Miss Representation: Thoughts

A couple weeks ago I saw this new documentary film, Miss Representation. The Special Events team at GeekGirlCon invited me to the showing in Seattle and the post-film panel discussion. Miss Representation discusses the representation, misrepresentation, and lack of representation of women in media, popular media, and politics.

The Good Stuff

  • It’s a great, accessible primer on issues of sex, gender, and representation in the media.
  • It makes you think, regardless of your familiarity with gender issues in the media.
  • A lot of the statistics presented in the film were used well.
  • There were a lot of women of colour in the film.
  • There were a lot of young women in the film.
  • There were a lot of powerful and famous women in the film.
  • The sections on politics and women in politics was particularly well done.
  • It was impactful.
  • It provided some action points at the end so the audience didn’t leave the cinema feeling totally depressed and at a loss for what to do to  change things.

Critiques

Intersectionality FAIL. This is a big one. Although women of colour were pretty well-represented in terms of numbers in Miss Representation, there was barely a mention of how black, Asian, Latina, and other women of colour in popular media and politics are impacted by popular media. When it was mentioned, only women of colour explicitly mentioned their race or ethnicity as being also involved in the misrepresentation of women in the media. There was absolutely no mention of how representations in popular media affect women of different races in different ways. The way that white women are represented in the media is not the same as how black women or Latina women are treated in the media, and it’s wrong to make the implicit assumption, as this film does, that all women are portrayed or misrepresented in the media in the same ways.

Similarly, there was absolutely no mention about how queer women are misrepresented in popular media and politics. Or disabled women. Or transgender women. Or women with mental disabilities or mental illness. Or queer Asian trans women. Or disabled black straight women. Or straight white women—oh wait, no—their issues were covered adequately and liberally in Miss Representation. But any number of other oppressions that impact how women are portrayed or not portrayed in the media didn’t even get a nod. The very least the film could have done was at least given a passing mention that spoke to the intersections of oppression that women face—even just one sentence in the narration.

The film focused quite a lot on how few women there are in politics, how few women there are in powerful roles in films, how poorly women are portrayed everywhere, and yet there was no mention that, not only do men hold the power in USian society (which the film focuses on), but also that it’s straight, white, wealthy, well-educated, able-bodied, cisgender men who hold this power. Looking at who holds the power in society and where their intersections of privilege lie is absolutely critical to understanding oppression. It’s also really important to include a film like Miss Representation. Tying this point together with my previous one would have been a nice way to integrate the concept of intersectionality in the film.

The film is very basic. Whilst it’s a great primer, as I mentioned above, it doesn’t go beyond very basic feminism 101 (maybe not even 101) level issues. Inequality and oppression in society are far too multi-dimensional to simply talk about the oppression of sex and gender—as if race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and other types of marginalisation don’t also impact how women are portrayed in the media. I know that some people will say that I’m asking for the film to tackle too much, that talking about  the representation of race or sexual orientation in the media are two other whole films. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think it’s important to acknowledge that women are not a monolithic entity, that women who belong to other marginalised groups are impacted by the media in different ways.

For another take on Miss Representation, check out the review at Racialicious.

Panel

The film started late, so we didn’t have a lot of time to talk at the panel afterwards. What I wrote above summarises and greatly expands upon what I talked about in the panel. Due to time, I didn’t actually get to answer all the questions. The panel discussed the following points:

  • Did any information presented in the film surprise or particularly stand out to you? My reply was basically a one-sentence version of my critiques above. Essentially, what stood out to me was what the film glaringly lacked.
  • What will it take to ensure that women are driving the conversation and decisions made about what is portrayed in the media? Can you speak to the importance of women choosing careers in media-making? I didn’t really have a nuanced answer to this. Encourage girls to go into creative fields. Blah.
  • Given what we saw in the film, how does this connect to other larger issues of leadership for women and girls in our economy, political realm and globally? Didn’t get to answer this one. I’d thought of a really good answer as well (which I have now forgotten). :-(
  • How can we discuss issues raised in the film with the children in our lives? And how do we deal with pushback from our own peers/students/colleagues? Forgot what I said to this one, but since I don’t have kids, I couldn’t answer part one. For part two, I forgot what I said, but I probably would have said something like find a supportive person or persons to help you and choose your battles wisely.
  • What are concrete steps each of us can take to change how women and girls are portrayed in our culture in regards to sex and gender, as well as race and ethnicity? I suggested that people question the status quo at every turn and continue to challenge and call out companies, and that now more than ever, individuals have the power and voice with social media to make their opinions heard (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.). I also suggested that one avenue to speak out is through a company’s social media presence and through a company’s community or social media managers.

The Miss Representation website actually has a lot of resources on taking action and next steps after seeing the film. Despite my critiques, I do think Miss Representation is worth seeing. I think everyone should see it.