When the trailer for Miss Representation started making the rounds on social media, I knew I wanted to see it. Fortunately, it screened as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2011.

This documentary film, written and directed by former actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom, seeks to expose and question the representation of females in the media—particularly modern American culture. 'Miss Representation' at the Vancouver International Film Festival 2011So many people grow up without media literacy—truly understanding the political economy of mass media.

Modern mass media in the USA (and consequently Canada) is mainly dependent upon advertising revenue, whose sole objective is to sell a product. These advertisements rely on making people feel insecure and anxious as well as using sexual imagery.

Advertisers are not the only culprits of this act. American teenagers spend approximately 10 hours and 45 minutes per day on media consumption, including listening to music, browsing the internet, watching television and movies or reading magazines. There are so many choices available that movies, music and entertainment shows consistently resort to violent, sexual and demeaning imagery to break through the clutter. These messages influence predominant cultural ‘norms’ and political discourse.

Between interviews with famous and powerful women such as Jane Fonda, Katie Couric, Margaret Cho, Condoleezza Rice, Geena Davis, and Rosario Dawson, the film shows startling facts and statistics about the role of women in one of the most powerful countries in the world:

  • Women hold only 3% of clout positions in the mainstream media (telecommunications, entertainment, publishing and advertising).
  • Women comprise 7% of directors and 13% of film writers in the top 250 grossing films.
  • The United States is 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures.
  • Women hold 17% of the seats in the House of Representatives (the equivalent body in Rwanda is 56.3% female).
  • Women are merely 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs.
  • About 25% of girls will experience teen dating violence.
  • The number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed on youth 18 or younger more than tripled from 1997 to 2007.
  • Among youth 18 and younger, liposuctions nearly quadrupled between 1997 and 2007 and breast augmentations increased nearly six-fold in the same 10-year period.
  • 65% of American women and girls have an eating disorder.

Interview clips with powerful scholars and feminists (including Gloria Steinem, Dolores Huerta, and Marie Wilson) shows how even pop culture’s “empowered” portrayal of women leads to self-objectification. Women in protagonist roles—such as Cat Woman, or Bridget Jones, or even animated characters in G-rated shows—are still objectified by being portrayed in short skirts and low-cut tops and depicted as “too fat” or “not pretty enough”. One interviewee (I forgot to write down who said it) described it as the “fighting fucktoy”. Popular culture also pits women against each other in catfights and almost encourages a competitive discourse between women.

In politics, the media belittles women’s accomplishments by focusing on their looks and not their views. Even Katie Couric mentions how she feels she may have contributed to the ‘sexy news anchor’ trend that’s happening at mainstream television stations. However, as Marie Wilson states, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” It is so important for the powerful and successful women of today to show young girls that you can be on television, or a news anchor, or whathaveyou.

This pressure is not only on girls and women to look and act a certain way, but promotes a patriarchial view of society as a whole. Men are supposed to be strong, powerful, in control, and emotionally constipated. Newsom and interviewees argue for better male role models in popular culture.

“The media can be an instrument of change, can [enforce] a status quo, reflect the views of society, or it can awaken people and change minds; it depends on who’s piloting the plane.” —Katie Couric

Nearly everything that was discussed I could directly relate to two classes I’m taking at the moment: “Mass Communications and Social Change” and “Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies: Gender Talks”. The communications course described exactly what we’re seeing in American media today as neoliberalism—the belief that the power of the market will shape the media. In this view, advertisers are simply “giving the public what they want to see” aka sex sells. (If you can’t tell, I think this is crap). In my gender studies class we’ve been talking about gender roles in society and culture (which tends to include pop culture).

The film and interviewees express a deep concern about the way society is headed if we continue to allow the media to push these ‘ideals’. The film concludes with a call to action—take the pledge to stand up against these portrayals of gender ‘norms’ forced on both females and males.

Overall the film saddened me, outraged me, disgusted me—all reactions I’m sure the director intended. These reactions will spur an action from the viewers, and hopefully bring about change, no matter how small. It all begins with questioning the things you see daily, the messages that mass media inflicts upon you. Being a critical consumer of media is the first step of media literacy and stopping this distorted cultural trend.

If you can’t make it to a screening of the film in your city (or host one), the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) will be screening Miss Representation on Thursday, October 20th at 9 PM EST.