‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is the catchy slogan to Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary exploring the media’s misrepresentation of women.
It’s certainly thought provoking, a pretty lurid insight into the US’s obsession with botox, teeth and cleavage, even for, indeed especially for, news anchors as a glossy décolletage is the only way a woman can sell the news apparently. The UK premiere of the film took place at the House of Commons in association with All Walks Beyond the Catwalk and Central YMCA. It was introduced by Jo Swinson, the erudite MP straining that the issue of body image should be shunted up the political agenda. The bells for voting tolled intermittently throughout the screening, perhaps as a reminder of how far women have come since 1918; apparently not far enough.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, actress and activist, was motivated to write, direct and produce the film by the daunting prospect of bringing her daughter into a world in which female role models in the media undermine the confidence and achievements of young girls. Mrs Siebel Newsom has the symmetrical beauty and mellifluous voice befitting a Dove advertisement, which unfortunately makes her very pertinent point that women should not be judged on appearance, a little harder to swallow. But it is still valid.
A stream of female actors, politicians and activists – mostly with impossibly pearlescent teeth, plump contours and immaculate hair – give voice to their personal experiences at the hands of the male run media machine. They articulate the deep gender bias in the media in which women are often humiliatingly objectified. Condoleezza Rice talks of being dubbed a dominatrix, while Geena Davis describes how hard it is to get roles as a female actor as films are made by men for men, apart from the few in which women are the leading ‘fighting f*ck toys’…. Lara Croft and Catwoman spring to mind. Only 16% of protagonists are female we are informed.
The film is bolstered by other statistics that 65% of women have an eating disorder, or that depression has doubled from 2000-2010 among women. It did seem shocking that cosmetic surgery under the age of 19 has tripled between 1997-2010, an example of how the media message that women should be valued by their bodies has been translated by our society. And it seems that the obsession with this or that, thin or fat does impede women’s rise to power. The constant harassment Hilary Clinton was subjected to during her campaign in which she was branded a ‘ball-crusher’ and lacking femininity seems grossly unfair and inappropriate, but being pinned up as every man’s masturbatory dream like Sarah Palin is an equally undesirable prospect. How can women win?
Miss Representation undoubtedly strikes a chord – a film by a woman for women that hopes to have an impact through an ongoing campaign on the media’s relationship with women. Not least the ‘girl power’ feel can only be helpful in preventing women from criticising each other’s appearance and success, so setting a precedent for others. But there is also a limit to the barraging in this fight for sexual equality as, judging by the laughter in the audience at certain points, women do have a sense of humour; Labour MP Kate Green’s banning Top Totty beer from a bar in the Commons, featuring a scantily clad blonde on the label, sadly suggests that we don’t.
Text: Connie Allfrey