VIFF 2011 Review: Miss Representation

One of the most notable things about the VIFF is that it features a huge selection of documentaries both in the number of films aired and the variety of topics. Many documentaries are focused on topics revolving Canada. The documentary of Miss Representation is focused in the United States but one can see a lot the issues discussed in the documentary facing Canada in similar ways too.

Tired of your daughter trying to make a sex object of yourself? Tired of your daughter imitating the stupidities of reality show stars? Ever stop to think about how women are depicted on television? Ever feel a lack of female roles or smart female roles in movies? Tired of the lack of females in CEO positions or politics? While some people, including other women, overlook it, there are women that don’t and are unhappy about the state of things. This dilemma is well-stated in the documentary Miss Representation.

Miss Representation has an impressive lineup of women interviewed for this documentary from actresses like Geena Davis, Jane Fonda and Rosario Dawson to feminists like Dr. Jean Kibourne and Gloria Steinem to newscasters like Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow to politicians like Condoleeza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. It does an impressive investigation of how women are portrayed in today’s media, in both entertainment and news. It highlights the negative depictions of them in ‘reality shows’ and misogynistic treatment in hip-hop videos. It shows how computer enhancements shorten a model’s waistline to an unrealistic width. It shows sexist depictions in television ads. It shows networks’ news shows hiring women for sexiness over professionalism. It shows the negative role models girls are given via reality shows and MTV. It also highlights how these images have affected their self-esteem, especially in terms of eating disorders, depression and even undergoing cosmetic surgery.

It doesn’t just stop at entertainment but also focuses on politics too. It points out the United States ranks 90th in the world in terms of the percentage of female politicians in office and noticed a decline in 2010 that was enough cause for alarm. It shows how American female politicians get more copy over what they wear than what they have to say in office. It shows how right wing conservative pundits and their ridiculing of female politicians also are part of the blame. Even conservative groups who hurl slurs at Hillary Clinton like “Iron my clothes” have their part in this. It also focuses on the business world, on how it’s like being a woman with a top position in a room full of men. It also talks of the lack of female CEOs. Funny how when we’ve made progress in the last 40 years, we learn there’s more to be done, and at a faster pace.

Mind you it doesn’t completely dwell on the negative. It also features messages of hope. It also shows of the efforts of young teenage girls in their own political pursuits. It shows a discussion with teenage students–both boys and girls– and how they feel about this. Just when you think teenage America is eating it up and enjoying it all, there are some teens that are concerned. It even talks of Miss Representation, the campaign. The documentary Miss Representation is as much a campaign as it is a documentary film. Its goals are to empower women and girls to challenge limiting labels in order to realize their potential. They are encouraging actions that lead to a cross-generational movement to eradicate gender stereotypes and create lasting cultural and sociological change. They are using various media outlets like girls using social media to speak their mind, a school curriculum to educate and encourage activism, community screenings where discussion is encouraged, and consumer empowerment to encourage the success of female-friendly entertainment.

The unique thing is that the film is done from the point of view from the director and the founder and CEO of the Miss Representation campaign. The filmmaker is Jennifer Siebel Newsom. She is married to former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. Siebel has a Masters Degree from Stanford, completed acting studies at the American Conservatory Theatre and had done environmental work overseas through Conservation International.  Her acting credits include films like Something’s Gotta Give, Rent and In The Valley Of Elah. Her television credits include Strong Medicine, Numb3rs and Mad Men. This documentary is her directorial debut. Miss Representation is as much a personal focus of hers as it is a documentary as she filmed it just after she had given birth to her daughter and wonders what type of world she would grow up in. Anyone else who has a daughter might want to question the same thing too.

I found this documentary quite intriguing. I especially took note of what they said about entertainment. Entertainment and how it’s delivered to various peoples is a big interest of mine. Interesting is during the film, they pointed out to entertainment in the early 90’s that took women’s roles in new directions, like Thelma & Louise and A League Of Their Own. It brought back memories back in the 90’s when women were defying convention in entertainment. We had the sitcom Roseanne where the star Roseanne Barr looked like an actual mother. We had A surge of female singer/songwriters whose intimate work helped spawn off the Lilith Fair festival. Nowadays you could say it’s a memory with profit-oriented entertainment more competitive than ever. We shouldn’t forget about entertainment sinking to new lows for the sake of new highs in profits. In fact I myself could even right an essay on how the improvement of women’s image and role in music in the 90’s suddenly grounded to a halt thanks to Britney and “Oh Baby Baby…” I could also write how Paris Hilton reversed the women’s movement. Or even my thoughts on Snooki. But I’ll save it for now. I’m sure you have your own annoyances too. I’m just glad Lilith Fair hasn’t been replaced by Tartapalozza.

It also got me thinking about how things are doing in Canada. I often feel that Canada is not as sexist as the US but I’m frequently reminded that there’s still work to be done. Even though wage parity between male and female workers is closer than its ever been, female workers are still paid less than male workers. Canada ranks 50th on the world scale of females holding political office. 70 on the 308 seats in the House Of Commons are women; 27 from the victorious Conservative party. Canadian teenage girls have done their share of idolizing Britney and other reality show stars. In fact it encouraged one Canadian magazine journalist, Anne Kingston to write an article that made the cover story for Maclean’s, Canada’s national magazine. For those who want to read it, here it is: http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/08/10/outraged-moms-trashy-daughters/ Glad to see that while Americans mostly ignored this issue, one Canadian writer decided to speak up.

Miss Representation is a film that’s angry about the portrayal of women without having to ‘shout’. It shows stats and views to show its disappointment but also offers messages of hope. Jennifer Siebel Newsom put in a lot of effort and research to get her message across. I’m sure her frustration would not only be shared by mothers like her but fathers of daughters as well. For those interested in the Miss Representation campaign, go to: http://missrepresentation.org/

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