Miss Representation – holding media accountable for objectification and misrepresentation

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California Gurls - Katy Perry

An atypical (and genuine) music video still. California Gurls by Katy Perry.

I went to see Miss Representation at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre last night. (Trailer here.) The message of the film is intensely powerful. To sum up, it traces how the media both reflects and shapes our society in a hugely powerful way. It shows just how much media we are exposed to daily and explores the representations of women in those media. The dominant representations of women as alternately bitchy, ditzy or a collection of body parts leads to highly problematic relationships for everyone. Between women and other women, between women and men, parent and child – who isn’t affected?

(Reading that back, I realised I had written ‘women and men’ rather than the conventional order, ‘men and women’. And it jarred as unusual language. Interesting.)

Given that TV channels, newspapers, magazines, publishers, radio stations – all media – are largely run by men at the highest echelons, it is men that are having the first and final say in what the media put out. And they are largely bound by the demands of their advertisers, who provide their sponsorship in exchange for their product getting airtime. In the case of magazines, the falling price of UK magazines has been reflected in the sheer volume of advertising inside. Editorial copy is now increasingly predetermined by advertisers who want to send out a certain message of ‘buy, buy, buy’ – or more importantly, not send out a certain message – of working on your ambitions outside of your appearance or your relationship to men. (Which they tie neatly back in to working on your appearance.) Here’s a typical spread from a magazine’s content:

 Marie Claire: Make the Most of Your Shape with Best Haircut for Your Figure – 7 Silly Sex Tricks That Really Work – Would You Marry for Money? – Four Designer Looks for Christina Aguilera – Get Beautiful Skin – Instantly – How Much Time Do You Really Spend Thinking About Your Body?

Advertisers have an interest in perpetuating unhealthy body images to women, because they are aspirational and largely unattainable. Without demand, products flounder. And the way to create demand? By tapping into women’s insecurities about their appearance – because they will never be sated. Unnecessary beauty products claiming to make you look younger, decrease wrinkles or otherwise impossibly transform your face and body can always be sold to those attempting to conform to The Beauty Myth. The film contained many shocking statistics about just how much insecurity there is amongst women – for example, 65% of women have an eating disorder. As a woman, where are we supposed to find material to read that informs us about what is actually going on with women today? Or even just material that interests us? I read The Guardian, but what about when I want something a bit lighter? I wouldn’t be seen dead reading any woman’s magazine.

Only 20% of newspaper articles concern women and girls. Mainstream newspapers are failing to contextualise stories about female survivors of violent and sexual crime as an endemic problem of society. A recent PhD study found that the vast majority of newspapers (tabloid and broadsheets, with tabloids faring slightly worse) report rape after page 10 of the newspaper UNLESS there is a sensational aspect to focus on that detracts from the actual events, such as ‘Husband kills wife after she changes her Facebook status’ (link takes you to Leveson Enquiry submission on this very story). Instead of focusing on the facts of the case, this prioritises social media’s role. The articles fail to mention that a woman is killed every two minutes by a partner or ex-partner. They often sympathise with the perpetrator. Essentially, the use every tool they can to downplay the gravity of violence against women on a personal and political level by misrepresentation. In my experience, men don’t want to face up to the problem of sexual violence because they feel somehow implicated. They feel tarred with the same brush as rapists when they see how terrible the statistics are. The problem is, they are implicated. Any good person keeping silent is a huge problem. Keeping silent about sexual violence adds to an atmosphere where rape myths perpetuate and misogynistic attitudes go unchallenged. And funnily enough, rapists and wife murderers tend to hold attitudes of women as inferior to them and as having a set gender role which they must stick to. So allowing such views to go unchallenged does implicate you. That goes for both men and women. (See this fascinating blog post for more.)

Essentially, it comes back to capitalism and consumerism. What sells, or what the advertisers want to sell. Celebrity stories are cheaper than weighty news stories so we see more and more of them packaged as ‘news’. Only 22.6% of national UK newspaper journalists are women, so the stories are likely to come from a male perspective. Capitalism is about making money, not about social responsibilty. In America, there are hundreds of TV channels competing for attention – so they go for the most outrageous content. News channel guests shout and bellow to get heard and confuse opinion with fact. Music channels bid to air new videos by popular artists first, regardless of their feelings about its sexual content. There is also no watershed in America, so all of these messages are seen and consumed by children of all ages. Miss Representation’s terrifying montage of images is depressing – woman after woman in a state of undress, on tv programmes, in music videos, in advertisements. It shows Hilary Clinton’s portrayal as a bitch and Sarah Palin’s portrayal as a ditz. Both were undermined by either being too masculine or too feminine in their approach. Both were taunted about their appearance – Clinton for being haggard and Palin for being attractive. How can they win when both ways are wrong? Both were made to comment on this alongside their policies, while men were left to talk about their actual jobs, without reference to their appearance. Clinton was followed by people holding signs and interrupting her speeches with the slogan ‘Iron my Shirt’. I mean, what kind of world is this really? The US is supposedly the most powerful country in the world and it does not take women politicians seriously. Only 17% of congress are women and 22% of UK parliament are women. The figure in Afghanistan, most dangerous country in the world for women? Twenty seven percent. 5% more than the UK and a full 10% more than the US. Does that not say something huge about the state of the world? Women are 51% of society, but the world is run by men largely ignoring their issues.

Back to the media. How about Hollywood? Hugely influential – obviously. Well, have you heard of the Bechdel test? See how many films you can name off the top of your head that pass the following test:

1. It has to have at least two named women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
It might be harder than you think. Only 16% of all films contain a female protagonist. And most of those show her attempting to find love, rather than any other type of fulfilment. Love is great, obviously. But women do other things than sit around trying to find a man. Not reflecting that in our films allows other media and general society to legitimately ignore women as well-rounded people or as more than [half-naked] window dressing for a man’s story. It relegates us to the Second Sex, with the men as the primary, ‘normal’ mode of being. (Sorry, Simone de Beauvoir moment there.)
So, how much role does the media play? Huge amounts. We need to see more women lauded for their achievements, to give young girls positive role models and give young men a rounded picture of different types of women. We need to represent society as it actually is onscreen. We need to get government to make media be socially responsible. Because it’s all just gone way, way too far. If you’re not convinced of how bad it can be check out this advert calling for organ donors:

Organ donation ad objectifying women to attract male donors

Enough said, really.

Find a screening of Miss Representation here. Follow them on Twitter here. Sign up to be notified when the DVD comes out here.

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Missrepresentation: Brilliant, Must-See, We Needed This! | Flat-Chested Señoritas

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