As a child, I was brought up with a strong sense of right and wrong. I’m sure that one of my first phrases is still a sentence I utter on a fairly regular basis – “But that’s not fair.” A stickler for principles, I’ve always been the last one to ‘agree to disagree’ or ‘let it go’ – I’ll be the one still fighting for what I think is right long after everyone else has given up and gone home.

I’m not a particularly emotional person, and it’s become a bit of a running joke amongst friends at how seldom I actually cry – they try and test me with ‘guaranteed tearjerkers’ and then frown when I don’t reach for the tissues. But Miss Representation got me seriously choked up – and stirred that feeling inside of me, that clenched fist in the pit of my stomach that silently said “that’s not fair”.

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Miss Representation – Official Trailer from The Representation Project on Vimeo.

Miss Representation is a 2011 American documentary film that I spotted on Netflix on one evening when I had a hot date with the sofa and a bucket of popcorn, and flicked it on with little expectation. Wikipedia describes the synopsis as, “Miss Representation explores how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions by circulating limited and often disparaging portrayals of women” – but it is so much more than that – for me, it was an exploration of what it is like to be a woman in Western society today (though it is heavily focussed on the U.S.), and a call to action to challenge the objectification and oppression of women.

The documentary begins by introducing just how much the media is shaping our children’s brains, lives and emotions. Through this onslaught of constant media connectivity (American teenagers consume an average of 10 hours and 45 minutes of media a day) girls get the message from very early on that their worth depends on how they look. Through the medium of advertising, television, films and video games, they are led to understand that their value is linked to how attractive and slim they are, regardless of their achievements. As a result of this, the documentary states, teen girls feel more powerless than ever, and constantly measure themselves against an impossible standard – striving to look like the endlessly Photoshopped, airbrushed models in magazines that don’t really exist in real life.  Similarly, young men are also on the receiving end of this message, and grow up with incredibly warped perceptions of what a woman should look, and behave like.

An interesting point that was raised fairly early on in the documentary is this sense that advertising companies have a huge amount of power and sway over both the rest of the mainstream media and even government. Advertising is based on constantly driving the paradigm that people are not ‘good enough’ and creating a constant state of anxiety and insecurity to spur them on to buy – for women this means spending out on beauty products, fitness products, skincare products, clothing, and so on. The money ploughed into this is unthinkable: U.S advertisers spent $235.6 billion in 2009. To put that in perspective, 80% of the countries in the world have GDP’s less than that. U.S women spend $12,000 to $15,000 a year on beauty products and salon services. The documentary states that women are nowadays foregoing spending money on their education, instead spending (on average) more on beauty products and cosmetic surgery, because they see that their worth is dictated by how swishy their hair is, or how toned their stomach is, rather than their level of education or qualifications. The implication is that, in order for it to be successful, the billion dollar advertising industry must permeate, through all media channels, a permanent state of anxiety and feeling of ‘I’m not good enough’ amongst women everywhere, so that they will spend, spend, spend in the pursuit of the unachievable ideal body type.

Alice Walker quote

This feeling of disempowerment is a worldwide epidemic. If a woman’s worth is in their bodies, and they can never achieve the ideal body type, then they have effectively been rendered powerless. This feeling of powerlessness not only leads to increased levels of depression, stress and eating disorders, and lower levels of confidence and ambition, but also lower levels of political efficacy. Women are not made to feel as if their voice matters, and so we have a nation of women who are much less likely to either vote, or get involved in politics. One of the most shocking statements for me in the documentary was this:

“67 countries in the world have had female presidents or prime ministers. The United States is not one of them. Cuba, China, Iraq and Afghanistan have more women in government than the U.S. does.”

And the UK are certainly not off the hook, where only 1 in 5 of all MPs and members of the House of Lords are women. In the documentary, Cory Booker states:

 “We are short changing voices that are urgently needed in public forums from ever getting to the table.”

Not seeing women at the table in politics, or on the boards of large corporations and companies (or even in the organisations where you work), shapes a person’s idea of what’s possible in the world – in other words, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” We don’t feel it’s possible for us to ever be on the Board of Directors, or have a seat in the House of Commons, or be Chief Executive of an organisation, because we don’t see enough women in those roles to make us believe that it’s a plausible opportunity.  Likewise our voices are not only not being involved in decision making at a strategic level, but at grass roots level, where there can also be a gender gap in the numbers of women that turn out to vote (though there doesn’t seem to be a significant statistical difference in the UK).

The documentary also states that the more power women do gain, and the more that women’s rights begins to gain traction, the bigger the backlash against them. When we have had strong female leaders, or women in politics, the media trivialises them to make them seem less powerful. It diminishes their accomplishments by talking about what they are wearing, or what they look like, rather than their achievements and capabilities. They are described using negative verbs that make them sound emotional or irrational so that we feel that they are not up to the job.

Miss Representation
credit: everywomanfestival

The media bias and how the media represent women is the bulk of the focus of the documentary. It explains that women own 5.8% of all television stations, and in 2011, women comprised 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. So everything you know, or are told through the media, comes from the male perspective. More than half the population is not participating in telling us about women. It is described in the documentary as ‘symbolic annihilation’ – the absence of representation (or misrepresentation) of a group of people.

Martin Luther King said: “The problem today is not the vitriolic words and the evil actions of the bad people. It is the appalling inaction and silence of the good people.”  There is a call to action in here – at a personal level, for women to value themselves and celebrate their accomplishments, to mentor others and to be a role model. And at a wider level, to get involved – to volunteer, to boycott harmful media, to challenge, to have a voice. We must not be afraid to step into leadership roles, and to support and champion women in leadership. We must create things for women, especially young women, to see – so that they have things they feel they can be.

PS – Go and watch this documentary.

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