Several years and several careers ago, I was an intern at a non-profit media literacy organization in Madison, WI. If you’re not familiar with the term or the concept of media literacy*, it is traditionally defined as:
… the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.
We worked a lot with schools and individual teachers to help integrate media literacy into various curricula. We also focused on critical media studies, particularly analyzing the portrayal of women and girls in mass media – generally underrepresented and then objectified and hyper-sexualized when shown at all. Keep in mind, this was a pre-Kardashian world, so at the time the focus was mostly MTV, network TV and women’s magazines, which makes me LOL to think of a time so quaint.
One of the more popular videos used by media literacy educators and gender students educators was Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly which looks at the portrayal of women in advertising. It’s an insightful video, continually updated in its critique (the video is on its 4th edition.) I highly recommend it, as it’s become even more resonant in the age of Photoshop – retouched beauty standards.
And now we have Miss Representation by actor/filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom as a companion to Killing Us Softly, it’s the same media critique made relevant for a social media/reality TV world, and extending that critique to how women are misrepresented and underrepresented in positions of authority, including politics and business. You have no clue how much it depresses me that we still need a film like this.
Newsom tackles this weighty, nuanced topic with deft and insight, using her own personal narrative (the birth of her daughter, her own teenage struggles with low self-esteem, eating disorders and sexual abuse) as a springboard to explore a broader narrative told through dozens of interviews with high-profile women in news, entertainment, business and politics and a parade of often troubling stats on women in media. (For example: Women hold only 3% high-level positions in entertainment, advertising and publishing and make up only 16% of Hollywood writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors.)
Films like this can be hard to pull off because it’s easy to turn didactic when relying on talking heads and stats to move the narrative forward. Miss Representation doesn’t always avoid this, but the A-list caliber of talking heads in question (Katie Couric, Condoleezza Rice, Gloria Steinem, Lisa Ling, among others) helps to keep the movie engaging. The film is at its best when it focuses on young activists making a difference in their everyday lives, such as then-high school student Devanshi Patel, active in student government and working toward a career in politics.
Another underlying topic of the film, media ownership and political economy gets attention here too. It’s a topic that media activists and scholars are passionate about, but can be a real snoozer for anyone else. Newsom integrates an overview of media ownership and political economy issues into the film to provide insight and context – but without getting all Noam Chomsky on folks who may be new to these concepts. However, this left me longing for a film that does delve deeper into these issues of gender and media/content ownership, though maybe a film isn’t the best medium for such an exploration.
When the film ended with a “An Inconvenient Truth” – style roundup of strategies to create change, I was hoping for something a little more radical. Most of the suggestions were still very based around media consumption. Here we are, in a stunning disruptive age of media and technology, where it’s easier than ever for individuals to create and share media and technology, and there’s no serious talk of independent media, entrepreneurship and alternative sources of media funding and distribution? No discussion of media literacy as a tool? The one mention of independent media production as a solution was mentioned in the context of one of the talking heads (I can’t remember who) mentioned a “little film” that her young daughter and her friends created. That’s it. The end of the film just seemed like a string of missed opportunities to me. However, the Miss Representation website seems to now serve as the homebase for broader movement-building around the topic of media representation of women and girls, so perhaps something those more proactive solutions are presented there.
In general, I do recommend Miss Representation as a media literacy education tool and an eye-opening, entertaining film. It would be great to see media literacy – as a concept, a tactic, and a movement – return to the forefront of conversation among educators and activists, with this film leading the way.
I try to do stuff like this with my kids ‘cos I know it hasn’t been part of their curriculum at school. I particularly worry about my 12 year old daughter. Our media consumption is a bit odd. We pretty much only do Netflix (over TV) and books (over magazines) so her exposure to advertising is very limited. And we do our best to provide a loving and supportive home environment. But as she’s gotten older and the family unit has become just 1 among many peer groups I’ve watched her self confidence wither.
Part of that is just how vicious tween girls are to each other. I grew up in a house full of brothers so that’s been an eye opener for me. But I think even with her limited exposure there’s just so much free-floating ambient pressure for girls (and adult women) to be unhappy with themselves. Sometimes I even wonder if limiting her exposure to media has done her harm. Maybe we should have exposed her to more and discussed it with her so that she’d have a sort of mental immune system built up.
Hopefully the Miss Representation DVD will be out soon (and won’t cost $300 like Killing Us Softly). Or even better I’d like to see stuff like this hit the documentary section of Netflix. We moved from the Nashville area to northern Wisconsin last year. There’s not even a metro area nearby to tie our location to. We’re up near the border with the upper peninsula of Michigan. We don’t have the access to libraries and universities we did a year ago.