01 December 2011

Miss Representation: A Review

Miss Representation, a film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is the latest in a series of issue documentaries that leads from the personal with the hopes of connecting to the external. Al Gore was able to successfully achieve this with Inconvenient Truth, Michael Moore has begun to slip since his peak with Bowling for Columbine, and most recently Davis Guggenheim shared his search for a better education system in Waiting for Superman. All of the films start with the premise that the protagonist was impacted by a given social ill.  Recognizing it in the personal, the protagonist wants to prevent what s/he has experienced to be different for the next generation.

The shortfall of these films is that there is just not enough time to adequately address the issue.  The best one can hope is that they will inspire people to want to learn more and eventually become active in regards to the issue covered.  In Miss Representation, Siebl wants the viewers to take on the portrayal of women in the media.  Her thesis is that the continuing representation of women as sex objects, catty, and powerless in media lays the foundation for a society that undervalues women.

Her examples include how there are very few female leads in Hollywood films.  The people interviewed, including actors, activists, and teens, point out that there is a lack of a role model in what they are seeing. The movies that do in fact lead with women are often 'chick flicks' where the goal of the movie is to end up with a guy, as if he is everything that can and will fulfill a woman.

The most compelling points come when young girls tell their own stories.  One girl cries as she thinks about how hard it is on her younger sister who already struggles with her appearance at a young age.  Whether or not the girls were lead into their responses, it becomes clear that they are aware of how social pressures have a significant impact on their lives.

Statistics are scattered throughout the film as it fails to dig much deeper.  The focus is largely on the present with some references to the recent past, but a historical approach to gender is entirely missing.  This is the shortfall of trying to put an immensely complex issue into a 90 minute film.  Siebl deserves no blame for this problem, but it would be a mistake not to recognize what was missing.

The most apparent gaps were the role of pornography, race, income, and culture.  A discussion about gender and current media must include at least a small section on porn.  This highlights where this film and others in the genre fall short. The span of the film only begins to scratch the proverbial surface of the issue.  The screening I attended was put on by the BU School of Public Health with an audience that was roughly 95% female.

I believe that the audience was already largely aware of these issues.   They would not have spent a few hours on a Tuesday night to watch the movie if they were not already interested in gender.  This means that the film preached to the choir.  It affirmed the understanding of people who were already aware of the way that media can influence gender; much in the same way Inconvenient Truth struck a chord with environmental activists.

Where Miss Representation differs is that it is an issue that is not as widely discussed or held, compared to education and the environment.  To that extent, this is a welcome film that will hopefully encourage people to talk more about the issues presented.  The challenge will be how to reach people who are unaware/disinterested.  If we argue that the world's power largely rests in the hands of men (there is little data to prove otherwise), then we need to find ways to illustrate this so that more are aware of this power dynamic.

Earlier in the month I watch an interview with Werner Herzog speaking about his new film Into the Abyss. To my surprise, he argued that 'movies do not change the world.  It is guns that change the world."  He continues to say that orators like Lenin and Obama are the changemakers.  I thought he must have been wrong.

However, in the context of the film and the ensuing discussion, he appears to be right.  A commonality was women pointing to others who influenced their lives; a popular example was Hilary Clinton.  Maybe the film will help motivate someone to act, but those actions will be the change.

See the film if you can.  Unfortunately, it has not been widely released.  Go to the website to see if it is playing near you.  If you have seen the film, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.