New Film Tackles Sexism in American Media

March 28th, 2014 § 0 comments

Are you aware of the on-going misrepresentation of women in our mainstream media? Chances are you’re not but don’t worry, you’re not alone. These days we’ve become so accustomed to seeing women bumping and grinding, fawning and disrobing on screen, we’re immune to it; in fact we see it as normal.

But Jennifer Siebel Newsom doesn’t see it as normal. She’s appalled by it and that indignation led her to make Miss Representation, a film, which highlights the on-going and ingrained sexism in American media.

The seed of indignation was planted when she became pregnant with her first daughter. An actress herself, she looked around the entertainment industry at the continuous degradation of celebrities such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, and was horrified to think this is the world her daughter would grow up in.

From the get-go Siebel Newsom confronted the difficulties of making a film about sexism in media. When she approached female directors to direct the movie, they all turned her down, saying that they’d never work again if they got involved in the project. In the end, Siebel Newsom directed the movie herself.

Despite the directing challenge, she assembled an impressive line-up of powerful women to bolster her argument. Those women include Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, and Gloria Steinem along with academics and activists who reinforce the film’s thesis that the degradation of women on screen prevents women from holding positions of power in wider society.

The film opens with a dizzying array of statistics that show just how pervasive the media is. The average American teenager consumes more than 30 hours of television a week; 10 hours of internet; 4 hours reading magazines and 3 hours watching movies.

‘The media is the largest communicator of culture, and we know that if US culture continues to limit and undervalue women, then that message is being communicated around the world,’ says Siebel Newsom.

She attributes the root cause of this imbalance in media to patriarchal society, but she says that the media perpetuates the problem because it continues to tout the message that women’s only value lies in their body shape or youthful appearance.

As one example, just think of how common it’s become in recent years for news anchors to ask female politicians about their fashion choices or cosmetic surgery. In one film clip, an interviewer asks Sarah Palin, ‘come on, just admit it, do you or don’t you have breast implants?’

The wider implications of this imbalance are numerous. Firstly, the film notes that women make up 51 percent of the American population, yet the percentage of women in congress hovers around 17 percent and hasn’t changed since 1979.

In the telecommunications industry, one of the powerful industries in the world, the number of women in top positions is just 3 percent. Those kinds of gender inequalities are true for other industries too including pharmaceutical, medical, law, entertainment and unsurprisingly, media, where women hold only 5 percent of top positions.

Siebel Newsom cites the lack of credible female role models on screen as directly responsible for the lack of ambition on the part of young girls. ‘When the media doesn’t portray positive, or even accurate, female role models, you get this whole notion of if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,’ she says.

But young girls are aware of the problem. One girl, about 15-years-old complains that her female classmates spend too much time in the bathroom putting on make-up. She doesn’t understand why they’re doing this when they’re supposed to be at school to ‘learn.’

Jim Steyer is the CEO of Common Sense Media, a professor at Stanford University and one of the film’s contributors. He says, ‘media and technology are delivering content that is shaping our society, they’re shaping our politics, our national discourse and most of all, they’re shaping our children’s brains, lives and emotions.’

Because of the constant stream of sexually overt women that litter our screens, girls are growing up with the message that their only value is how they look and boys are growing up with the message that that is the only way to value women, according to Jean Kilbourne, another of the film’s contributors and author of Killing Us Softy.

The film cites advertisers and capitalism, both derivatives of our patriarchal society, as the chief harbingers of this message. The old adage, ‘sex sells’ is now the dominant principle guiding all branding decisions and nothing will change until that changes.

But it is up to consumers to implement that change. To accompany the movie release, Siebel Newsom has launched a campaign on Twitter, Not Buying it, where “people are able to call out sexist media and use their consumer power to challenge it.”

Using a Twitter hashtag and an app, people can publicise and share sexist advertising when they see it, and encourage others to contact the company or boycott the brand. We have a long way to go, but this film is a timely reminder that we can no longer afford to be passive consumers of media, because when we are, the wrong people take control.

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