Tuesday, October 11, 2011


We’ve discussed in class and in our blog the media’s problematic representation of women in politics. This of course is a particularly salient issue considering the success of two female candidates during the 2008 presidential campaign trail, and the current buzz around another female GOP candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

But the broader issue of representation, not just of female politicians but all women, in mainstream media is at the center of a new documentary titled "Miss Representation.” The movie presents a grim look at the ways in which media portrays (or fails to portray) powerful women and what effect this approach has on young women’s confidence and sense of empowerment. The tagline for the documentary, “you can’t be what you can’t see,” introduces the idea that young women today have few opportunities to see positive portrayals of women leaders in the media. Without positive examples of women in leadership positions, how are they to succeed?

From the movie’s website:

As the most persuasive and pervasive force of communication in our culture, media is educating yet another generation that a woman’s primary value lay in her youth, beauty and sexuality—and not in her capacity as a leader, making it difficult for women to obtain leadership positions and for girls to reach their full potential.

We’ve discussed many of these issues in class. We’ve discussed how female leaders and politicians are oftentimes criticized for non-political issues, those which would never be brought up in a conversation regarding a male politician. Just last week, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown created controversy when he made a questionable comment in regards to his likely 2012 opponent, Elizabeth Warren. The Senator’s opinion on Warren’s never posing nude was a resounding “thank god!” But why would this even be an issue in a Senatorial campaign? Is it because there is a man and woman running against each other that sexuality comes into play? The writers and directors of “Miss Representation” would likely say “yes.”

How else do we see this kind of “sexification” of women come out in mainstream media? In mid-September, the Miss Universe Organization put on their “Miss Universe” pageant. The final question for Miss Angola (who would go on to win the crown) was the following: "If you could change one of your physical characteristics, which one would it be and why?" I have one question in response…are you kidding me? Is this the basis on which the media are portraying and judging women?

To make things more confusing, mainstream media sometimes throws us a curveball by cloaking “sexification” in the form female empowerment. A more recent example of women in mainstream media that has me flummoxed comes in the form of ESPN’s Magazine’s "Bodies Issue.” The projected message of the “Bodies Issues” is that athletes’ strength and physique should be celebrated. The athletes themselves discuss openly how "liberating" their experience was posing nude. What flummoxes me is whether this is an appropriate celebration of the female athlete’s body or not? What would Miss Representation think? What do we think? Are we jolted by the nude image of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s star goalie on the front of the magazine? Do we applaud her or condemn her for sending the wrong message?

I’m not sure if I know the answers to my own questions, or if I’m entirely ready to answer them at all. My gut is that it’s a move in the right direction. I was especially impressed by the fact that the “Bodies Issue” included female and male athletes. To me, this was a bit of an equalizer, as it did not expose only females. But the question remains, are media getting better or worse at portraying women in a positive light?


AMA said...

Interesting post. I like how you explored the intersection between the lack of powerful power portrayed in the media and the sexualization/empowerment issue women face simultaneously. I have always noticed how female athletes are always posing half-naked and suggestively for photo shoots - something that male athletes rarely do. NASCAR racer Danica Patrick comes to mind: She is one of the few women in racing and the first woman to win an Indy car race. Despite her racing success, she poses in bikinis while holding her helmet or seductively bending over the hood of a car; this certainly is something that other NASCAR drivers never do. Other successful female athletes and Olympians end up posing for Playboy or doing Covergirl commercials. Is it still so unacceptable for there to be strong women out there? Are we so uncomfortable with women in sports that we nearly require that they pose half-nude to get endorsements? I can only conclude that the people making the big decisions (men) anticipate that women can only be interesting or valuable to a market if they rely on their looks and sexuality, rather than their strength, accomplishments, and success - how can we change this? As women today enjoy more representation in higher posititions, is there a way that we can work together to shift the ways in which women are accepted as strong and successful and how they are valued in society?

hanestagless said...

I watched the trailer for Miss Representation only hours before reading your blog post. I’m looking forward to seeing this when it comes out. I was pretty happy to learn that I get the Oprah Winfrey Network, and thank goodness for DVR.

How sadly true are Margaret Cho’s words, “the Media treats women like shit.” Where this happens that infuriates me the most, and both of you touched on this, is news and sports. Certainly, the media shouldn’t treat women this way at all. But in those two areas particularly, I find it most troublesome.

For news agencies, I just expect better. I am tired of news programs acting as any other media outlet. Perhaps I’m not justified, but I hold the news to a higher standard than typical programming. To me, it holds a special place in society, one that is reflected in our First Amendment. However, I’m often disappointed when they demean women, whether women in politics or women generally.

Secondly, similar to my thoughts on news agencies, I don’t believe the sexualization of women has a place in sports. AMA points out key examples where women athletes fall back on sexually-charged marketing to promote themselves or the sport. How tragic that this is even necessary. Yet, much like everything, product marketing is pervasive. Today, the thrill of competition is no longer enough. Instead, sports revolve around corporate sponsorships and marketing deals. As a result, women athletes are pressured to use their sexuality to sell internet domains or magazines.

Rose Sawyer said...

KayZee, you ask whether the "Bodies Issue" is an appropriate celebration of women's bodies, or not. After visiting the ESPN web site and looking through the pictures in this photo shoot, I came to believe that this IS an appropriate celebration of women's bodies.

Sometimes, humans like nudity because it's sexual, and sometimes, they like nudity because it's interesting/playful. This photo shoot strikes me as an example of the latter. Yes, some of the athletes are in sexual positions (the female playing pool, specifically, comes to mind), but others (such as the female water polo team) are not.

Most important, it seems to me, is that these women are challenging conventional expectations in regard to beauty. These athletes are already respected for their strength and power; if anything, I think that they are being bold in showing what strong and powerful bodies actually look like. The "cover girl," Diana Taurasi, is not thin in the way that models tend to be -- she looks muscular. And in an age that associates full makeup with "competence," [1][2] these indisputably competent women are only lightly made up, if at all.

I'd say, this is a win for those in Deborah Rhodes' camp. [3]

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/fashion/makeup-makes-women-appear-more-competent-study.html?_r=3&src=me&ref=general
[2] http://www.law.stanford.edu/news/details/4828/Why%20These%20Shoes%20Matter%20More%20Than%20An%20M.B.A./
[3] http://www.amazon.com/Beauty-Bias-Injustice-Appearance-Life/dp/0195372875