Driving Miss Representation

As I mentioned recently, I saw a film called Miss Representation at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The film, written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, shows how women and girls are represented, or misrepresented, in the media. It's a powerful film, and I doubt there are any women (and no doubt some men) who can make it through a screening without getting angry or upset at least once.

Let me say before I go on—I loved this film. I would see it again. It's an important film, and I hope many, many people get to see it. But keep in mind that even a film you agree with should be viewed through your critical facilities.

Make no mistake about it. This film is propaganda. It's propaganda that I agree with, but propaganda nonetheless. I have no doubt about the facts it presents, but it does so in such a way as to reinforce its premise as strongly as possible.

It's also entertainment. It's not a dry, academic look at the issue of the portrayal of women in the media. It's meant to engage its viewers and keep them watching. This means that sometimes the film will go for effect more than for in-depth examination of certain issues.

All of the interviews are short. Some are long enough to present a context. Others are the length of sound bites. I appreciated the diversity of the talking heads: mostly women, but some men; young people; and the inclusion of people of colour from various backgrounds. Still, the interviews were clearly well edited. They said what the filmmaker was looking for.

Some of the interviewees came across particularly well. It's hard to believe I now think Condoleezza Rice is the bomb! Several of the academics were thought-provoking as well. And who can resist Rachel Maddow, although I do think she'd come across better if she didn't laugh at her own jokes.

As well as very short interviews, we have statistics flying in from time to time. Some you probably know. Some might make you gasp. All should be taken with a grain of salt. Why? Because they are disembodied statistics. By themselves, they can have a powerful effect, but they are not something to accept uncritically.

One of the strengths of the film is the premise that this sexualization and objectification of women that we are seeing now is a backlash against the gains that women have made over the last several decades (and indeed before that, although more slowly). As women gain power, those who hold more power, mostly white men as it turns out, work to undermine women's power. It's a provocative assertion, but one that I think is well supported in the film. The film affected me emotionally, but it was that well-argued premise that made the strongest impression on me.

In the course I am taking right now on writing for the web, we're looking at three ways that web writing tries to get attention and convey information. Logos is an appeal to reason, and there is some of that in this film. Ethos is an appeal from authority, and certainly many of the talking heads convey such authority. But more than anything, this film is about pathos—an appeal to emotion. Again, that's not a bad thing. If it gets people to take action, then it has done its job. But it does mean that the film must be viewed critically. The film should provoke. It should stimulate discussion. It should get people to dig deeper. But it should not be swallowed whole.

It's interesting that toward the end of the film, filled as it is with horrifying images and statistics, the filmmaker wants to leave us with some hope. Earlier, someone had spoken some words that were used as a tag line for the film: "You can't be what you can't see." I think there is truth in that. Most girls probably need role models with whom they can identify. But at the end, someone else points to Roberta Bondar, first female American astronaut (if I remember correctly, Russian women had been in space for many years before). The speaker noted that Bondar didn't wait for a female role model to go after what she wanted. She simply went for it. There are always a few, fortunately, who manage to be what they have not seen. The tag line, as catchy as it is, is undercut to an extent in the film's conclusion.

I strongly urge everyone to watch Miss Representation. But don't just give in to the ethos and pathos. Keep your own logos in gear. We need to take action, but we need to do so not only with heart but with head as well.

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