Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me a provocative trailer for the documentary Miss Representation, which premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival and has since then had local screenings across this country. The film is about the media's overly sexualized portrayal of women and the harm that this causes to adolescent girls and boys, whose expectations of body image, sex, and how to treat each other is being manipulated by the pop culture (the film's argument goes). The movie, which was broadcast by Oprah's flailing OWN television network in 2011, has been reviewed to great acclaim, critics on all sides embracing its anti-raunch message of girl power.
Here's the trailer:
Miss Representation lays its ideas on so thick that it's hard to disagree with its premise, argument, conclusion, the whole shebang. We see a Sarah Palin interview in which she is asked about whether she has breast implants; we see a news segment referencing Nancy Pelosi's plastic surgery; we see the headline "Condi Rice, Dominatrix," accompanied by an image of the secretary of state wearing black leather boots. In another part of the film, images of anorexic models, nearly naked pop singers, and bikini-sporting Miss Americas flash across the screen, as we are bombarded with one frightening statistic after another.
Women, we're told, hold only 3 percent of "clout positions" in the media. Women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, and yet only 17 percent of Congress—putting the United States 90th in the world in the international ranking of women in legislatures (we have less women in office than China, Iraq, and Afghanistan). And finally, as professor Caroline Heldman of Occidental College explains, when girls and boys are seven years old, an equal number want to be president of the United States. By the time they're fifteen, the gap widens considerably. What a sexist country we live in! Or so we're left to conclude.
When I see these figures, I don't think "media sexism," I think that women are making choices about the kinds of lives they want to live. Take the example of women holding only 3 percent of clout positions in the media. That's undoubtedly a small number, but one explanation for the absence of female leadership in this industry is that by the time these already successful women are old enough to assume these high-powered roles, they're choosing to bow out of the market to raise children or to pursue other endeavors (their husbands are often as successful as they are, if not more so, meaning that the household can sacrifice two incomes for one).
On the issue of the presence of women in Congress, I read the numbers a little bit differently. If we have less women represented in our legislature that China, Iraq, and Afghanistan, then couldn't that be interpreted as a sign of the health of our society and the successes of feminism? Women here, unlike women in Afghanistan, have won their political and social battles. So they may be more interested in attending to the other aspects of their lives rather than running for office or even going to the voting booths to cast their ballots.
In terms of the number of girls who want to be president at fifteen, can't we grant that they may have changed their minds in the ten years that they have had to develop their identities as young women? I highly doubt that these girls are giving up dreams of the Oval Office for dreams of being a Victoria's Secret model. They probably have decided that being a doctor, teacher, or vet (that was my choice at fifteen) is more meaningful to them and suits them better than being president. Why the gender gap? Women tend to be more practical, compassionate, and less power hungry than men.
But all of this seems to be completely left out of Miss Representation. What we get is one-sidedly feminist. Comedian Margaret Cho complains, "The media treats women like [expletive deleted] and it's horrible. I don't know how we survive it. I don't know how we rise above it." Jean Kilbourne of the Wellesley Centers for Women, agrees: "No matter what else a woman does, no matter what else her achievements, their value still depends on how they look." White letters flash across the screen and we learn that "the media is sending a dangerous message to young people." Then it cuts to a young girl who bemoans the fact that "there's no appreciation for women intellectuals. It's all about the body, not about the brain."
Maybe I'm living in a different media world than all of the people in this film, but when I look at pop culture, I see a very different picture of women. Some of the most popular depictions of women in the pop culture today are not overly sexualized. To the contrary, women in today's media come off as smart, witty, and even frumpy (30 Rock), or incredibly successful, educated, and career-oriented (Grey's Anatomy), or in control of their households (Modern Family), or in control of their sexuality (Beyoncé's Single Ladies [Put a Ring on It]).
Of course there will be raunch and sex in pop culture, but that's not all that there is. For Miss Representation to blame media executives for sexualizing women, all in pursuit of a profit, is not only unfair, but it's a distortion of the facts.