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?