Besides the certainty of taxes and death, we know sex sells. Americans are bombarded with images of women to sell everything from beer to cars. Meanwhile, young women and men searching for role models may have difficulty seeing past the “sex sells” mentality that ties a woman’s worth to her looks. The nearly ubiquitous publicity garnered by the likes of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan have helped to create an underlying belief that one has to sell their body and looks to be deemed successful. Sexual allure, as proffered by the media, is enshrined as the Rosetta Stone of esteem, confidence, power and success.
Miss Representation, a documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom screening at the Sundance Film Festival, examines how women are objectified, sexualized, fabricated, and paraded by the media. Repeatedly portrayed in television, film and print as sex objects, estrogen induced superheroes, scantily clad princesses, unstable and raging bitches, and romance seeking women too stupid, too soft or too hard to be in positions of leadership, power, and influence.
The film repeatedly uses as a case study the 2008 presidential election in which Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were regularly cited and mocked as the ‘the bitch and the ditz.’
Newsom’s documentary includes interviews with some of America’s most influential women in politics, academics, journalism and activism such as Condoleezza Rice, Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Pat Mitchell, Jean Kilbourne, M. Gigi Durham, and Geena Davis. “The media is the message and the messenger,” says Pat Mitchell, President & CEO, Paley Center for Media.
Although women comprise 51% of the US population and represent 86% of purchasing power, women remain under represented in positions of leadership in business and government, and specifically in elected office, entertainment, advertising and in media. Some statistics presented in the film include:
• Less than 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs
• Women hold fewer than 15% of corporate board seats
• Women only comprise 3% of C-level and strategic decision making positions in mainstream media companies (telecommunications, entertainment, publishing and advertising)
• Women comprise only 16% of the US Congress
• Women comprise only 17% of the US Senate
• Only 37 women have been governors of states, while 67 countries have had women elected and serve as Presidents, Prime Ministers and Heads of State.
• Less than 20% of Newspaper Op-Eds published are written by women
• Less than 20% of news stories are about women & girls
• Women comprise 7% of directors and 13% of film writers in the top 250 grossing films
• Only 16% of protagonists in films are women.
As for women in the military, the film listed merely the date women were first admitted to the federal service academies.
According to Newsom, these media portrayals aren’t just “shocking or limiting, they have devastating consequences.” When children are seven years old, girls and boys believe equally they can become President someday. When asked the same question at age 15, less than 25% of girl responded they could aspire to our nation’s highest elected office.
The bottom line is that media, in all forms and specifically television, film, talk radio, and print, create, shape and instill the limitations girls set for themselves. In the film Academy Award winner Geena Davis said, “At this rate, women will not achieve parity for 500 years.” Davis is the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The non-profits programming arm, See Jane, works with entertainment creators and companies to educate the next generation of content-creators, and inform the public about the need to increase the number of girls and women in media aimed at kids and to reduce stereotyping of both males and females.
What can be done about sexism in the media? For starters, turn off the television and boycott the movies that objectify, sexualize and degrade women. Support media programming that recognizes and champions accomplished women. Teach your children to look at the media critically. Find strong and positive role models and promote them.
Appropriately Jill Miller Zimon, blogger of Write Like She Talks, described the importance of this film. She wrote, “If you’re not interested in this film, then you’re not remotely interested in our future – especially not the future of your daughter, your wife, your sister, or the women responsible for giving birth to you.”
Warning: This is an explicit trailer. It too deserves scrutiny and question as to images needed to promote the film.