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April 13, 2012

Movies You Missed 34: Miss Representation

MISS-REPRESENTATION-1This week in movies you missed: What's missing from movies? Positive representations of women, according to this documentary.

What You Missed

Jennifer Siebel Newsom (pictured) is a Hollywood actor married to a politician (California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom). Pregnant with her first daughter, she started worrying about the media climate's effects on girls, which eventually led her to make this documentary. Basically, Miss Representation is a collection of damning clips full of woman portrayed as sex kittens or shrieking harridans, alternating with interviews with familiar faces such as Gloria Steinem, Rachel Maddow, Geena Davis and Margaret Cho.

Its thesis is that today's media are objectifying and demonizing women, perhaps more than ever before, and that this is part of a backlash against feminism. Most revelatory — for a non-cable-news watcher, anyway — was the series of clips with pundits ranting about female political candidates or asking them ridiculous questions ("Did you have breast implants?"). If politics are always a circus these days, this footage represents their most shameful sideshow.

Oprah threw her weight behind the cause — the movie had a broadcast premiere on OWN — and it's not just a film, but on ongoing movement. Siebel Newsom is asking viewers to start boycotting negative images, educate themselves and take action.

Why You Missed It

Not theatrically distributed, as far as I can tell.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Miss Representation could be a very important film for teen girls (and boys) to watch. If they've never seen this sort of critique of media and advertising images, they should, and right away. Then discuss it.

But from my perspective, I admit, this is no ground-breaker. I was raised on Ms. magazine and my mom's critiques of Disney sexism. When I lived in NYC as a kid, my bus stop was a porno theater adorned with gigantic posters of, shall we say, objectified women. While some things have changed, and T&A images have become more prevalent and explicit on basic cable, I'm not convinced the media are waging a "war on women" that they weren't waging in the '70s or '80s. I think the media are just doing what they've always done: appealed to people's baser instincts to sell stuff.

The question is, why does that generally lead to degrading women, or limiting the roles they can play? (And I agree with the film's interviewees that the roles woman play in movies and on TV are still woefully, boringly limited.)

Because its talking heads all share the same basic point of view — that "the media," conceived as a male-dominated corporate monolith, is to blame — Miss Representation didn't get some key perspectives. Here are some parties I'd like to hear from:

  • The ad people who create the degrading campaigns. What is their thought process? What demos are they aiming at? Interviews with retired/reformed modern-day Don Drapers would have been instructive. (And surely some women work in advertising, too.)
  • Girls and women who consume and like the objectionable images. At one point, someone in the film suggests that reality television is part of the antifeminist backlash. OK, but ... why do most men avoid "Real Housewives" like the plague? Isn't it women who've made these divas and cat fights into tabloid fixtures? Why? Miss Representation has a scene where high school girls talk about their problems with unrealistic body expectations and the eating disorders that result. But no one asks these same girls where they see the destructive images and why they're drawn to them.
  • The male classmates of those high school girls — not just the ones who profess to be feminists (some of whom are featured in the film), but a cross-section. Why are they drawn to the degrading images? Is that ever going to change? I recently came across a discussion of women in media on a pop-culture website, and a commenter casually remarked that movies will never have good roles for women over 40 because men don't want to look at women over 40. True? Are men's interests always going to be driven by what they find hot? Should women save up the money to develop an alternative culture of their own, and if so, can it please be cooler than Lifetime?

I don't have answers to these questions. I just think teen girls should be given more books and Barbara Stanwyck movies if we want to teach them that women can be awesome. And step away from the damn TV occasionally.

Verdict: Watch it with your son or daughter. As a primer for the young, Miss Representation is useful and well intentioned. As someone who's heard the same arguments for decades, I think it needed to go deeper.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • Benda Bilili! (doc about a group of paraplegic African musicans)
  • Charlotte Rampling: The Look (doc about the actress/glamour icon)
  • The Conquest (French drama about the rise of President Sarkozy)
  • Donald Glover: Weirdo (The actor best known as Troy from "Community" does his comedy act)
  • Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog interviewed a soon-to-be-executed killer for his latest documentary)
  • King of Devil's Island (drama about revolt at a brutal Norwegian boys' school.)
  • Littlerock (Two Japanese tourists react differently to L.A. in this acclaimed indie)
  • The River Why (fly-fishing drama)
  • Sleeping Beauty (Emily Browning plays a girl initiated into a bizarre erotic practice)
  • The Veteran (a solder returns from Afghanistan and goes all Jack Bauer on a conspiracy)

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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