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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Miss? Excuse me, Miss? Someone wants you to "represent."

Is it a bit hasty to write about a movie you've not yet seen? Perhaps, but this one I'm eager to see, and it will be televised again on November 12th so perhaps there will be an opportunity. Miss Representation is a documentary made by Jennifer Siebel Newsom on the subject of how women are portrayed in media, making a case that  both on and off-screen they are both under- and misrepresented. Newsom is an actress herself, and described some of that experience to Mother Jones in a recent interview:
Something I've learned myself in making this film is sometimes people have a hard time listening to what we have to say because they're so concerned about how we look. I think that's a challenge that women in particular have in our culture. . . 
I started acting at the age of 28, and my agent told me to lie about my age and take my MBA off my résumé. I didn't do either, but that was like, whoa! I thought there was value in being smart. I thought there was value and wisdom in getting older. We're challenging the culture in Hollywood that is all about youth, youth, youth, beauty. Because not even that's healthy. I don't care how much plastic surgery people have: At some point, they're going to die. We're all going to age somewhere on our body, and we may as well accept that and embrace it. I mean, aging is a beautiful thing; wisdom is a beautiful thing. Frankly, as a woman who's getting older in our culture, I want to see stories about women who are before me, so I can be inspired—because someday I'll be there. 
Older women. Smarter women. Diverse women. More women-- I was rather shocked a few years ago to learn of the Bechdel Test, which first appeared way back in 1985 in a comic called "Dykes to Watch Out For" which described the rules of the author's friend for being willing to see a movie:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something other than a man.
  4. (Addendum: who have names)
Deceptively simple, right? You'd think that most movies would pass this easily. But not really:


Note that the word used here is not "conspiracy," but "systemic problem." The claim isn't being made that male directors, producers, screen writers, and so on have a conscious agreement to keep women down. For that matter, Newsom's stated concern in making Miss Representation is not solely about women. She notes that 
it's really interesting now, being a mother raising both of a son and a daughter, in a culture that objectifies women and sees women's value in their youth or beauty or sexuality, and not in their ability to lead. And in a culture that values a hypermasculinized version of what it is to be a man. At MissRepresentation.org, we're about creating a dialogue about how we empower women and men, or girls and boys, to find their own path and to find value in a plethora of attributes and possibilities for who they can be.
You can't say something about women without also saying something about men. Portraying women as helpless things that need to be rescued, for example, means portraying men as having to be powerful rescuers. Ideals of masculinity are constructed and enforced in media, too. It's fun to unplug your brain and enjoy an action movie (which, needless to say, predictably fail the Bechdel Test), so long as you're fully aware of how distant the impressions in it are from reality. But not everybody is, and it's hard to expect them to be if they don't have other images to look at. And so far as I know, there's no law that says explosions and boobs have to go together. Just saying.

Speaking on that-- Newsom says she's fighting the objectification of women (boobs), and that can lead to some bad places. Conservatives and liberal feminists, as has often been noted, come together to make strange bedfellows when they decide that showing off bodies for aesthetic appreciation and titillation is inherently wrong. It would not encourage girls and women to "find their own path" and the "value in a plethora or attributes and possibilities for who they can be" if women who decide that their path is to show off their bodies are shamed and/or forbidden to do so. I believe that a feminist wagging her finger at an actress who opts to go topless in a film is no less moralizing than a fundamentalist who does it. So here's hoping Newsom doesn't intend to wag fingers so much as point to opportunities. We would be making progress if there are more women showing up in general as well as a decreased willingness to think less of them according to how much clothing they have on. Slut-shaming is not a feminist pursuit.

Having said all of this, I am eager to see Miss Representation when possible. If possible. If you have the means, you can catch it on the Oprah Winfrey Network at 11am ET on November 12th.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds very interesting, but no Oprah Winfrey network or cable tv at our place. Maybe it will turn up on Amazon or one of the other sites that streams movies.

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