(I originally gave this post a super long boring title, so to save ya’ll from that, here’s a subhead: A Review of Miss Representation and the Panel Discussion the Followed).
On Thursday evening, blogger BlondeRedhead hosted a screening of the film Miss Representation, followed by a panel discussion that included myself, Aliasmitch, Carrie Robinson from SisterSpeak, and Drs. Mary Thompson and Melissa Aleman. The documentary itself challenges media constructions of femininity and the idea that women’s only value lie in our physical appearance. That for a woman, the only way to have any worth is to be beautiful all the time. The documentary was very interesting, and well put together, although I think it does have a few flaws, which I would like to address. But what I also want to talk about in this post is the amazing discussion afterward, where about 30 audience members stayed 70 minutes after the film ended to have a productive, in-depth discussion about women, how to talk about these issues, media literacy, rape culture, and how to move away from women’s misrepresentation.
First off, I’d like to start off by addressing one crucial question, that often gets asked, when we discuss media: why does it matter? Like the dismissive “oh, well it’s just a joke” that one often hears when stating offense at any sort of racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist joke, people often dismiss discussion of media with the same kind of thing. “It’s just a TV show/movie.” “You can always just turn it off.” Media, however, is an absolutely critical social institution which is a powerful tool for the dissemination of ideologies. Media reflects our cultural values and norms, but it also has a major hand in creating them. It creates wants and desires, it creates images of people, and, fundamentally, it is how we receive information. As the documentary points out, the way we see ourselves reflected and portrayed in the media has consequences for our political efficacy, for our self-worth, and for our future actions. So when women see themselves in the media as predominantly “bimbos”, or strong women being chastised and called “bitches” for being empowered, or only see images of slender, blonde, white women, they internalize these images and apply them to themselves. They may act like “bimbos” because they feel that is acceptable, or not be assertive and ambitious because they fear the label of “bitch” or they may hate their bodies because they are not a slender, blonde, white woman. And even if they are, that’s just never enough. Media matters. Media helps to construct our reality. And, as Miss Representation also points out, when media is concentrated in the hands of the few, and the few look almost exclusively like white men, that’s whose reality will be reflected. And those who are not straight, cisgendered, rich white men will be harmed.
While an excellent introduction to media literacy, specifically dealing with gender, Miss Representation glosses over the intersections of identities and the way they are constructed in media and our culture. Although the filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom interviews many women of color, they are never asked to reflect on their experiences as women of color. When women’s achievements are shown in the film, they are typically those of white women. Rachel Maddow is interviewed, and briefly mentions homophobic vitriol she receives, but the film does not go in depth more than that. This is a problem. It is a problem because media images of white women and women of color are very different. Portrayals of queer women vs. heterosexual cisgendered women are very different. Class and disability are also left out of the film. We briefly discussed this in the panel, and I wish we had the opportunity to delve into it more. The feminist movement has a long history of blatantly ignoring intersectionalities and only benefitting heterosexual, cisgendered, middle-class, white women. In 2012 we cannot continue to do this, because it means that feminism is harming people and excluding them in the same way the patriarchy harms people and excludes them. For me, the documentary’s glaring flaw is that it doesn’t touch on the different stereotypes women of color face. Black women are often boxed in — they must be hypersexual (the Jezebel), or an asexual caretaker of white people (the Mammy), or “sassy” (the Sapphire stereotype). These stereotypes exist at the crossroads of racism and sexism, and are harmful to Black women in ways that white women do not experience. The Jezebel, for example, served to exonerate white men of raping Black women by painting Black women as animalistic (similar to stereotypes of the sexually threatening Black man) and always ready to have sex. The Mammy portrayed Black women as simple, unattractive in every sense of the word, and naturally servile, intending to reinforce white supremacist notions that Black people are suited to serving white folks and doing nothing else. Clearly all of these stereotypes are just as, if not more, harmful as the ones that white women face. And it is disappointing to me that the film did not take the time to go further in dissecting racism, as well as other forms of oppression which trap and harm women in a multiplicity of ways.
(Just a quick note, there’s a lot more to say about this documentary that I’m not going to get to. So I recommend watching it, for one. It’s available at JMU’s library, and at Amazon for $10 starting Monday. Also, look up reviews of Miss Representation — we don’t want our understanding of media literacy to ignore critically engaging with the documentary itself).
However, what was incredible, was the audience response. I’ll be honest, and say that I’m often nervous about audience reaction and participation at clearly feminist events. Will they be hostile? Will they be silent or indifferent? Will they ask questions I just can’t answer? So first, I really want to thank BlondeRedhead a) for organizing such a great event in the first place and b) for being a great moderator of the conversation. This was the exact type of event that we needed to have at JMU, and I am so grateful that she and Dr. Aleman orchestrated the whole thing. And second, at least with this event, I had no reason to worry at all. It was amazing to be able to partake in the large conversation that occurred, and, as I mentioned earlier, went on for so long. Women shared their experiences — of street harassment, of dealing with sexist and racist jokes and remarks, of identifying as feminist, of experiencing rape culture. It was powerful, and it really got to the heart of the concept that the personal is political. Every question critically engaged with the documentary and with the larger concepts of sexist culture. A theme that kept coming up, one that is always a struggle with feminism, was how to talk about these issues. We watched a documentary, our eyes were opened or we had our feminist “click” moment, we got some new language, and now how to we use these tools? I don’t say any of this to sound patronizing, as someone who’s identified as a feminist for a while now I still have absolutely no idea how to talk about this stuff. Audience suggestions dealing with this issue were particularly helpful. For one, make the conversation relatable if you’re trying to talk about gender in the media with your dad or brother or sisters or whatever. How does it impact you personally? As Aliasmitch pointed out, everyone has women in their lives. And if we make this stuff relate to us personally, how can you not care? Another suggestion was to always question and make sure you never take anything at face value. If something on TV seems sexist, don’t stop there, but take the step to say why it’s sexist. What is it doing, what gender norms is it reinforcing, and how are they harmful?
Personally, I thought the discussion was poignant, interesting, and just incredible. More so than the film itself. It dispelled my own fears about having these conversations on a large-scale. It was proof that consciousness raising can occur in a large auditorium at an academic event, and proof that we need to be having these conversations more often, because everyone had so much to say. And while we can’t really solve sexism in 70 minutes on a Thursday evening, it was proof that when we get together like that we can create constructive dialogue and ideas, and take a few more steps in the right direction. (I know this all probably sounds cheesy and hackneyed and all that, but the panel discussion in this event made me feel warm and fuzzy and not hate everything, which are really rare emotions for me).