The most poignant scene in Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary on the sorry state of female imagery in popular culture, is where Newsom reveals that she made the film for her newborn daughter. A teenage athlete molested by her coach, Newsom developed a severe eating disorder and inferiority complex about her looks. She excelled at Stanford University, but when she later turned to acting, she was told by agents to keep that credential off her resume, as smart women are seen as intimidating. Disgusted, Newsom wanted to ensure that her daughter doesn’t grow up exposed to the same injustices.
Newsom knows that strong-willed women are feared and discarded in far more insidious ways today than they were thirty years ago; long gone are the days when Pat Robertson could call feminists “anti-family” witches that want to “kill their children” without meeting public ridicule. There are more women working, more respected female academics and leaders; not long ago, it would have been unheard of for Hillary Clinton to run for president.
But, as the movie points out, one cannot ignore the scorn and belittling that these achievements have provoked. Female newscasters are revered based on how much skin they’re willing to show, rather than their intellect (in a rare doleful moment, Katie Couric worries that she may have helped solidify the short skirt standard). Meanwhile, less conventionally-attractive public figures like Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Rachel Maddow are openly dismissed as harridans, while the more voluptuous Sarah Palin is, as one interviewee puts it here, “ditzified and sluttified.” Perhaps, as the cocky British theatergoer outside the screening I attended said, Clinton lost the primaries because she was “batshit crazy,” but she certainly didn’t deserve the horrifyingly misogynistic labels affixed to her by every last sneering pundit, not to mention cultured people that should know better (Penn Jillette?)
Miss Representation is packed with such “shame on you” moments. Powerful women from all sides of the political spectrum, from Condoleezza Rice to Gloria Steinem, as well as psychologists, professors and teary-eyed high school girls, are on hand to discuss their first-hand experience with chauvinism and male derision. Former star-actresses now forty or older (Geena Davis, Daphne Zuniga, Jane Fonda) note how skewed television shows and movies are towards younger, physically perfect women (Zuniga almost underwent a Botox operation after much pressure, while Fonda, in a more barbaric era, was instructed for her first film to pull her back teeth out).
Davis and Margaret Cho contribute more lighthearted, but no less disturbing, japes at the entertainment industry. “Why would [the Baywatch girls] wear that while trying to rescue someone?” Davis scoffs, while Cho recalls how, after she didn’t lose enough weight to please the producers, her sitcom was canceled and replaced by The Drew Carey Show, “you know, because he’s so thin!”
Even movies that attempt to convey women in a bolder light—superhero flicks, for instance—usually carry a dangerous message. They either fetishize women as “fight-fuck” objects or depict them as humorless prigs that need to be taken down a notch—often by men.
Yet Miss Representation is more than mere male-bashing. The most interesting scenes illustrate how pop culture teaches women to hate women, in particular through the onslaught of reality TV shows in which near-anorexic barbie dolls bitch-slap and scratch each other while competing for men. The prevailing image of women as high-strung and men as stoic also leads to male self-loathing; Newark mayor Cory Booker—a surprisingly eloquent feminist—laments the social norm of men evaluating their manliness on how much they adhere to “emotional constipation.”
Its groaner of a title aside, Miss Representation also suffers somewhat from an over-reliance on flimsy statistics (the amount young women spend annually on cosmetics vs. education, for instance). Some of its arguments are a tad overwrought; violent as it can often be, pornography is too multi-varied to simply be designated as justification for rape. But overall, this is a thought-provoking, often infuriating, and necessary antidote to anti-feminist backlash. It should be enforced viewing for Adam Carolla, whose venomous new memoir, “In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks,” is likely to send social progress back to the Neanderthal age.
Miss Representation was recently shown at DocuWeeks in New York.