Jennifer Siebel Newsom had been in films and television programs—the subject of the camera many times. She played characters and her body conformed to standards as an actress. Then, it conformed to the needs of a child, a daughter to be specific, and the frame of reference shifted for her. Siebel Newsom was frightened for her future daughter when she saw the world that the camera showed. That’s when she decided to direct a documentary about how the media portrays women and how that translates into the choices that we believe are possible.
The 2011 documentary film, Miss Representation directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, pushes for media accountability concerning the degradation of women and an imbalance of power within leadership. Siebel Newsom’s film is driven by the awareness that we must hold the media responsible for reducing women to subservient roles professionally and personally, for a focus on appearance above intellect, and for failing to promote women’s political, economic, social, and cultural achievements.
Miss Representation reminds women to not only be proud of the women’s movement but to continue it by targeting media messages that undermine women’s leadership opportunities and by rejecting notions that women should buy into the consumerism of appearance. Siebel Newsom emphasizes the media’s influence on young girls—a bombardment of images glorifying unhealthily-thin models and celebrities as well as the constant focus of the media on women’s appearance. Girls get the message that even female politicians must perfect their appearance, and that the appearance of Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice matters more than her deeds and achievements, and yet, the media largely overlooks the appearance of the majority of male politicians. The media chooses to bombard viewers with headlines like the New York Times‘ “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?”, while Speaker of the House John Boehner’s emotional meltdowns are touted by 60 Minutes as “Real Men Do Cry.” In addition, the film makes the point by showing that Boehner was on the cover of several national magazines during his first year as Speaker, while Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, was never asked to grace the cover of a national magazine.
The achievements of this documentary are the poignant and revealing interviews with Pelosi and Rice, as well as Katie Couric, Lisa Ling, Rosario Dawson, Jackson Katz, Jean Kilbourne, and Gloria Steinem. These interviews are made even more powerful alongside the testimonials from teenage girls, as well as Siebel Newsom’s own personal story. We hear from girls who once believed in their potential to reach leadership positions, but who lose those projections once they don’t see many real life or strong fictional examples of women in leadership positions or who serve as board members and CEOs. Throughout the film, the thesis is supported by disheartening statistics about women’s representation, self-abuse, depression, teen pregnancy, violence, and cosmetic surgery.
Like Siebel Newsom, I have a daughter and am currently pregnant with my second daughter. I watched Miss Representation during the holidays. A few days later, we were driving to my grandmother’s house when my five-year old daughter began talking about different occupations, asking about them. “What is a spy?…What are architects?…politicians?” and more questions. She said, “Girls aren’t presidents,” in the middle of the conversation, and I realized just how early the programming begins to happen. I had no idea why she believed that statement. I asked her, and she said, “Because they just aren’t. We don’t have a girl president. There aren’t any in the pictures.”
The complexity and intertwining revelations of the personal and political within the film Miss Representation inspire action. For this reason, the film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews from audiences. It was aired on Oprah’s OWN network in October 2011, and has since been scheduled for screenings all over the country. Miss Representation goes beyond a presentation of startling statistics and makes a direct call to action—a request that women and girls in the U.S. will push for a boycott on media bias against women and continue the women’s movement with more unity.
Click here to find a screening of Miss Representation near you.
Shana Thornton serves as Editor-in-Chief of Her Circle Ezine and Assistant Director of the Institute of Arts and Social Engagement. Her first novel, Multiple Exposure, reveals an intimate, ghostly portrait of the impact of war, and generations of military service, on a family. Multiple Exposure will be available for purchase on Sept. 2. Read more at http://shanathornton.wordpress.com/