Thumbs up for ‘Miss Representation’

Thumbs up for ‘Miss Representation’

Jennifer Siebel Newrom was horrified at the thought of raising a daughter in today’s culture that demeans, degrades and disrespects women on a daily basis.

She was compelled to write, produce and direct her first documentary, “Miss Representation” when she found out she was pregnant with her first child, a girl.

“‘Miss Representation’ was my attempt to right the wrong,” Newrom said.

The documentary screened at Sundance Film Festival in 2011 and later that same year on the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN.

‘Miss Representation’ shows the dangerous message youth are being sent through media and our culture: Women’s value and power lie in their youth, beauty and sexuality. This has been exacerbated by the 24/7 news cycle and explosion of reality TV.

The documentary illustrated media’s limited portrayal of women and girls. As a young girl said in the film, “There’s no room for women intellectuals. It’s only about the body and not the mind.”

I’d heard about the film and kept making a mental note to add it to my Netflix queue. After all, I’m a woman in the media. I attended a screening of the film a month ago at Westbrook Performing Arts Center after reading about it in the American Journal. Though targeted for students, the event was open to the public.

It’s a beautifully made film. The opening credits are incredibly powerful and the most striking part for me. It juxtaposes images of Rosa Parks and suffragettes with barely clothed female reality stars pulling each other’s hair and fighting in little more than bikinis.

What have we become?

There were facts the documentary presented that clearly and unequivocally put the bias in your face: Women make up 51 percent of the population, yet only represent 17 percent of Congress. The United States ranks 90th in the world in terms of women in national Legislatures, with countries like Cuba, China, Iraq and Afghanistan all having more women in government. Seven percent of mainstream film directors are women. Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and 3 percent of women hold clout positions in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing and advertising – despite being told in our country that men and women are equal. And we’re still paid less.

The message of the film was nothing new, but I was surprised how complacent I have become in the media’s treatment of women.

Throughout the film, I was shocked at the information presented, as were those around me. A pair of older women were sitting behind me gasping, laughing and scoffing. I constantly shook my head in disbelief about the bias and discrimination I was seeing presented so clearly in front of me.

The story is told through Newsom’s personal struggles working as an actress and the process of tackling such a large subject matter. The film is also anchored by interviews with Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, Jane Fonda and Margaret Cho (who’s first line in the film says, “the media treats women like s**t”.) Members of academia, filmmakers and young women also share their opinions.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow talked about mentorship in the film. As a woman journalist and TV host, she was accepted into the business with the understanding that women who came before her would be happy to help, as long as she helped women coming up after her. The film talks about women’s hunger for mentorship, something I feel really speaks to quarterlifers trying to establish themselves professionally but is lacking.

Post-screening, there was a discussion facilitated by Donna Dwyer, executive director of Mission Possible, the organization that sponsored the showing, with prepared questions and prompts from the film’s website, similar to a book group’s talking points. Mothers in the sparse audience spoke up about how they didn’t want their children, both sons and daughters, to be subject to or perpetrate bias behavior. One mother-and-daughter pair traveled from South Portland, and hoped the daughter’s schoolmates could be required to see this, too. One parent talked about this being the new bullying; an epidemic that needed to be dealt with.

As a woman of 27, with a degree in media and society, I still feel like a kid, totally helpless sometimes when it comes to combating the media’s message, whose bias toward women has beaten me into submission. Imagine how a child feels today, where teens average 10 hours and 45 minutes of media consumption a day, growing up with Facebook, thousands of channels of TV and a culture that continues to shock and awe at women’s expense. The film (and our discussion after) recommends better media literacy as a way to change.

The biggest lesson I took away from the documentary was not the under-representation of positive female role models in the media, that I knew. What stuck with me was the judgment women put on themselves and on each other. We foster a culture of women-on-women crime. I left feeling empowered and inspired, realizing how harsh I can be with other women. I have a terrible habit of judging and writing women off before I know them, and I’m not sure why. I don’t feel the same toward my male counterparts.

There were only a few dozen of us at the screening, mostly mothers with their daughters. I was proud that some people attended, but it illustrated how difficult it will be to change the discourse when only a few people show up, leaving the new auditorium mostly empty.

The documentary has turned into a social-action campaign to affect change for women and girls, centered on the website Visitors can pledge their time to the cause, find a screening of the film and get involved in spreading the message.

The twitter hashtag #Notbuyingit was a way for members of the site to monitor advertisers and call out to the Twitter-sphere products that were offensive and furthered the negative portrayal of women through advertising.

That is one of the most effective ways Newrom sees the advertising-driven media changing. Women hold more than 86 percent of America’s purchasing power. Newrom suggests women stop purchasing products with objectionable advertising.

The most inspiring thing Newrom learned while making the doc is that, “People do care and they do want change,” she said.

This is more than “I am women, hear me roar” rhetoric. The situation is dire. It’s so important to see the film, visit the website and turn off the autopilot mode of accepting today’s biased media and culture.

We’re 51 percent of America, right? Let’s demand better and set an example for young women.

“The media can be an instrument of change. It can be the status quo or it can awaken people and change minds. It depends on who is piloting the plane,” said Katie Couric.

“Miss Representation” editor and co-writer Jessica Congdon,  left, and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, both had daughters during the making of the film.  

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