Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Feedback and reflections regarding the documentary film “Miss Representation”

The April 15 screening of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary film “Miss Representation,” held at Detroit Country Day School in Beverley Hills, Michigan, looked like a sold-out show. Hundreds of women (and some men) came to the event, which was sponsored by The Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit’s “Women Lighting the Way” initiative, and supported by many social service and outreach providers, interfaith and diversity organizations, and Jewish temples and businesses. The film was introduced by Rochelle Riley, a Detroit-area commentator on religion, culture, and politics for the Detroit Free Press, and followed up by keynote comments and audience interaction with one of the film’s participants.

The goal of this film is to foster awareness of the disempowering and dangerous stereotypes and violence toward women that are still rampant in our media, politics, and social interactions. “Awareness is the first step toward change,” as the event’s program stated, and this blunt, diverse, and often-disturbing documentary certainly did make the audience very aware that a lot of work remains to be done toward creating a more safe and humane future for and women and girls.

“Miss Representation” does a good job of exposing the fallacies we still have to deal with every day about the status of women in America. Such fallacies include the mistaken belief that “women’s lib” doesn’t need to be discussed anymore, that access to contraceptives is all that women needed to become sexually empowered, and the sexist double-standards of men and boys who embody the worst stereotypes of political and moral conservativism.

The documentary revolves around interviews with many female and male media scholars, politicians, educators, entertainers, and businesspeople, as well as conversations with high-school-age boys and girls about their experiences in a culture with a significant misogynistic streak it tries very hard to deny it still has. Woven around these comments are alarming statistics about how women view themselves in response to how they’re pressured by the media and marketers of so-called beauty products, as well as statistics that point to stagnation in efforts to improve women’s status in recent years—and in some cases, such as the 2010 elections, even setbacks.

The third prominent feature of this documentary is the examples. It features dozens of sexist TV, movie, and news clips. It pays particular attention to the nonfiction examples, such as the off-handed sexist comments from newscasters who are supposed to be reporting and discussing objective news, but sound more like they’re doing podcasts for an all-male audience.

And lastly, no such documentary would be complete without print advertisement examples, such as a hideously creepy Dolce and Gabbana ad I saw before in my mass communication class—again, as an example of media misogyny—that looks like a gang rape scene about to happen. One thing I was surprised not to see in these examples was music videos—and I’m not just talking about gangsta rap and hip-hop, which usually take a disproportionate amount of the blame for their portrayal of women as sexual consumer goods. After all, no one would argue “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” fits into either of those two categories.

“Miss Representation” isn’t just a documentary: It’s a campaign. The event program and the film’s Web site list many practical ways both women and men can help create a safer future for women. Some of these actions include voting women into public office, promoting gender equity at schools, encourage women to become leaders and helping them do so, going to movies written and directed by women, boycotting movies and TV shows that sexually objectify and degrade women, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to promote the “Miss Representation” campaign and to disseminate positive and empowering messages about women and girls in general, and setting a good example for girls by exhibiting self-respecting behavior.

Following the film was a discussion with one of the film’s participants, Dr. Jackson Katz, a self-described “anti-sexist activist, speaker, author, film-maker,” to quote his Web site. Katz took audience comments and responded with insights from his work in gender equity initiatives. One key point he stressed is that gender equity and media literacy campaigns should focus primarily not on teens and their parents, but on teachers, politicians, and advertisers, whose influence parents can’t control when their children are outside the home.

If you educate these people to change the unhealthy attitudes they pass on to children and teens, the next generations will become gradually more egalitarian—whereas, if you focus on reaching out to children and teens, they may improve their outlook and behavior, but we’ll still have to do that every single time with each new generation, rather than stopping the problem where it starts. This was a refreshing new perspective from the more common two alternatives, which are blaming parents and / or punishing children when they become adults demonstrating the negative lessons they learned in childhood.

There is one thing Katz brought up that I had never thought of—demonstrating that even for people to whom these concepts are not new, there are still things we’ve become so used to that it doesn’t occur to us they are part of the problem. Katz pointed out the problem with the use of passive voice in crime statistics and other reports about teen pregnancy and violence against women. Such reports are usually worded as how many “girls got pregnant,” how many “women were raped,” et cetera—not “how many men got teenage girls pregnant,” or “how many men raped women on college campuses.” The language “takes focus off men,” as Katz put it, and lays all the focus, and the burden, on the victims.

Another disturbing thing about those teen pregnancy statistics that, here again, I never knew, is that over 50% of teen pregnancies are by men. “These aren’t 14-year-old girls getting pregnant by 14-year-old boys; these are 14-year-old girls getting pregnant by 21-year-old men,” Katz said.

This film is very well-researched and well-presented; but, just as with any wake-up-and-do-something campaign, there’s always room for improvement. For many people, the film’s content was new information, and they needed to be shocked into awareness. As someone who was familiar with the severity and scope of the problem to start with, however, I personally feel the presentation could have been more balanced, rather than relying primarily on shock value. Since I grew up spending more time with boys than girls, and my two closest friends right now are men, I can sort of see from both perspectives, and I can see why this film can potentially be less appealing (and consequently less effective) for men than it is for women.

One audience member who spoke during the give-and-take with Jackson Katz pointed out that there were moments in the film that sounded “man-hating,” such as a snide comment by Senator Dianne Feinstein which played to the “stupid man” stereotype. This audience member explained she felt this film was too disrespectful to men in general, and her comments made me think of other examples of such attitude, such as the dozens of cookie-cutter modern sitcoms from the past twenty or thirty years featuring the shrewd “castrating” wife who’s always dissing her “dumb” husband, and having to fix his mistakes while criticizing his masculinity and his lack of intelligence.

Jackson Katz stated that such comments in the film—as well as when such opinions are expressed in person—do not bother him. He doesn’t take offense, but he also admitted that he is a man of influence, who has not been marginalized and who is not member of a minority of any type.

That’s the key right there: Most of the men I know who take offense to such comments and attitudes by women are men from lower economic status or from ethnic groups with historically much lower social standing than Katz. Whenever I talk about women’s empowerment, I thought I always made it clear I’m talking in general, about the society standard, rather than engaging in “man-bashing” with specific targets in mind. At least one of my male friends took it personally, though, and said so, asking me to lay off on the feminism talk. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t agree with the concept of women’s empowerment or my right to point out I have potentially less opportunities and face more social risk than him, but that something about the way I presented my comments offended him.

I’m thinking there are probably more men who respond like my friend did that like Jackson Katz does. It would be irrelevant to judge how justified or informed men’s sense of offense is at such a presentation, because the point is, they are offended, whether we mean to offend or not when we try to be informative about a serious social problem we as women take very personally.

I look forward to the day when we can refine our presentation of these issues such that we don’t need such disturbing exposés or have to preface our personal explanations with such statements as “With the exception of you and my other male friends, most men...” and then go on to say why it’s worse for people who don’t have penises than it is for people who do.

Katz told one audience member, who felt the documentary’s focus was too broad and her concern is her personal challenge, “to figure out what the film doesn’t do” for her, and determine how she’ll present this issue differently to women and men.

I know that’ll be a challenge for me, trying to effectively represent this awareness and desire for change when I’ve been told more than once over the years to “lighten up on the whole feminist thing—It’s offensive to men, and you’ll never get a date if you keep harping on that” (though thankfully not everyone who’s counter-complained about my complaints regarding America’s sexist double-standards has been so rude or dismissive.)

Despite its limitations, this documentary should still be promoted and seen by women and men. The point here is recognition: You can’t help change things if you don’t realize just how bad the problem is. There are still too many people who just don’t realize, or choose to ignore, how bad it is. It’s like diagnosing an illness: The symptoms aren’t as bad (women have made significant gains, and a lot of the sexism and misogyny is not as overt), so we assume the disease is gone; but it’ll slowly grow worse if we ignore it. We need to acknowledge it’s there, name it, and assess its severity, before we can know how to treat it, to heal the injured or diseased parts and make the body of humanity whole again.

Both Nichiren Buddhism and the Baha'i Faith refer to men and women as "two wings of one bird," and to stick with that metaphor, we've got to get people over their fear of flying.

The program for this screening, provided by the Jewish Women’s Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, lists many resources for those inspired by the film to learn more and to take some action, large or small:

“Miss Representation” Web site
Women’s Media Center
Girls Inc
Step Up Women’s Network 
The White House Project
International Museum of Women
Institute for Women’s Policy Research
National Council for Research on Women
Gender Equity Principles Initiative
Common Sense Media
The Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit

Image: “Joys in Color” by Karla Joy Huber, 2000; marker, crayon, feathers, flower petal 

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