I was on a panel for a screening of the MissRepresentation film yesterday at Northeastern. It was a great film, and I recommend that you watch it if you can find a screening in your area. The director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, created the film to explore whether girls and women have better experiences and representation in the US than they did in the past. She has found that girls and women have not made as much progress as one would be led to believe. This film does a great job pulling from a variety of sources: advertising, women in politics, TV shows, movies, news coverage, and one-on-one interviews with a variety of men, women, and students in college and high school to get their personal experiences.
While the information is not new, the film takes the information and presents it in a way that makes it accessible to the new generations. Many of the films that schools and other organizations have been using are starting to appear dated and therefore the new generations may not absorb as much of the information. Students will be less likely to relate the information if it references films that are no longer popular or shows that are no longer running. It is also much easier to state that this is a problem of past generations but not one of today if the materials used are outdated. The film also uses more technology to show the information. It is not lecture based with the feeling of a Powerpoint put to film. It combines visual representations of information with text but uses more recent film techniques to do this. The film has input from a variety of recognizable men and women who participate in Hollywood, politics, and academia. It also has input from students in high school and college. Featuring people that the current generation know can influence how much of the message they absorb, as people are more likely to pay attention to recognizable faces.
At the screening, students were able to identify many of the strengths of the film but also highlighted many areas where it could have been improved. An improvement that many students discussed was the absence of different types of women. There were several prominent women of color, such as Condoleezza Rice, Margaret Cho, and Rosario Dawson, but the majority of contributions were from white women. Additionally, all of the contributors were of a certain socioeconomic class, education level, and physical appearance. One of my favorite things that former Secretary of State said (paraphrasing of course) was how important it is to have women in the room or else their needs and perspectives won’t be represented. She gave an example of when Congress was thinking of making changes to Title IX and the importance women played in that discussion in order to block changes. Without women there to tell about how difficult education and sports were before Title IX, it is much easier for men to overlook how important this act is and dismiss it. Of equal importance, we need perspectives from women of color, from different socioeconomic statuses, and of physical appearances in order to depict a complete picture of the effects of media on women. We cannot assume that because we have a group of women that it automatically represents the entire population of women across the country.
One great question that was asked was how to use this knowledge to affect the younger generations through individual actions. We cannot expect younger generations to have more tolerant and progressive behaviors if we aren’t there to model them. Youth are going to mimic the culture and norms around them and the cliché “do as I say, not as I do” is not enough to produce behavior change. We need to step up and model behavior that accepts, respects, and appropriately rewards women and girls’ beliefs, personalities, opinions, and achievements. We need to actually demonstrate that one’s appearance is not the most important trait of a female. There are several ways we can do this and include: not commenting on your appearance when passing by a mirror, not commenting on other’s clothing or looks, asking youth why women and girls are wearing heels when they are the main character of an action/rescue move, and changing our conversation topics with girls. Our own actions and words can influence what a girl thinks is important. If everyone she meets is focused on how pretty she is or what she wears then that is a message we are sending that is reinforced by the media. We’re teaching her, and the boys around her, that the most important thing is her appearance. If, instead, we focus on what she is interested in (books, music, movies, school, hobbies) then we are telling her that her interests and strengths are important and should be listened to and recognized.
Our world is getting increasingly smaller with all the technological changes and innovations. We are inundated with information each and every day, and it is getting harder and harder for things to break through the clutter to get recognized. Therefore, media is trying more shocking ads and strategies in order to attract people to their products, sites, and ideas. This usually means women portrayed in increasingly sexual, degrading, and objectified ways. Youth are being exposed to these images with little to no intervention. They are taught how to interpret these images and to recognize why media is portraying women in such horrific ways. They aren’t told to question what this says about women and girls. They accept the information and it impacts the way they see the world and the women and girls around them. This is extremely dangerous. As a parallel, we do not simply hand car keys to a youth when they are of age to drive. Teaching about the rules of the road starts when children are small. We learn that red lights mean stop, green lights mean go, and what to do at different traffic signs. We know what blinkers are for and that there are two pedals. This information comes from both direct instruction from adults who drive but also from observation. We don’t expect youth to be able to drive without explicit instruction. Equally, we should not expect youth to be able to decipher why the media is portraying women and girls in a certain way. We cannot expect youth to come to their own conclusion that these depictions are degrading and can affect the way society views women and girls. We need to model this, have the conversation, and encourage everyone, especially youth, to question what they see.
There can be change and we can be a part of it. I think this film starts the discussion that many people need to have in order to realize the damaging effects the media has on the status of women and how it can and needs to change.
Written by: Stacey