I know that Miss Representation is an important film and I feel bad that I didn’t love it more. Its mission is to explore “how the media’s misrepresentations of women contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence.” And it makes a strong case. Miss Representation is getting a lot of play at a lot of film festivals as well as through the educational campaign built around it. I just question how crucial the dream of “power and influence” is to most women today.
It is an excellent would-be-mainstream vehicle, what with its high profile talking heads, top production values, and some gut-wrenching statistics: “[T]he United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors.” The stats on violence and abuse are, as always, a never-ending nightmare since we first exposed them in the late 60s. I’m very glad there’s a piece of celluloid trying to get all these points across. But today most women are struggling hard just to secure the basics: the glass ceiling is visible to only a very few at the top.
How did Jennifer Siebel Newsom (at left), the filmmaker, and her team approach their challenge? They began by interviewing some politicians (Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi), celebrities (Margaret Cho, Jane Fonda), TV stars (Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow), feminists (Jennifer Pozner, Gloria Steinem), a gaggle of CEOs, and a handful of unnecessarily talkative men. One of the featured men is Newsom’s husband, the Lt Governor of California, with whom she lives, according to Wikipedia, in a $2.145 million house in Kentfield, CA with “direct views of Mt Tamalpais.” I mention this personal information as partial explanation of the existence and distribution of this film, as opposed to the many other feminist films - especially by women of color, working class or poor women, gender outlaws – that struggle painfully and at length to be made.
Miss Representation includes the views of some precocious, well-spoken young people with good teeth. It is all bracketed with Newsom’s motivation. She is having a baby, she says in the opening, and wants to make a film that exposes the incredible sexism of the media. At the end of the film, we meet her adorable little child for whom we can only wish a new and better world. The film itself hopes that each girl can dream of being, well, a CEO, a celebrity, or a politician.
This focus is lost on me. All this ambition to be women CEOs of corporations or high-ranking politicians is not a goal I can really care about. This is the point at which the film forgets that most girls will be hoping for a union job and a safe car, will be fighting to keep the schools and social security public, and will be trying to convince workplaces to offer childcare to employees.
I want to laud this documentary, but what can I do with my sense that this was made by and for privileged women? Without talking about class and race – and I mean really talking about them, not throwing in the phrase “women of color” at the end of a couple of comments – how is it possible to understand the enormous scoop of shit dumped on poor and working class woman every day? I was grateful for the perspective of a couple of commentators who talked about capitalism and about how the consolidation of media ownership following deregulation is a disaster for all but well-oiled pale males.
Why some of the men were given so much face time is a mystery, especially as some repeated their rather theoretical blah-blah more than once. In fact, the skills of a strict editor could have improved this film by shortening it by 30 minutes. Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, had insightful things to say and seemed to really understand what life is like for women. Margaret Cho was good, as always, about the intersection of difference and gender. Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, was spot on. She’s been providing important analysis of the misogyny of media for some years. It’s neither a surprise nor unusual that the film reflects the interests of the filmmaker and is created in her own image to some degree.
I am a talking head in another feminist film called Left on Pearl. The filmmakers and unpaid production collective have been working on it for ten years because they don’t have the political and celebrity contacts to raise sufficient money, and because their stars are the women who were actually involved in the rather revolutionary act of occupying a Harvard building in the early 70s in order to demand, among other things, a women’s center. The Cambridge Women’s Center that came into being soon after is now the longest-running such institution in the country. But Left on Pearl is not quite finished because of the difficulty of pulling in a dime for such grass-roots projects. Eventually, it hopes to be a vehicle used by schools and libraries to educate young people about the history of this feminist movement.
There were a lot of young people in the audience when I saw Miss Representation and I realized from their gasps that they were hearing some oft-repeated stats (1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime) and quotes (hello Pat Robinson) for the first time. It was cool to be reminded of those initial “clicks” of comprehension we all experienced when we came to understand the misrepresentation of women on every level.
Here is the trailer of Miss Representation