Devanshi Patel wants to have a career in public service. She recalls that she first ran for office in the fourth grade, and, now that she’s a high school senior, she’s still committed to being a leader. She never runs for vice-president or secretary, she explains, but for president. “I think everyone is born with something that they have to do,” she says, “and for me this is it.” As she speaks in Miss Representation, you see images of Patel looking exceptionally poised and focused, speaking to audiences, working with fellow students. Her mother, Ranna, adds that when she asked Devanshi—then in the fifth grade—what she thought it meant for her to be a “leader,” her answer was this: “It’s very simple mama, they are just servants of people.”
Ranna smiles proudly as she recalls this essentially perfect answer. Indeed, it’s the sort of answer you’d expect from a young and aspiring John Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., boys with dreams of power and service. The difference is that Devanshi is a girl, and for her and other girls, being “servants of people” can have other connotations. Girls are—still—raised, represented, and expected to serve not so much as leaders but more like supporting cast members.
This conception of girls has other, more troubling facets, according to Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary, which is screening in New York and Los Angeles as part of DocuWeeks, and will air on OWN in October. The film’s argument is neither especially new nor elegantly constructed. But it is emphatic: media representations of girls and women as objects are actually increasing. The reasons are various, and include predictable fears and anxieties concerning potential shifts in power and money, and, the film submits, these representations influence how girls and boys think about the world and themselves. As Margaret Cho says plainly, “The media treats women like shit and it’s horrible and I don’t know how we survive it. I don’t know how we rise above it.”
The film organizes its analysis into three general categories, looking at women’s images in popular media—in TV and movie fictions, in journalism, and in politics. These images are certainly related (a point underlined in a supposed news show clip, from On the Record when Greta van Susteren, one of Sarah Palin’s most unabashed fans, asks her whether she’s had breast implants), and their effects are wide-ranging and long-lasting. But the documentary makes a strong case that they can be combated, and even makes some suggestions how—mainly by texting and joining campaigns on line the sort of effort most recent advocacy films ask of their viewers.
As you might expect, this movie offers any number of readily offensive images to illustrate. But, even as Miss Representation opens on webpages and TV images showing Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, little girls in beauty pageants and teenagers on the CW, young women barely dressed on Two and a Half Men and Entourage, supposedly grown women fighting each other on reality TV shows or men shooting animated women in video games, it highlights their pervasiveness. “Our kids today live on Facebook and cell phones,” observes Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, adding that such images’ influence is only expanding, thanks to deregulations and what might be termed corporate profiteering: “Whatever restrictions existed when we were growing up,” he says,” don’t exist today.”
Since the technology and the access are not going to recede, the question becomes, how to affect the imagery? And questions that might precede that one include who makes it, who consumes it, and—importantly—who profits from it? Miss Representation doesn’t name names, but it does provide plenty of examples, commentary, and potential interventions. M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect, articulates the ideological and economic connections that form ““the whole political economy of the media,” that is, “The non-advertising content of these media has to support the advertising.” As Jean Kilbourne (whose video “Killing Us Softly” looks at the effects of advertising on women), observes, “A lot of advertising is based on making people feel anxious and feel insecure.”
Moreover, Miss Representation submits that most advertising (and other images) targeting girls and women instills anxieties about appearance, as opposed to, say, executive or political or even military achievements. Where men appear with their possessions—cars and women—women are still encouraged to worry about their detergents, their makeup, and their bodies: “You’re never beautiful enough,” says Kilbourne. As the numbers of cosmetic procedures have increased, encouraged not only by commercials but also by makeover shows and websites, women have spent a lot of money (“enough to pay for tuition,” Kilbourne notes).
If girls see themselves as objects, they tend not to imagine themselves as cultural or political agents. Katie Couric expresses her concern—born at least in part, she notes, because she has two daughters—that TV hosts, reporters, and commentators tend to look alike. “Sometimes I look on the cable news channels,” she says, “And they’re wearing very low-cut shirts and lots of makeup and their hair is kind of tousled and they look like they’re working as cocktail waitresses instead of newscasters. It’s just a very mixed message.”
Very. At the same time, Couric is aware of the history of today’s images, including her possible part in it: “I sometimes worry,” she says as you see a shot of her on The Today Show in a short skirt and high heels, “That I started this thing with my legs and everything. That I have sort of started this trend of trying to look… I don’t know….”
Couric’s lack of language here speaks—poignantly, if also awkwardly—to the dilemmas facing women in media remain complex. Not only do they have to do their jobs twice as well as men (a cliché recalled by Senator Dianne Feinstein), but they must also not overtly threaten men as they do so. Not only must they please an audience with awfully old-fashioned ideas of what they should look like, but they must also represent for a new generation, encouraging girls and boys to see women differently. Yes, TV is premised on visual stimulation, but it serves other functions too. Rachel Maddow explains that even as she endures complaints concerning her appearance, her manner, and her lesbianism, she’s still trying to find a way to shift viewers’ attention. “I want you to focus on what I’m saying,” she says. “There’s a lot of words in my show and I work really hard on getting them in the right order.”
The ways women appear on TV as performers and journalists is also linked to how they are perceived in other fields, such as business (at the moment, they are merely 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs, by the way) and politics. The film points out that for all its concern about women’s rights in other countries, the United States is 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures, and women hold only 17% of the seats in the House of Representatives. Condoleezza Rice speaks to this under-representation: “Two things have to happen when you talk about women moving to the next rung, or minorities moving to next rung,” she says.
First, you have to have the candidates. You have to have people in the pools from which these positions are drawn. But you also have to have a kind of psychological breakthrough. Can an American see a woman or an African American in that position? I think with a woman, we still have a bit to go.
This much seems obvious. Still, Miss Representation encourages viewers to feel active, and to feel part of a population, in part through its Facebook campaign, and in part through other means. Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of the Paley Center for Media, suggests consumers make choices, that they don’t watch shows or purchase products that offend. Even as she speaks, you’re aware of how insidious the system is, for most consumers don’t even know they’re offended. Or if they do, they’re so used to it that they assume it’s the way the world works. Miss Representation wants to change that.