You can’t be what you can’t see.
That is one (of many) messages in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary Miss Representation, which shines a harsh light on the obstacles women face in the media, the arts, government, and even the current culture in the United States.
You can’t be what you can’t see.
The film really made me think back to my own experiences growing up. When I was 13, I joined a small community drama group. My director for the next five years was a woman and, when I was 18, I took the reins to direct my first play: a from-scratch production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that changed my life forever.
I’ve since gone on to direct, co-direct, or assistant direct a play, musical, or artistic endeavor of some kind nearly every year since then. Artistic direction is the most natural thing in the world to me. After watching this documentary, I wonder if it’s because I, myself, had female directors as role models. But one thing I know for sure: I never doubted my abilities because I was a girl.
For women all over my country, being in charge is not the most natural thing. Did you know only 12% of the top grossing movies in the United States were directed by women? Or that Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Oscar for Best Director? Ever? Movies are about stories. Stories are about the human struggle. Surely women have just as many stories as men do… don’t we?
In Miss Representation we are presented with face after face of women of all ages as they look into the camera to tell their stories. Teen girls cry as they recount crushingly impossible body standards. One actress, after being told repeatedly that she was “too fat” by her network, recounts how she had her TV show cancelled, only to be replaced by – ironically – The Drew Carey Show (a star whose heavier weight was a longtime trademark). Another actress regrets the facial botox she received after being told by her agent it was the only way she could keep her contract.
The stories of high-profile women – including well-known actresses, and politicians like Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin – are so deeply connected to our own experiences of high school, college, and entering the job market. Movies and TV shows have huge influence on how people, especially children, envision possible futures. But if the media is so derogatory toward the most powerful women in the US, media critic Jennifer Pozner asks, “then what does it say about [the] media’s ability to take any woman in America seriously?”
The film tackles a dizzying number of subjects, eras, and topics. It touches on the “redomestication” of women following WW2, when shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” were created to entice working women back into the home and leave factory jobs open for the returning soldiers. A magnifying glass is held to the Christian Right / “Moral Majority”, which pushed back feminism and massively cut media regulations in the 1980s. (Meaning that, for the first time in history, the media was pushing the interests of advertisers above all else.) Building on these recent histories, Miss Representation discusses what media representation means for both the girls and boys who grow up with such limited narratives.
If I’m being honest, Miss Representation lacks a noticeable artistic structure and engaging graphics. To get through the sheer volume of topics and information, the documentary bombards us: with statistics, with clips from television, with interviews and news broadcasts. There is enough information here to fill two – or even three – separate documentaries. On top of this, director Newsom’s recurring narration and personal story feels disjointed and even, at times, a bit cheesy (which may be because her voice was not, I felt, a great fit for this kind of narration).
For all of its aesthetic flaws, Miss Representation reveals the extent of the problem and suggests solutions. The filmmakers give a microphone to dozens of incredible women – academics, researchers, businesswomen, performers, writers, musicians – and then, most importantly, listens to what they have to say. The film reminds us how powerful women are when we listen (to each other to ourselves) – and when we allow ourselves to be powerful.
The makers of Miss Representation also ask us to remember the power we have in numbers, and to learn to support and cheer for each other. Several stirring segments of the movie show that while women are likely to vote for, and support, men in leadership, men and women are less likely to support women for those same roles.
And so roles like Best Director and President and CEO keep passing from man to man – to man. Which is so mind blowing to me, because I’ve seen what spaces are like when women are encouraged to take the reigns! A young woman directed the funniest production of The Importance of Being Earnest that I’ve ever seen. A young woman directed me in the Renaissance epic Doctor Faustus, instilling in her cast a fierce dedication to text and of spitting poetry in iambic pentameter. These women, and the female entrepreneurs, clergy, and artists I see in my own circles, have shown me that I if I have a part to play, or a story to tell, I am more than capable of calling the shots. That’s something I’ll be able to take with me my whole life – and I’m ready for that to become the new normal.
As Alice Walker is quoted in the film, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. It can be so, so much better.