because it received (and still receives) such positive responses. Yet, after repeated viewings, I remain divided on it.
For those who study women’s representations in the media, the issues raised in Miss Representation come as no surprise. The talking heads, image montages, and shown facts note the lack of women in lead roles, the lack of truly women’s stories, the lack of older women’s roles, the lack of women writers and directors, and the lack of women in upper media management and even media ownership. Further, the documentary points out the hyperfocus on the spectacle of women — their clothes, hair, bodies, signs of aging — over the substance of their accomplishments. It even takes on the issues of the backlash that arises when women gain power in politics.
Miss Representation features an impressive array of voices, which is one of its strengths. For one, it brings together women who have succeeded in the media, including Katie Couric, Pat Mitchell, Geena Davis, Jane Fonda, Margaret Cho, Lisa Ling, and Rachel Maddow. For two, it brings together an impressive grouping of women in politics, such as Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein. For three, it features a range of scholars and experts, including Jennifer L. Pozner, M. Gigi Durham, Martha Lauzen, Jehmu Greene, Jean Kilbourne, and Gloria Steinem. Finally, it features several young women and men facing these issues and trying to understand them for themselves.
While the dominant messages in the documentary focus on women’s issues, Newsom does take some time to note the pressures of masculinity and men’s roles in preventing gender violence. She raises these points through Jackson Katz, a noted expert on the subject who has his own documentary titled Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity, as well as several books and publications framing gender violence prevention as a men’s issue. Newark Mayor Cory Booker also contributes to this point through an anecdote.
Within all these voices and strong women’s presences lurks an amazing potential, but instead the documentary starts with the director’s own experiences, setting the dark stage for the world her own daughter might face. Commenting on the representations of women, Katie Couric explains, “We get conditioned to think this is what women should look like.” In the voiceover, Newsom notes, “If the media is [sic] sending girls the message that their value lies in their bodies, this can only leave them feeling disempowered and distract them from making a difference and becoming leaders.” Calling the media singular imbues them with even more power — the media are plural, like the Borg. Still, these opening messages point the finger of blame squarely at the media, and this blame attributes all the power to the media and offers little power to viewers. It also discounts the influences of other social, political, and cultural factors.
This kind of media-blaming for social ills is not new. It began in the 1920s with Hollywood and its “immoral” representations, which supposedly influenced people into imitating what they saw on screen. The panic renewed with the widespread adoption of television. It gained urgency with the popularity of video games and Internet technologies. It will happen again when the next medium comes along.
This finger-pointing, though, is at odds with the interview choices. Katie Couric is the first woman to anchor a national evening news program. Jane Fonda and Geena Davis have long careers in acting. Margaret Cho had the first television series featuring a female Asian-American lead. Rachel Maddow draws respect for her intelligence and insightful commentary on politics and news. All of them shared some stories about the challenges they faced in their careers, such as with expectations of and comments on their appearances. But if the media are to blame, then how did these women succeed so admirably? Why not focus on their successes and their places as role models instead?
Another troublesome point is the emphasis on the connection between violence in media and violence in people. Granted, the amount of violence in media has increased, and the graphic nature of it has increased as well (to wit: “Criminal Minds“). But the causal connection between violence in media and violence in people cannot be made conclusively. A primary reason why is that this kind of study cannot be done ethically — it would require measuring violent responses in participants, which creates dangers for the participants and the researchers involved in the study. Hence, most studies draw the line at aggression, or they focus on people’s emotional states through recall instead of on their actions. Let me be clear that I am not discounting all the scholarship done in this area, but I am suggesting that more caution is needed when making these assertions and that more factors are involved than just media representations.
The documentary features many statistics. The ones related to violence and media get attributed to specific organizations, such as the American Psychological Association. Other statistics, however, appear without context or attribution.
The documentary makes several suggestions for changes. It suggests the importance of mentoring both girls and women and the importance of being a role model to women and girls. It also suggests the importance of women and girls making their own media and sharing their own stories. This documentary offered an amazing opportunity to do just those things, so why did it not start there? It is easy to blame big media, advertising, capitalism, and society, so why not take the more difficult, but more rewarding, path?
In general, though, this documentary points to the importance of women’s independent media production, and, I might add, the importance of documentaries by and about women. I see a greater range of expression and more women’s stories there than I do in mainstream media. I hope that, after seeing this documentary, some makers out there are inspired to make their own documentaries about the women featured in Miss Representation (Rachel Maddow, anyone?) and other women role models in their lives.