Let’s not beat about the bush; as far as women in the media go, you’re heaps more likely to get an eyeful of boobs rather than brains. It seems that every single and facet of the media is fascinated by the female body and sexuality, deeming it acceptable to present it as a commodity to be bought and sold by the masses. Sadly, the Women’s Network’s screening of Miss Representation, a documentary which explores the representation of women in American media, only cemented these the ugly truths about modern media, and it’s safe to say I left the SU’s Hub feeling disturbed, angered and vicariously violated.
It was profoundly affecting to have the powerful brain-washing effects of today’s media unveiled before us, which normalise the implication that a woman’s worth is decided by whether or not she is wanking material – a worth defined by unattainable, inhuman standards thanks to gals’ best pal: airbrush. It was shocking to discover the extent to which I, as a female viewer, had been exposed to the objectification of my own sex yet had somehow missed a trick; so customary is the ubiquitous focus on the female body that it actually took *watching* the documentary for me to fully appreciate what I’d been unconsciously condoning for years and years. The insight was remarkable, but shaming. I couldn’t believe how naïve I’d been; I couldn’t work out of I was at fault for being too ignorant to recognise some of the more minute details, or if the white, male, degree-boasting over 35s who run this TV shit were by showing me my fellow women as commodities since my birth.
Because that’s all we get as youngsters, isn’t it? Even our beloved animated Disney films subject their female characters to being perceived as helpless, beautiful dependants – hell, in my favourite childhood film, The Little Mermaid, the female protagonist doesn’t even have a voice for half the time. It’s also pretty unsettling that Ariel is silenced by a fellow woman, which reinforces a scary notion that women can be oppressors of their own female peers, or even themselves. Miss Representation touched on the idea that women are guilty of criticising other women on the grounds of their appearance, be it in conversation, journalism, news or comment broadcasts which reflects patriarchal conventions; it seems that we too are preoccupied by how old our peers look, how much weight they’ve put on, the amount of make up their wearing. Miss Representation calls for women to be more supportive of one another’s accomplishments, in the hope that it catches on.
What’s more, the handful of supposedly emancipatory protagonists – I’m thinking Lara Croft, Catwoman, Andy in The Devil Wears Prada – in the end are just extending this inexorable pursuit of female beauty; Miss Representation introduced me to the term ‘fighting fuck toy’ for characters such as Croft in her outrageously impractical, undermining outfits. Ambitious, successful women are also treated particularly harshly; Andy’s success in her career costs her her partner, relationships and her sense of self worth.
Miss Representation also pointed out that the stories of the minuscule proportion of protagonists who actually *manage* to be female are almost always directed and written by men. Hence, the portrayal of the female experience is shifted into the bias of a male perspective which begs the question: how can the story of a woman which is written, developed and conditioned by men ever truly be authentic, or reach the *whole* population? A great example of this is the new Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, which, coincidentally, I went to see the day after the screening of Miss Representation. Screenplay: written by men. Directed: by a man. Protagonist: female. And yes, Katniss is supposed to be troubled, socially inept and distant by nature, but in Catching Fire she’s just… cold. Cold, at times vapid and a little cruel. As an audience member I was presented with a strong, brave, independent, intelligent woman which should have been thrilling for me, yet I COULD NOT empathise with her. She’s the best example of a female dominating a film in a long time… and I was rooting for her male co-star throughout.
Something that the documentary touched on that we would perhaps like to have seen developed further alongside the misrepresentation of women is the analysis of role models for young men in the media. Interestingly, hours after watching Miss Representation a friend this clip of a discussion concerning male and female protagonists and the kinds of plots children are presented with in films targeting their age group:
Just as young women absorb messages about their appearance equating their value, so do men see their worth presented in physical prowess, in the car they own, in whether or not they’re a ‘stud’ or a sporting legend. Young people are impressionable; if we’re prepared to admit that young women are conditioned by the media into believing that their appearance is of greater worth than their accomplishments, should we disregard the fact that young men’s attitudes could be warped by their being exposed to multitudinous narratives portraying male protagonists who treat women as commodities? I think there’s scope for taking a step back and wondering if whether the resulting psychological infringement of women which is just accepted as a norm also seeps into the lives of men.