“Miss Representation”: or, How the media packages and sells Woman

First published: 03/02/2012

On Feb. 29, one day shy of Women’s History Month, the Yale Women’s Center presented the documentary “Miss Representation” at the Whitney Humanities Center to a nearly full auditorium. Articulating the media’s limited and often negative portrayals of females, the documentary (written, produced and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newson) made a big impression at Sundance and other film festivals.

It’s not too difficult to see why: the movie effectively builds momentum with familiar, but nevertheless troubling, facts and statistics (shown in wispy white and blue animations), which are confirmed and confronted by stories from teenage girls and interviews with strong women like Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Margaret Cho and Gloria Steinem. With such a collection of intelligent women showing America that they can be more than “tits and asses,” it’s hard not to leave the documentary feeling both empowered by the possibilities for change and angry at the way things are now. The film fantastically taps into this understandable feminine rage.

“Miss Representation” even-handedly addresses the gender dynamic and the female role in accepting and furthering the negative images of the media. While the film asserts that men do determine the information distributed, it also faults women for internalizing stereotypes and being unsupportive of other women. Catfights on trashy television are shown side by side with students in a high school admitting that girls usually vote for boys when students run for office. The film also explores, albeit briefly, how the pressure to be masculine and controlling pushes men to see empowered women as threatening.

As important as keeping this issue in the public view is, the film treads too much familiar ground without fresh insight. If advertisements make us strive for unattainable beauty, how do we give them up? Do we just stop buying the products that fuel our desires? What’s more, it’s a shame that the 90-minute film can’t (or won’t) permit itself to tackle other, difficult issues. It doesn’t look deeply into the racial divide within femininity; instead, it lumps the struggles of women together. Newson does include Rice and Cho in the documentary, but they’re tokens that don’t elaborate on the prickly history between (white-dominated) feminism and female minorities. And if the film is going to be so America-centric, then why doesn’t it elaborate on the role of both sex and violence in American culture in viewing women as objects to be obtained, chewed up and tossed out like meat? Maybe Newson should have made room for these issues by removing some of the regurgitated factoids and sexual imagery. The imagery, although serving to comment on the objectification of women, seems to be there for the very shock value it criticizes. The music tries to play with us, too: the violins on the soundtrack, by Eric Holland, strum our hearts too much.

After the screening, members of the Women’s Center Board — Esi Hutchful ’12, Jazzmin Estebane ’13 and Rebecca Suldan ’13 — led a discussion. The discussion, which consisted of an audience of about 12 (including one single, silent man), poked and pried at the film for answers and weak points. The film makes, as one woman put it, “what women want and need [into] a monolith. I watch ESPN. Does that mean that I don’t care about my womanhood?” The audience brought up several equally great points: What about queer issues and homophobia? What about women in science? A Yale alum asked the most pointed question: “What happened to the anger on campus?” The anger that the alum felt 30 years ago on Yale’s campus helped lead to Title IX and another victory in the path towards gender equality. But are we still angry? What do we do? Do we gnash our teeth in silence? Or do we speak out and risk being called, as one woman explained, a “feminazi”? The film had no easy answers, and neither did the discussion.

For more information about the film and its mission, visit http://www.missrepresentation.org. Check out womenscenter.yale.edu for a look at a part of the feminist community at Yale.