After Viewing ‘Miss Representation’: Some Thoughts on the Media’s Portrayal of Women

by Ryan Sanford Smith

I found myself exceedingly excited yesterday after happening upon a small blurb in The South Bend Tribune a few days prior noting that the University of Notre Dame, my somewhat beloved alma mater, would be hosting a screening of the brilliant documentary Miss Representation with proceeds going to the Boys & Girls Club of South Bend and a short panel discussion afterword.  As the title cleverly suggests, the documentary is look at the continued, often boggling (hopefully it boggles you, anyway) disparity in the United States between men and women in, ostensibly, every facet of society; then it moves with more insight to spend most of its running time considering the ways in which the portrayal of women in the media is both a symptom of the disease of disparity as well as arguably the most powerful enabler of its continuation. The documentary intelligently eyes not only the Hollywood and Beer Commercial sectors of media, but the (occasionally) more subtle and insidious ways that sexism so often creeps into the news by way of how female politicians are covered as well as how female journalists themselves are treated.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite prepared to be as surprise by this documentary as I was. These are the type of issues I like to think I’m not only relatively well-informed about but often angry and passionate about discussing and trying to change in my own attitudes. I still wasn’t exactly shocked by anything here, hopefully a testament to what I prefer to think about myself, but one cannot be reminded or inspired into action often enough. Sometimes, I also think, it’s remarkably easy even for the most enlightened and sensitive and passionate to forget just how bad things really are for women in this country, particularly when it comes to positions of influence and a healthy, fair-minded zeitgeist no matter what route they choose in life. The documentary struck a compelling ratio of hard statistics to delineate concrete realities in politics and other realms alongside interviews with brilliant, influential women and men talking about their own experiences and insights–I found Gloria Steinum and Rachel Maddow particularly moving.

So, there’s been healthy discussion about the documentary itself without my rehashing too much of it, but I had a couple very slight criticisms to mention before moving on.

First, the only attitude that troubled me throughout, and it was incredibly minute I’m glad to report, came from the use of one video segment of a democratic Congresswoman (her name escapes me, the clip was brief) that was hammering on this applause-line idea that if we could just get all the men in Congress to go home for a weekend, well the women would pound out a debt-ceiling crisis solution without breaking a sweat. I think this speaks to a tired and irresponsible notion that because patriarchy is bad, simply replacing it with matriarchy would fix all the problems, there’ d be no wars and everything would be golden-rainbow perfection. I feel fairly certain that every other woman interviewed or shown in the documentary would agree that this concept, taken with any real seriousness, is astoundingly problematic. The problem isn’t patriarchy in and of itself, the problem in every way one can think about these issues is disparity and oppression. The voice of women is far too quiet, but the idea of giving them voice by taking voice completely away from men just shifts the problem. We need balance. The debt-ceiling crisis wasn’t a crisis because a bunch of men couldn’t get their shit straight, though sure it was that too, to an extent. It was a crisis because it and issues like it are almost ungraspably complicated and charged with political grandstanding. Would balance have helped? Absolutely, and I was thrilled today to see comments from President Barack Obama’s forum at the White House on women and the economy that highlighted his opinion that more empowered women both in government and outside of it make everything work better not only for women, but for all of us.

Again, this was one short clip that represented an attitude I didn’t see emphasized anywhere else in the documentary, so I don’t want to rail against it too often, but it is something one still encounters in discourse about women in society so I wanted to take a moment to talk about it.

Putting aside my opinions on the Twilight series as literature, I do have to mention I was a little put off by the inclusion of director Catherine Hardwicke. I think she had some insightful comments on the way female directors are treated in Hollywood (to summarize, she points out it’s commonplace for men to be picked to direct ‘chick flicks’ by and large, yet it’s broadly inconceivable that women could direct ‘manly movies’–or anything else, really) but I can’t get over what I can only call the hypocritical choice to direct the first Twilight film, considering that I’m not sure I know of any mega-popular female characters in recent memory that could less embody the qualities of an empowered woman than Bella. Let’s please talk as much as possible about how idolizing the Kardashians and Paris Hilton isn’t exactly healthy for young women today, but don’t overlook women who perpetuate ‘traditional’ female roles outside of the process of objectification in a way that should, I would think, prove worrisome.

My only other criticism is slight, and that is I wasn’t compelled at all by the fairly schmaltzy segments of narration by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. I’d trade those fifteen minutes or so for another few interview segments in a heartbeat.

Now, I wanted to touch on a couple of things I found myself thinking about at length after viewing the documentary and somewhat enjoying the panel afterward. The topic of modesty came up rather quickly during the panel discussion when one of the two younger (high-school age) panelists stated that she felt she hadn’t been affected rather much by the media’s exploitation and oppression of women because she had been raised as a Muslim and had been taught about self-respect and modesty.

Now, I’m trying to restrain myself a bit because the girl was much younger than myself and while she conducted herself on the panel fairly well she seemed  nervous and during the Q&A I felt uncomfortable addressing her statement because, simply put, I felt like I’d be bullying her with something I feel so strongly about. But I do think it raises several very problematic ideas; first, that any amount intelligent, sensitive upbringing inoculates anyone against the influence of media. The smartest and most critical among us are influenced, there’s no escaping it; second, being raised with religious faith (any in particular) does absolutely nothing about the extent of one’s ‘inoculation’, nor does it necessarily say anything about one’s sense of modesty. It’s a symptom of its own much larger phenomenon, but I’m so over the short-cutting and code-wording of religious faith to positive qualities–not only that an expression of faith automatically means someone is trustworthy and so on, but that one must have faith to embody the gamut of positive traits. If you were raised based on whatever justifications to respect yourself and others, isn’t it enough to just say so?

More importantly, I think, this young woman’s comment lead me down my own thoughtful path to really rest on the concept of ‘modesty’. It didn’t take long to realize that it’s a concept that is completely gendered toward women. When is the last time you encountered the concept of modesty that in any way was related to a man? If Katie Couric wears heels or shows a bit of leg when she anchors, is she being immodest? What would Dan Rather have to do in order to draw the same childish discussion? One puzzles at a culture that simultaneously communicates modesty as an admirable quality while also communicating to women that most of if not all of their worth in society is ostensibly founded in their fuckability or ability otherwise to get a man (or, via cannibalism, to tear other women down and -then- get the man). A bit more abstractly, I’m troubled by the assignment of inherent empowerment to one end of the spectrum but not the other–that is, that only modest women are or can be empowered, that if you’re a supermodel or a stripper that you’re a pawn in the game. The empowerment of women, to my mind, speaks simply to choice. Choice over their body and what to do with it, when to have children if at all, and so on without being judged; the lack of judgment must stretch in both directions.

Thinking more on this, I am a bit troubled there was zero exposure in the documentary to religion’s track record on the role of women in society, to which ‘abysmal’ is an understatement. Religion pervades media as much as nearly anything else, one would think it might have come up (there was one quote from Pat Robertson on feminism that I remember, so it -was- on the radar at least a little bit). While the young woman on this panel did not veil her face, she absolutely has sister Muslims in places like Tehran wrapped in sacks, being beaten, tortured, and killed for wanting to show their face or even learn to read. It is dangerous and ignorant to ignore not only the way ‘modesty’ is often coded as a way to oppress the free expression of women, but the way that fundamentalist religious groups seem to universally instill it as a mechanism of absolutely brutal totalitarianism.

The other really big thought that I had, inspired very smartly by the film, was that the real locus of power and change for women’s rights issues sits more heavily in our power as consumers with money to spend than as citizens with a vote to cast. This is a very sad thought, but it has been undeniable for an immensely long time. After all, do we continue to get completely objectified women riddling every movie and commercial simply because most advertising folks are men aged 18-34? No, actually, it’s because apparently the annoying axiom that ‘sex sells’ is most annoying because it’s true. The real bug in the system here is free-market capitalism, and the bottom line. If breasts didn’t sell beer and cars and movie tickets, we wouldn’t see anything like what we do in media today. I am entirely convinced that there’s no secret patriarchical mass media conglomerate council that meets in smoke-filled rooms filled with golden wheelie chairs hell-bent on keeping women out of being involved with responsible marketing campaigns. These marketing people are simply doing their job. This doesn’t make it right or absolve them of doing wrong, but we need to bear in mind why it keeps going on. If Budweiser saw a 20% increase in sales if they replaced every scantily-clad woman in their ads with an articulate woman in a business suit discussing the latest Republican primary debate, we’d never see another bikini again. They do it because the culture responds to it. We have voted with our wallets to say, please, keep giving us nothing but mindless boob commercials.

In a discussion I had after the documentary I voiced my complaint that those commercials annoy the fuck out of me too, they’re (almost) as dehumanizing to the men in the commercial as well as the implied male consumer viewing the commercial: all we are are mindless horny beasts who drool and jump at the first sight of cleavage, or we really think driving a Hummer will get us women when driving a Prius means we’re weak or gay (which is only an insult if you let it be, but that’s another blog post) or whatever. Women are getting the worst end of the stick on this, no argument, but men are getting shit on too. it’s so important to realize that every single person is worse off for this stuff, no one is really winning except the ad executive and the stockholder, and they’re only winning because we keep spending and telling them to keep going, and go further.

So, the real point I’m getting at is the biggest takeaway for me as a viewer and thinker as far as how change is actually cultivated is to forget the entire battleground around regulation or any other means by which to directly keep certain commercials off the air. The documentary spent some time talking about how television in this way has basically been deregulated for the past 30 years. It’s an interesting point, but I would contend it just doesn’t matter. It’s not the right fight to pick, especially considering the current political climate. Regulation is a naughty word right now, we’re seeing more and more heated debate about the protection of the free market, and even hinting at slight regulatory changes in this way would be met with overwhelming backlash about hurting business in what’s already a recession, censorship and free speech (rightfully so, to be honest) and so on — it’s not winnable, and even more it’s not what or where we’d really like to win anyway. I say write this off completely.

The real power is the voice we have as consumers. Women hold the vast majority of spending money in our country. The film makes it a point to ponder what would happen if there was a more conscious process when it came to spending it. Choice and expression is still important here–if a woman enjoys buying lots of expensive makeup then she shouldn’t feel guilty about that, but what about the woman who is guilted into spending almost as much time worrying over her value as an object as a man might do? Nor should anyone suddenly feel guilty about subscribing to Glamour or Maxim but what if there was more consciousness about what that money means to their advertisers? If you see unabashed fat-shaming and write a letter or cancel a subscription, it helps contribute to changing the zeitgeist. Done on a large enough scale, change is inevitable. These sponsors of TV shows and so on aren’t going to become more responsible in this way by themselves. They’re only going to listen if enough dollars tell them that what they’re doing is wrong. They aren’t in the business of being responsible in this way–they’d still be selling young children on smoking if they could get away with it. And none of this means your vote doesn’t matter, it just means it’s only pragmatic to recognize that your spending matters even more, and to think about issues of efficacy accordingly.

I keep rounding back around to the idea of expression and choice, and I really think it’s a big deal. It goes both ways–it’s absolutely imperative we create a culture that raises young girls to feel they’re just as able to become a doctor or the president as any boy, but we should also be as welcoming and non-judgmental to the girl who genuinely desires the path of the housewife or the sexy-action-movie-star-actress. The idea shouldn’t be that we need to turn every woman into a politician or CEO, but that every girl (and boy) can feel like they can make their own choice.

One quick, ending note: I found it really interesting that when it comes to news coverage, the oppressive rhetoric doesn’t break neatly across party lines. It’s certainly not equal either, but the documentary had almost as many CNN/MSNBC culprits to show as it did Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. The GOP has the greater problem, which we’re seeing increasingly taking the spotlight as the GOP continues to lose notable chunks of the female electorate nationwide, but it’s far from black and white, and even the most liberal of journalists and pundits frequently express views and language that are misogynistic. Apathy and intellectual / journalistic laziness is usually the culprit, and is probably the most insidious culprit to fight. We must hold ourselves and our media to a higher standard. Not just because it’s right, but because we all benefit from it, regardless of gender.