By ISABEL ORTIZ
March 11, 2012
The timing of the Women’s Center’s screening of Miss Representation couldn’t have been more appropriate given its proximity to the Academy Awards, our annual reminder of Hollywood’s male hegemony. A recent LA Times article revealing statistics on the Academy’s voting members (77% male, 94% white) made for a particularly painful Oscar viewing experience this year. Though Miss Representation doesn’t address the Oscars specifically, these kind of wince-inducing moments are the film’s forte. Director Jennifer Newsom (an ex-Hollywood actress) lays out compelling evidence in such a way that after fifty minutes of women parading in string bikinis, toddlers in tiaras, Sex and the City lunches and clips of Katherine Heigl gawking at guys/tripping on things, you’d have to be blind for there to remain a shadow of a doubt that there is, in fact, a problem with the way women are depicted in the media. Newsom’s focus on media attitudes toward female politicians and newscasters is particularly deft: coverage of the atrocities committed on national news towards Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein and other female politicians was horrifying. Despite its reliance on clichéd techniques (corny power ballads during the montages, Newsom’s voiceovers of “I wondered if…” laid over footage of her best “wondering” face, inane interviews with high school students repeatedly stating the obvious), the documentary presents enough flabbergasting material to incite frustration even in its most reticent viewers. Over the course of the screening, the chorus of gasps, scoffs, a few “this can’t be for real” laughs, and even the occasional shriek became the film’s unofficial second soundtrack.
Though Miss Representation does an excellent job of telling us what the problem is and how we got there, its cursory analysis and trite suggestions for possible solutions make for a rather frustrating second half. Interviews with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Caroline Heldman, Jennifer Pozner, and even Catherine Hardwicke are enlightening and nuanced, but their ideas are too often shoved out of the spotlight to make way for a parade of “actor slash activists” whose messages are so carefully manicured and diluted that I almost would’ve rather endured fifteen more minutes of middle school students telling me that stereotypes exist. Indeed, the film’s overzealous devotion to appeal to a wide range of viewers comes at the expense of exploring more controversial territory. Too often the film skirts around issues that are begging to be brought to the table: every interview with Rachel Maddow always cut her off as she was beginning to talk in depth about the challenges of being gay on TV, god forbid she might use the word “lesbian.”
However, the discussion (or lack thereof) of race and class issues was one of the film’s greater oversights. While the almost exclusively upper middle class white women Newsom chose to feature in interviews (Fonda, Steinem, Pozner, Heldman etc.) were obviously kickass, it’s difficult for me to believe that more of an effort couldn’t have been made to add in some cool women of other backgrounds. Though women of color exist in the film, their role as interviewees is slim; just as in the Hollywood empire Newsom decries, they play the ethnic sidekicks to white protagonists, more often positioned as comic relief or as a quick agreement with a previous comment. If Condoleeza Rice and Rosario Dawson (who, both obviously concerned with upholding an image, always took extra care not to offend anyone by sticking to strictly feel-good feminism) are the only prominent minority “feminists” that could be assembled, then we definitely have a problem. Even more alarmingly, the majority of the film’s African American and Latina women were too often relegated to the media montages as bikini clad sexpots or loud-mouthed reality TV show stars.
These concerns come back to haunt us at the film’s ending, in which Katie Couric veers uncomfortably close to victim blaming by smilingly suggesting that “if women stopped worrying about their weight and started thinking about helping out a neighbor then all the world’s problems could be solved”. Closing montages of leadership workshops depict happy blonde teenagers nibbling on mini quiches in posh conference rooms while female CEOs tell them to “believe in themselves” and “do what they love”, which would be a really cute idea for empowering America’s women if we could all afford the workshop/hors d’oeuvres. These closing suggestions, though well meaning, are completely insensitive towards women who may not have the resources to clink wine glasses with Nancy Pelosi, not to mention towards those who may have forgotten to make chicken soup for their neighbor due to the challenges of raising a family in troubled socioeconomic conditions (not just because they’d been sitting at home all day reading up on the South Beach Diet.)
In another strange directorial choice, the film closes with hospital footage of Newsom’s childbirth while her husband looks on adoringly: Newsom wants us to know that she just wants a better life for her daughter. The sudden emphasis on her husband, her child etc. seemed forced, as if Newsom felt the need to once again take her message down a peg, reinforcing traditional family values lest anyone consider the film too militant. Where at this point in the documentary I was begging for petitions to sign, people to write to, impassioned pleas to “turn off the TV!”, Newsom’s “call to arms” left me a little disappointed. The film’s closing Gandhi quote was the last straw: “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. For that scintillating advice, I might as well have asked the cap of my Snapple how to approach gender discrimination in the media. Ultimately, I walked away thinking that this would have been a great movie for my junior high class to have seen; insofar as teaching you that Lara Croft is not in fact an empowered woman and that feminism is actually cool/not evil, the film does beautifully. For the slightly older and wiser feminist, Newsom’s approach remains disappointing: a well intentioned but ultimately “miss guided” flick.
Isabel Ortiz is a sophomore in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.