‘Miss Representation’ and the Media

There’s an incredibly clever AT&T commercial that’s been playing a lot lately across a variety of TV programming. It’s a young father in a pink nursery changing his baby daughter’s diaper when his cell phone rings. He holds a quick discussion with his friend about “last night’s game” while tending to the baby because the phone has the capability to let him talk and surf simultaneously.

Rhythmic. Adorable. Contemporary. Witty.

It all works right up to the point where the wife enters the nursery with a laundry basket and throws him a look in a perfect portrayal of the shrew. Every time I see it, all I can think is it could have just as easily ended with the wife walking in and laughing along with him at this light moment in their day. Instead, we feel her disapproval. Ugh.

I mention this to Jennifer Siebel Newsom , director of the documentary Miss Representation in our recent interview because we are talking about media images and gender roles and I see this example as one of insidious messaging.

“You’re so right on about that,” Newsom says. “It’s a very tricky, complex, challenging time.”

If we know this as adults and still feel the media’s pull, if we can see that it doesn’t just entertain and inform but also polarizes and cajoles and imprints, then imagine the effect it is having on children in this time of multi-media consumption. It is this national landscape that Newsom entered when she decided to make her film about “how the media’s misrepresentation of women has led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.”

The genesis of the film – which has made its way from Sundance to an audience award at the Palo Alto Film Festival and will air on television this week -- is that just over two years ago Newsom (and husband Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California) had a daughter. She became concerned with raising a girl in a time where we’re bombarded with “hyper-sexualized and dumbed-down” images of what being female means.

According to the Girl Scout Research Institute’s recent study on girls and reality TV, “regular reality TV viewers accept and expect a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying in their own lives as well. They are considerably more likely than non-viewers to agree that: ‘Gossiping is a normal part of a relationship between girls’ (78% vs. 54%); ‘it’s in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive with one another’ (68% vs. 50%); and ‘it’s hard for me to trust other girls’ (63% vs. 50%).”

What vital information for parents who would like the opportunity to provide perspective and context to what’s coming at their children on a regular basis. Newsom is all over that mission and she brings it to life in this film featuring interviews with Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric, Condoleezza Rice, Rosario Dawson, Margaret Cho and other prominent women interspersed with sit-downs with vibrant, earnest students.

“The one thing that we’ve done that I’m proud of is that when people watch the film … they consume differently,” Newsom said. “So their whole purchasing power might transition a bit. Their desire to help and mentor other women might transition a bit. But mostly I think they’ll just literally consume media differently and that’s my goal.”

In some ways, the documentary says a lot of what’s been said before about how women are portrayed and underrepresented, yet it’s fresh because it is addressing what’s happening now and bringing it to a more aware cycle of parents and caretakers. Newsom is clear – this is a human rights movement, not a women’s movement.

“I feel like our film is remaking an issue in our society and bringing it to our attention with new visuals and imagery and dialogue and really shaking people up to make them connect the dots,” Newsom said. “Whereby the media, the most persuasive and pervasive form of communication in our culture, is dictating our values and our cultural norms and [saying] that our value as women lies in our youth, our beauty and our sexuality and not in our capacity as leaders.”

A striking story in the film comes from former Secretary of State Rice, who says it was not unusual to go into a meeting and be the only woman in the room during her time working in the Bush administration. Rice recalls when there was pressure coming from Capitol Hill to change Title IX.

“I can remember Karen Hughes and I going to the president and saying, ‘You can’t do that. You don’t know what it was like to be a woman in college prior to Title IX when you had to have a bake sale for your sports team to take a trip,’” Rice says in the documentary.

Newsom sees this as an example of what she knows to be true.“Women …have to be fearless, we have to take risks,” she said. “Until we do that and are fearless about this, we’re kidding ourselves and we’re not going to make a difference.”

When I asked Newsom about what she might want her infant son to someday take away from this film, she expressed gratitude for the question.

“For me, my challenge to all of us is what are the steps that we can take individually and then as a community and at the corporate level and in our education system and then at the government level so that our young boys are taught at an early age to love and feel compassion and empathy and encouraged to express emotion,” she said.

She repeatedly noted that teens are consuming 10 hours and 45 minutes of media a day and that media is acting as a second parent in our culture.

“For parents it’s so important that they’re aware of it so that they can then help their children to choose media that’s healthy for them or that inspires them,” Newsom said. “So that they can take back some of the power of being a parent … Our goal is that as individuals and as a community we can really champion good media and challenge the bad media.”

In the aforementioned Girl Scout study on girls and reality TV, it also mentioned some benefits to viewing – “opening the lines of communication, serving as a learning and motivational tool, and encouraging girls to be active in social causes.”

Judging from the intelligent, articulate students interviewed in Miss Representation, there is an awareness level in this generation that is heartening. Yet, it was sad to hear their frustration about what they sense happening around them. Clearly the idea of more and varied representation of women in TV and film would be a valuable improvement in what’s currently being offered (read: funded and promoted).

“It’s extremely important for women to write their own stories,” Rosario Dawson says in the film.

And yet something as simple as our own behavior can imprint a youngster and make an impact one way or the other.

“If you and I, every time we pass a mirror, downgrade how we look and complain about how we look, if we remember that a girl is watching us and that’s what she’s learning …” says Steinem as the credits roll.

Messages, messages, messages. Everywhere messages. The beauty, the ditz, the shrew.

Our girls – and our boys – deserve a healthier picture.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.