Miss Representation: The Portrayal of Women in the Media

By Amna Pervaiz 



Emma Watson, a powerful and prominent celebrity, garnered a lot of media attention after her UN speech about feminism. As the ambassador to UN women, Watson spoke about women’s rights, equality and the need for action.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the creator of the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, makes a similar plea. However, her focus is on the under-representation of women in the media. Her documentary depicts Hollywood, advertising, politics and news as degrading the perceptions towards women.

For instance, Newsom uses a clip of a woman in a music video gyrating in a cage while men threw money at her. Another example was in a newscast in which Sarah Palin was discussed as looking “attractive” in her hat instead of discussing the content of her words. Both these examples illustrate women being treated like objects in the media.

Also, Newsom interviewed a host of successful, powerful, and accomplished women for her film. These women speak about issues and problems they’ve had while being in the public sphere. For example, Katie Couric discussed how people focused more on her physical appearance, like if “she [was] showing too much leg,” rather than her the quality of her reporting.

Most of the film’s rhetoric revolves around the influential power of men in the media. This leaves little room for powerful women, which leads to a demeaning portrayal of women. In the film, there’s a scene that shows women in politics being described as ‘whiny’ in news articles. Erike Falik, one of the interviewees, said that women are twice more likely to be described as emotional compared to men.

Overall, the film shows that women are often mistreated and under-represented in the media. However, there are flaws to the documentary. All the women interviewed in the film either have PhDs, lots of credentials, or are accomplished actresses like Jane Fonda. This is great, but it doesn’t give a proper representation of all women. For example, ordinary women, women with disabilities, and women of colour were not a part of this project. Yes, it does have Margret Cho and a few others, but they come in for bits and don’t take up as much screen time as the others.

The film’s premise is to address the issue of stereotyping women, by taking them out of the box that the media constantly put them in. But in addressing the issue, Newsom makes it a ‘them’ vs. ‘us’, intelligent vs. unintelligent, respectable vs. slutty, educated vs. uneducated battle between women. She doesn’t lend a voice to the other side of the issue. The film almost suggests that you can only be powerful or successful if you’re not the other type of women. What about those women who might be portrayed as archetypical characters in movies but are making a difference in the real world? For example, empowering women like Emma Watson, or those that don’t have the ability to get a PhD beside their name. It would be essential to talk to them and get their insight and experiences.

Miss Representation is an inspiring film. While you watch you pump your fists in the air and cheer — but it doesn’t offer a solution. It just states a reality most of us are already aware of.

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