Documentary Review: Miss Representation

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Miss Representation is a documentary that investigates the representation of women in media.

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Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro, 2014

When she found out she was going to have a daughter, actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom became concerned with the role of media in her offspring’s upbringing. She decided to make a film documenting how women are portrayed across media, from magazines and news to video games and movies. What she found is disheartening, if not unexpected. Not only are women underrepresented in movies, but the representation that does exist is very limited. Women in films and on television are highly sexualised and objectified, leading to self-esteem issues in young girls. The film also explores the way objectification of women affects boys and men, women in politics and positions of power, the gender wage gap, and a variety of other topics.

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This movie is sort of a Gender Studies 101 for the uninitiated, but interested. The talking points are a hit list of feminist topics: intersectionality, rape culture, self-objectification, minimising women in power. The topics are laid out clearly, with a combination of talking heads, montages (I assume they didn’t have the rights to many clips), and the occasional fact or statistic to back up the message. A lot of the points are salient and clearly communicated. It’s simply produced, but many of the stories are emotionally affecting. They come from a wide variety of people, from smart schoolchildren (including a terrific teenaged politician) to big names like Condoleezza Rice, Rosario Dawson, and Madeleine Albright. This doco’s at its best when it’s allowing women to speak for themselves, sharing their own stories; they’re powerful enough to stand on their own. The filmmakers’ lack of faith in their own information is where it all falls down.

Everything in this film is presented in a very simple manner. I’m sure it would be easy for anyone to understand, but it means that the film lacks depth. No layers of feminism or femininity are presented, so I frequently became frustrated with the choices it was making in order to present its views. It also lacks focus, with occasionally tenuous links between one topic and the next. The movie ends in a very specifically defined message from its participants that oversimplifies the issues at hand and reduces them, laying the responsibility on women and girls to fix the problems laid out in the film. That left me with a bad taste in my mouth; if it was going to call for anything, surely it could be for people in media to do better, rather than for women to care more about their insides than their outsides and support each other (noble sentiments, but hardly a solution to the problems at hand). I can imagine people finding it preachy, though it does stop shy of being too confronting. It’s a great film for media literacy classes, and a terrific starting point for engaging with the subject before giving it some deeper thought.

Miss Representation on IMDb

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