“The feminist agenda… is not about equal rights for women… it is about a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

– Pat Robertson (television evangelist), 1992

Miss Representation is a 2011 American documentary discussing sexism in both American media as well as society. It explores in great detail the limiting and disparaging portrayals of women in movies, news as well as other kinds of media, which encourage the Madonna/whore dichotomy, reduce women to their appearance and cast women in positions of power as ugly, bossy bitches no one really wants to listen to.

Written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Miss Representation is essential watching not just for anyone calling themselves a feminist or desirous of gender equality, but also for anyone wanting to know more about what exactly a media bias is and how it plays out in the so-called “free marketplace of ideas“.

The documentary includes views from a number of incredibly influential women (and some men), all of whom bring their own unique perspective to the problem of women in media: Condoleeza Rice (former US Secretary of State), Nancy Pelosi (US representative California, former Speaker of the House), Gloria Steinem (one of the most well-known feminist organizers and writers of our time), Geena Davis (Academy Award winning actor), Katie Couric (writer, producer and actor), Rachel Maddow (Host of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show), Jackson Katz (educator and author of The Macho Paradox), Jim Steyer (CEO of Common Sense Media) and others.

the harmful portrayal of women is taken in by those who understand them as one-dimensional beings and those who know better but stay silent.

While it is a bit dated, meaning that the statistics reported do need some reviewing, I don’t think it would be wrong to suspect that things have just gotten worse. Of course, the documentary is set in the American context, but there are some stark parallels to Indian society. It goes into great detail about the state of the media and its relationship with women throughout history, delineating the initial victories for women in the form of Roe v Wade, Title IX and equal pay legislation.

This was followed by the ’70s and ’80s wherein equal rights for women’s movements suffered setbacks in the form of widespread feminism-bashing (like the above Pat Robertson quote) and a tarnishing of anyone vocal about gender justice as un-American (akin to our very own anti-national?). Miss Representation also goes into great detail about how with the deregulation of media, broadcasters resort to increasingly shrill tactics to get favourable ratings (again, our very own Arnab Goswami is a fantastic example).

In several senses, the documentary is global: it discusses how much further the harmful portrayal of women is taken not just by those who understand them only as one-dimensional beings, but also those who know better but stay silent. In fact, it starts off with a discussion of how these portrayals affect girls’ self-esteem and in the long run, their ability and ambition to be leaders.

Also Read: The Problematic Representation Of Brown People In American Screens

Studies cite that at a very young age, an equal proportion of girls and boys want to be President (about 30%). Around the age of seven, this starts to change. When there are few strong female leaders girls see around them as role models and the ones they do see are constantly scrutinized and criticized based on their looks; girls’ desire and capability to grow up to be not just leaders but even strong, independent women are of course compromised.

Take for instance the media’s portrayal of Condoleeza Rice as a dominatrix or Sarah Palin as porn-ified and ditz-ified (there is a classic news scene from the time when the only headline that seemed to matter in the US was whether she had had breast implants). When women who do amazing work and become fantastic leaders are spoken about only with respect to their appearance, it’s time to question what kind of message this sends to young girls.

A perfect example of this is found in Bollywood: the very epitome of the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Even in 2018, there are only an infinitesimally tiny number of films where women exist as actual three-dimensional characters with some complexity, some nuance and some reality.

In the vast majority of Bollywood films on the other hand, women are entirely two-dimensional: there is the role of the ideal mother (sticks to patriarchal gender roles, loves her children with all her heart, grieves uncontrollably when her husband dies and is extremely efficient at household tasks) and the pure wife (loyal and faithful always, waits for her husband for eternity, dutifully bears him children and can never do anything to tarnish her Sita-through-the-agni-pariksha image).

An equal proportion of little girls and boys want to be President. Around the age of seven, this starts to change.

Conversely, there is the vamp, or the modern portrayal of the vamp: the modernized, Westernized woman who smokes and drinks and wears short clothes. Of course, she eventually learns the error of her ways and goes back to saris and pooja and being a sati-savitri (Cocktail, anyone?), because being a modern woman is a crime and never pays.

Miss Representation also goes into detail about the kind of messaging the media gives off in relation to female leaders: they are twice as likely to be shown as emotional, irrational, unable to engage and therefore not to be taken seriously. There is also a fascinating exploration of Hillary Clinton’s representation in the media.

This is of course prior to her presidential campaign, but the unmistakable signs of misogyny are already there, with countless soundbytes criticizing her age or tired appearance as well as her choice to appear as hyper-masculine. It seems that no matter what female leaders wear or look like, those are the only things that matter.

Given the increased importance and ubiquity of media (social, print and otherwise), it is increasingly important to learn media literacy, or the idea that the media is produced through the gendered and biased lenses of the people that produce it. Miss Representation goes a long way in putting this together and making us realize just how much work is to be done before we come to a truly progressive and gender-just media and society.

Also Read: (Mis)Representation Of Hijras In Popular Media


Featured Image Credit: Documentary Lovers

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