Jeff's Reviews

Thoughts on every movie I've ever seen.

Miss Representation (2011)

Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Kimberlee Acquaro

Starring Christina Aguilera, Michele Bachmann, Chris Baker, Krystal Ball


Sometimes social commentary can be effective vehicles for change, but Miss Representation takes the wrong angle on feminism, perhaps even a destructive one, by a) focusing on a selective and unfair sampling of women being objectified in the media, b) pointing fingers at that studio heads, company presidents, and men in general for objectifying women for salacious reasons, c) spending 99% of the running time simply complaining about the injustice of it all rather than examining what can be done to fix things, d) absolving women from taking responsibility and addressing some of these issues on a personal level, and e) romanticizing the “problem” with overdramatic voiceover, sappy music, and seductive special effects.

First, let’s look at the so-called “problem” of how women are portrayed in the media. We’re presented with clip after clip of sexy women in movies, on TV, on billboards, and in magazines. This, it seems, is evidence of women being objectified. But this is nothing new. Women have been objectified and sexualized for all of human history. Are there really people who are not aware of this problem? Does seeing clip after clip of how this issue is manifested in the movies and TV and advertising of today really accomplish anything?

Are these women who fill these roles in movies, on TV, in ads, and on newscasts truly being “victimized”? Is it “unfair” that they are portrayed like this? No. Nobody is MAKING women take these roles. Nobody is MAKING them lose weight or dress sexy or get implants and plastic surgery. They know what they’re getting into and they agree to do it all. And they stick around because it’s fame and a good paycheck. You don’t see any of these women complaining about the injustice on the way to the bank. If they have moral issues with any of it, why don’t they quit? Why doesn’t they pursue another line of work? Can’t have it both ways.

And what about men? I understand that to say men are objectified and victimized by the media is blasphemy to a feminist, but all too often, men are “unfairly” cast as muscled-up heroes or brutes or even, especially in TV sitcoms, bumbling fools kept in line by the women around them. Do you hear guys complaining about it? Ever? Why not?

Now let’s take a look at those responsible for portraying women the way they do in the media. You think they do it for kicks? You think they do it because they hate women? They do it to sell tickets. They do it because that’s what the audience wants. Instead of criticizing the motivations of directors, writers, and advertising agencies, perhaps the tastes of the paying audience (which in fact is close to 50% women) should be examined more closely.

The documentary even suggests that the objectification and sexualization of women in the media is responsible for anorexia, low self-esteem, rape, and many of the other ills plaguing young women in America. Jane Fonda even goes so far as to say that it’s more than the media, that we need to be teaching young boys to be more respectful. But saying that Sally is anorexic because of a movie she watched is like saying Jimmy shot kids at school because of a video game he played. That’s the knee-jerk reaction, but the truth is much deeper than that. So many girls watch movies with beautiful women, and so many boys play violent video games, without negative consequences. The real causes of unhealthy behavior by young people are much deeper than that. You want women to be stronger, prouder, happier, more confident? Start by addressing the root of their insecurities from within rather than pointing fingers at external influences.

But no, these feminists don’t want to explore any of this. It’s easier for these women to sit back and cry about the injustice of it all. How is it OK to complain about everything rather than make the effort to examine the root cause of these issues or explore what can be done to address them? We learn at a young age that “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Why have feminists forgotten this?

At one point, Rachel Maddow jokes that listeners spend too much of their time criticizing her. The important point here is that she seems to have found a successful way to ignore them and be her own person. Instead of acknowledging that, we hurry off to the next clip and back into victimization mode. Katie Couric comes closest to being helpful, making a passing comment in one of her clips about how women should focus their energy on solving the world’s problems instead of focusing on their weight. Pat Mitchell tells girls not to buy tabloid magazines and not to support reality television. These SHOULD be the messages of this documentary and feminism: how to succeed and be happy DESPITE the constant criticism and objectification.

Lastly, there are poor editing choices which undermine the filmmaker’s core arguments. Reality television is repeatedly criticized for objectifying women, but then there’s a moment later when women knowingly giggle about the fact that they watch and enjoy too much reality television. That little giggle implies that reality television is a permissible guilty pleasure. And after an hour of selective film and TV clips showing women being objectified, there’s a short montage of very respectful and popular roles taken by females in film and television in the past few years. What’s the deal? Are women being objectified in film and television or not? Sorry, can’t have it both ways.

And then there are the overemotional voiceovers and pretty effects. Look, if you want people to take your social problem seriously, unromantically reveal the issue in matter-of-fact terms. Let the issue speak for itself. If you have to dress it up with manipulative cinematic techniques to make things emotional, maybe the problem isn’t so serious after all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about women’s rights. I know they have it harder and that there are things that should be done to address the problem. But this documentary does a disservice to feminism. The movement should encourage women to take responsibility for who they are and what they do, to have a strong value system in place, to learn how to take in imagery from the media in a healthy way, to learn how to handle constant peer pressure, to stop expecting the world to change for you and to instead strengthen yourself from within, and to teach kids to do the same.

Oh, good thing I stuck around for the credits, where, for the first time, the filmmaker offers some real, actionable advice for women. Too little, too late.

A lot of interesting lessons could be learned from asking young women in other countries, who are mostly NOT anorexic and do NOT feel victimized by the media, what they think of these media portrayals. It might mean that this documentary is made from a completely different angle, or perhaps not at all.

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