“Miss Representation” takes critical look at media images

“American teenagers spend 31 hours a week watching TV, 17 hours a week listening to music, 3 hours a week watching movies, 4 hours a week reading magazines, 10 hours a week online. That’s 10 hours and 45 minutes of media consumption a day.”

Find your channel

OWN can be found at channel 182 on Comcast, 256 on Uverse and
279 on Direct TV. The film airs at 8 p.m. Central time.

More on this topic

For deeper conversations on how women are depicted in media –
including interview portions that didn’t make it into the film – go
to missrepresentation.org/blog

Those statistics swoosh onscreen at the beginning of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film “Miss Representation,” then swoosh off to show highly sexualized clips of women sucking their fingers, or dancing on stage in a strip club, or even just washing a window. The effect is disturbing. This is what our kids are watching – or could be. How does that make them feel about themselves or about the value of women? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

Those are the questions Siebel Newsom asks in this documentary, which features multiple interviews with women and men who work in or write about media or politics. There are some heavy hitters. Gloria Steinem, of course. And Geena Davis, whose Geena Davis Institute has been researching and advocating for gender parity and against stereotypes for seven years. There’s actress Rosario Dawson, and journalist Lisa Ling. Nancy Pelosi makes an appearance, but doesn’t have as much screen time as Condoleezza Rice. There are also interviews with academics and writers who have studied media’s affect on children. And all of this is intercut with images – images we may see every day, but may have become enured to.

Changing the view of media

“Once parents watch the film, they’ll never see the media in the same way,” says Siebel Newsom, in a phone interview earlier this week. She hopes the film will influence parents to “sit down with their kids and talk about how female characters are clothed” or whether the main character in a given film can be a girl.

“The media is sending a message to our young people that women should not be heard,” Siebel Newsom adds.

“Girls get the message, from very early on, that what’s most important is how they look, that their value, their worth, depends on that,” says filmmaker and author Jean Kilbourne in the film. “Boys get the message that this is what’s important about girls. We get it from advertising, we get it from films, we get it from television shows, video games – everywhere we look. So no matter what else a woman does, no matter what else her achievements, her value still depends on how she looks.”

Better or worse?

Kilbourne should know. Her film, “Killing Us Softly,” a look at the advertising world circa the 1970s, was the first critical look at how women are treated in media. Kilbourne, also in a phone interview, says that since she made the first film (there are currently three sequels), things have gotten both better and worse.

“Advertising is such a powerful industry, and it’s got infinitely more power now than when I started out because of the concentration of ownership,” says Kilbourne. “We’re up against a situation where 95 percent of the information we get is controlled by five corporations.”

But people work in those corporations. And Siebel Newsom, who is also an actress, feels that many people – men and women – who work in the media industry and have grown up in post-feminist America, want to change things. It’s just a matter of time, and giving them some support, or perhaps a push.

“We’re in a really unique time and place because of the social media realm and because men have joined the conversation,” says Siebel Newsom. “Fathers of daughters are particularly concerned. The next step is incentivizing men to take some action.”

She points to a study, done by the Geena Davis Institute, that concludes that “the more TV boys watch, the more sexist they are, and the more TV girls watch, the lower their self-esteem.

“As we’ve made progress in the real world, the media has held women down in a way that’s disempowering us,” she adds.

Backlash to power

Pelosi and Rice address this in the film, which also includes a clip of a Greta Van Susteren interviewing Sarah Palin about whether or not she had breast implants.

That, say both Siebel Newsom and Kilbourne, is just as bad as a woman performing sex acts or being witchy. In fact, Siebel Newsom decided to make the film, “when we looked at the connections between the misrepresentation of women in the media and the underrepresentation of women in the world.”

There’s a strange logic to it. The more women attain positions of power, the more TV will air shows like “The Playboy Club” or “Pan Am,” which hark back to a time when women’s choices were limited, or “Housewives of New Jersey,” which depicts women as barely human. And Hillary Clinton may get a lot of media airtime, but what good does it do when most of it is devoted to how haggard she may have looked or whether she’s showing too much toughness and being too masculine?

“If a girl does see a woman in a position of power,” says Kilbourne, “then that woman is demonized.” This doesn’t surprise her. “The market has done what it always does, which is exploit movements for social change.”

Classic Co-Optation

As the feminist movement started in the 1970s, corporations figured out how to hold women hostage to their desires for freedom. Kilbourne points to the Virginia Slims campaign, “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby,” which celebrated women’s freedom to smoke whenever they wanted to – and perpetuated the notion that smoking made you thinner and sexier.

In today’s world, says Kilbourne, where pornography is so readily available online, images that used to be out of bounds have become mainstreamed.

“Therefore you end up with Miley Cyrus doing a pole dance and young women being encouraged to dress like porn stars or remove their pubic hair,” she says. “These are all images of pornography.

“Women are still called sluts,” she adds. “They don’t have sexual freedom by a long shot. That’s co-optation on a very deep level.”

What to do

“Miss Representation” takes these themes and examines them quite effectively in words and pictures. But as Siebel Newsom says, “It’s not just a film, it’s a movement.”

The film will have a national debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on Thursday, Oct 20. But many people have already seen it – in community groups, at house parties, even at schools. The schools initiative at MissRepresenation.org offers age appropriate curriculum to teach media literacy to both girls and boys, under the premise that, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The website also has daily suggestions on what people can do to change the media landscape themselves. Siebel Newsom suggests getting a group of parents together to screen the film, or bringing it to work, or talking to your child (boy or girl) about the images they see on magazines covers. Point out to them how Photoshop works, and that women really don’t look that way.

She also suggests taking a look at ourselves and our values. Do we put on makeup before taking our kids to school? Do we constantly talk about how we hate our own bodies?

“Every time we use the word ‘diet’ and say we don’t like ourselves because of our looks, remember that a young person is watching us,” says Siebel Newsom. “We have to effect change at the individual level. We have to affect change at the community level. We have to affect change at the corporate level.” That may seem daunting, but Siebel Newsom has one easy fix: “Vote with your remote.” If you don’t like the images that are coming at your 8-year-old or your 14-year-old, turn them off and talk to your kids about why.

“Culture is learned,” says Siebel Newsom. “I think we can raise this next generation of kids valuing women and seeing all the possibilities they can be.”

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