Miss(ing) Representation(s)

May 17, 2012

Miss Representation (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2011) tells a critical and true story about the relations among mainstream media and women’s political and personal power. It follows in the footsteps of decades worth of disconcerting research about women in the media that takes any of four predictable tacks that most grimly have not seemed to have changed much in the many years that feminists have been doing such research:

  • positive images: there aren’t any, or at least there aren’t enough
  • media and violence: images contribute to a culture of (sexual) violence against women, and women’s violence against themselves (body image, mental health)
  • industry watch: a tiny and disproportionate fraction of the humans in the mainstream media and politics are women
  • media and sexuality: images contribute to a damaging, violent and early sexualization of women and girls

The documentary also takes up the tried and true form and method of such studies:

  • it is a victim story: first and foremost, that of the film’s director and narrator, who begins the film’s journey from her own personal need to heal from the abuses of the dominant media she felt as actress, woman, girl, and mother and the related abuses suffered upon her by violent men who learn how to engage with women through dominant media; and, a great deal of the testimony in the film is about the devastatingly true disempowerment suffered by females in our patriarchal society (most clearly marked by girls’ tears)
  • it is a pornotopia: montages of various abuses against women (body image, shaming, violence, objectification, sexualization) by the media are repeatedly and lengthily used as punctuation so that the viewer feels victimized by the film (hence doubling her victimhood), and ends up seeing more images of media violence in its 90 minutes than she might in days, weeks or months (depending upon how judicious she might be in her screen investments). This tactic has been most successfully used to scare and disgust women for decades through the industry of Killing Us Softly anti-pornography films by Jean Kilbourne.

The film’s demoralizing and abject findings, methods, and forms are not misrepresentations in the least; and they are an effective shock tactic in the face of post feminism, feminist complacency, and ongoing patriarchal misogyny and violence. However, as has long been the response to such feminist studies and documentaries, there is much that is missing here, which might already be self-evident given my ham-footed list above. Miss Representation misses:

  • the Internet: where women make and watch media of, for and about themselves in equal numbers to men
  • alternative media: where women make and watch images that are both critical of patriarchy and empowering to women
  • alternative reading practices: whereby women turn toxic representations into inspiring media
  • media activism: where women use the data and images presented in Miss Representation to advocate for and practice media empowerment through expanding access to production, distribution, funding, storytelling, and necessary infrastructures
  • pro-sex feminism: that considers how diverse and open sexual representations of women are empowering and includes lesbianism, queerness and other non-normative practices as part of the possible sexuality spectrum for women
  • the media in context: that attempts to understand the production and consumption of images as a powerful piece of meaning making that operates within a much more complex ideological, historical, social, cultural, and economic reality
  • women and feminism in context: that understands the oppression of women as part of larger ideological, cultural, historical, and economic dynamics
  • women and activism: that presents social justice organizing as an alternative to oppression

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