By Amrita Shodhan and Ramlath Kavil
Miss Representation, released in 2011, is one of the most widely debated documentaries in feminist circles. Written and directed by actor-turned-film maker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, this film is about the deep-rooted sexism in the American media.
Jennifer Newsom starts the documentary as a personal story. She begins filming when she is pregnant with her daughter. She is anxious about the world she is bringing her daughter into and goes on to explore the power the media wields by sexualising and objectifying women, and thus impacting the average American psyche.
She briefly talks about her own past, sexual abuse by her school coach, her eating disorder and how in her late 20s she was asked to lie about her real age, hide her MBA degree when she started her acting career so that she would not come across as ‘too smart’ in Hollywood.
The documentary presents its argument powerfully with finely edited scenes from commercials, TV shows, movies and news channels intercut with interviews and statements from articulate and powerful women in US politics and media.
Outrageous remarks against ‘bitchy’ Hillary Clinton and ‘ditzy’ Sarah Palin would convince anyone that politics was secondary when these women are portrayed in the media. It is all about how much skin they show and how good or ugly they look. It looks at the impact this has in the personal, social and political life of the nation. It argues that this negative image of political women restricts women’s participation in politics.
The film sensitively looks at the problems of self-objectification and how it leads to further psychological problems (anger, eating disorders, self-harm, lower self-esteem, depression, suicides) as well as larger political problems for society – under–representation of women, loss of qualified women in public and political life, over-representation of men and making of hyper masculine choices, rape and violence towards women and so on.
There is a heart-rending scene of a teenager breaking down as she talks about her kid sister who slashes herself after being teased as ‘ugly’ by her peers. “When is it going to be enough?” one of them shoots a desperate question.
Besides interviews with teenagers, the film is packed with powerful women including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, minority leader of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, journalist and author Katie Couric, feminist icon Gloria Steinem and actor and activist Jane Fonda.
The image of women as consumers is very strong throughout the film-consumers of products and of the media. The question of class is not really brought up, as the aspirational aspect of TV is not really looked at-television mostly portrays stories of upper class life and every viewer aspires to be part of this class. The impact of the media representation of women on men’s lives and aspirations is mentioned quite clearly and how the gender stereotype of machoness constrains men, but that is not the focus of the story. The role of industry, profit and advertising is alluded to, but not clearly indicated in the documentary.
In a sense, the documentary does not tell a new story. It has been clearly documented by others before, like in Naomi Wolf’s 1999 work ‘Beauty Myth’. However, the angle on political representation is interesting and valuable. But is the mere presence of women being in positions of power a guarantee of a fairer world? This question is not raised. It does sharply emphasise that whatever stand a woman takes, it is important that she finds a public and dignified place from which to make it, rather than being sexualised and objectified.
Thus, the film uses Sarah Palin in juxtaposition with Hilary Clinton and how both – very different ideas of women — were equally discounted by the media and ridiculed. However, should the media bear the sole responsibility for this highly misogynistic pop/rape culture?
The movie relies too heavily on interviews of powerful women and lacks a wide range of women’s voices. It definitely does not seek a political intervention except a demand for regulating the media. Condoleezza Rice makes faint remarks about politics being male-dominated and admits that often she would be the only woman in closed-door meetings. Unfortunately, the film fails to question what these highly influential women, like Rice, have done to counter male supremacy in politics.
One needs to have more representation of women in politics, but don’t we also have to ask how inclusive is our political system? How receptive is the State when it comes to understanding women’s issues? What about those ignored voices of women who have been demanding better health care, better child care, equal employment opportunity, effective state measure to stop violence etc.? None of these questions figure in this 90 minutes long film.
Nevertheless, the film would work as an excellent motivational and discussion piece as it covers a lot of ground with very strong statements and clear case studies. It is a bit repetitious and quite focused on the US experience. While the details of women’s images and class positions would vary in different parts of the world, the story of women being objectified is the same everywhere. In India perhaps women are sexualised by being domesticated in the family rather than being represented as sex symbols available to every man.
The tagline of the film says it all; “You can’t be what you can’t see”