Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Notes on Pop Culture: 'Miss Representation' Broke My Heart

Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

I recently saw a screener of the documentary Miss Representation – slated to air on the OWN (Oprah) Network in October and currently being shown in limited screenings around the country -- and it reminded a great deal of a documentary I saw way back in the Stone Ages when I was sitting in a university sociology class as a student watching Dr. Jean Kilbourne’s Still Killing Us Softly documentary (there have since been more versions made) about how advertising depicts women as things, as sexual objects and creates a feeling among women that they can never, ever be good enough to compete with the phony, inhuman versions of femininity peddled by the advertising world that commodifies them and their bodies and debases their intelligence. Later, a UMass-Amherst Communications professor, Sut Jhally produced the first of many documentaries about how music videos transformed women into purely sexual, mindless objects for men to possess, consume and master.

Now, two decades later, these problems that I first pondered as a university student have only worsened.

And along came Miss Representation, the documentary which demonstrates how the degrading, oversexualized, trivializing depiction of women in the media and pop culture affects women and girls, as well as what negative impact the media’s messages have on women’s attempts to climb into the upper echelons of political and business power. From contemporary advertising and reality TV shows making women look like sex on two legs, to the news media’s treatment of women politicians and business leaders, Miss Representation piles example after example on top of each other, creating layers of angst, hatred and marginalization which, when consumed by the female half of the species, does tremendous damage.

An assortment of some of horrifying bits from this documentary:
  • 53 percent of 13-year-old girls say they are unhappy with their bodies. When those girls reach age 17, 78 percent are unhappy with them.
  • “Girls seen as objects by other people, they learn to see themselves as objects.”
  • Seven-year-olds say they want to become president in roughly the same numbers among boys and girls. But by the time they reach age 15, the number of girls who wants to be president drops off precipitously. “Women are discouraged from pursuing ambitious positions.”
  • In pop culture, these messages are driven home. Hard. Only 16 percent of protagonists are female. “Mainstream movies are mostly stories about men’s lives.” Of the so-called “chick flicks,” the documentary filmmaker said that many of those movies revolve around a woman getting a man or being taken down a peg, or humiliated in some way.
  • On TV and in film, if a woman is depicted as powerful, she’s typically a “bitch” or has sacrificed love and family for her career. One Oscar winning male screenwriter said that woman are portrayed by Hollywood as “cartoons, not complex human beings.”
  • When women are “empowered” in pop culture, that generally translates into them flaunting ample skin and body parts, being thoroughly sexed up, in other words, objectified, existing, as one commentator said, “for the male viewer.”
  • The people who call the shots in Hollywood in terms of TV and movies are nearly all male, with women comprising a paltry 16 percent of all writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors.
  • Female TV journalists face pressure to get Botox, wear sexy clothing, lots of makeup and act in a sexual manner, while female politicians face demeaning insults and inquiries about their looks, sexuality, clothing, sexual proclivities, voices, maternity and their hormones. “A woman in power is often seen as a negative thing,” one commentator said.
  • While Condoleezza Rice said when she heard people questioning if Hillary Clinton was tough enough to be president in 2008, she thought, “I’ve known plenty of men who weren’t tough enough to be commander in chief, but they weren’t asked that question.” Meanwhile Sarah Palin was “pornified” by the national media in 2008 with some calling her a ditz and one man on a TV talk show saying she’s “masturbation material.” News photographers took photos of members of the audience at Palin’s events as seen through Palin’s legs.
  • The average number of news stories about women and girls is less than 20 percent.
This doesn’t seem to end. Just this past week I eviscerated JCPenney’s ill-fated, ragingly sexist T-shirt, aimed at elementary school girls which said, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” Though the retailer pulled the shirt off their web site after people protested, in my Mommy Tracked column this week I made the point that things like this only reinforce the assertions made in Miss Representation.

Throw in the fact that I’d recently read an article in the New York Times telling women like me that I should start worrying about getting “cleavage wrinkles,” to my observation that after the Women’s Pro Soccer league had its final in New York and there wasn’t a full news story about the championship in the New York Times Sports section, and to seeing GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann mocked for wearing what one web site felt was “ugly shoes” and it’s enough to really, really make me steamed, frustrated and ready for a change, ready to say, “No mas.”

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