Last night I attended a UK screening of Miss Representation Jennifer Siebel Newsom‘s documentary that looks at how the US media portrays women and young girls. This event was hosted by Women in Film and TV and Amnesty International UK.

Just watch the trailer and you’ll get a taste of the heart-lurching-lump-in-your-throat feeling that this film evokes. The opening still displays a quote from Alice Walker “The most common way that people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any”. This is followed by a montage of sexualised, violent and demeaning images of women cut between quotes from contributors about the media’s treatment and representation of women and the impact on society. From the start, you know that this is a campaigning film, designed to provoke its audience into action.

The film is told through Siebel Newsom’s own experience of femininity and journey into motherhood. She talks about her joy of giving birth to a daughter and of her anxiety of that daughter’s chances in life given the cultural representation of women in US society. Siebel Newsom’s own story is woven between comments made by high profile contributors including Politicians Condoleeza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, TV News anchors Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Actresses Geena Davies, Rosaria Dawson and other academics, activists, politicians both male and female alongside the reaction and thoughts of teenage girls and boys. It uses statistics, and images taken from advertising, TV and film to animate the contributions. Links are made to the political economy of the media, its reliance on advertising venues and the highly sexualised and unrealistic representation of femininity that has emerged through the development of technology (if you haven’t already seen it then watch the Dove Evolution film which is also included in the documentary.) The film also provides the historical and political context of women in the US and their relationship to media, work and policy since the 1940s charting the rise of feminism in the 60s and the neo-conservative political backlash in the 1980s leading up to the situation today.

There are strong links made between the sexual objectification, de-humanizing and ridicule of women in the public sphere (including incredibly revealing footage of how Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were treated by the media in the 2008 Presidential campaign) and the lack of women leaders. The message given by academics and contributors is that if this trend continues, these numbers will get worse. And the major central drive of this film is the impact on the next generation both on young girls and the impact on their self-esteem and the representation of masculinity that is being sold to young boys. The film presents links between teenage rape and violence against women and the representation of women in the media. There is a very strong implication that if women continue to be misrepresented this is another trend that will increase.

The film premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2011 and has been aired on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network in the US. There have been a couple of screenings in the UK – I did a quick google search and found that the Oxford University Student Union had hosted a screening back in February. However, it is clear that more people need to watch this film so that the message and debate can be shared. Although this film provides a US context, a lot of the adverts, films and programme’s featured have been aired in the UK. Following on from the screening WFTV Head of Communications & Operations Rebecca Brand chaired a discussion about the links between media representation of women in the UK. She cited the statistics pulled from the Skillset census in 2009 that showed that a vast number of women had left the TV industry between the years 2006-2009 (for more information about Skillset’s stats on the diversity of the workforce click here) The discussion panel included writer, critic & broadcaster Bidisha, Gemma Mitchell who is the Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Underwire Film Festival, Anna van Heeswijk Campaigns Manager, OBJECT and Catherine Neilan Deputy News Editor, Broadcast. They talked about the UK context including the Miriam O’Reilly tribunal case, the lack of opportunities for women in the creative media industries and the increase of feminist activism in the UK. Both Broadcast and Object are running campaigns to alter the representation of women in the UK’s media (see links below).

The following discussion was heated and passionate. When asked for questions, a number of hands shot up throughout the room and there was a clear frustration that not all the audience members could be heard. Issues discussed included normalization and acceptance of hate-speech in the media, the links made in the film between the sexualisation of women and the increase of rape (just for some context for those that don’t know about the recent Rush Limbaugh story, a US broadcaster who stated that female college students who received free contraception were sluts and prostitutes click here) and examples of this in the UK were referred to through the recent UniLad controversy. There was a clear consensus that the UK media is complicit in this misrepresentation and more needs to be done to highlight and debate these issues.

Hopefully, more screenings will take place. It would be GREAT if this film could be aired on TV – it’s the sort of thing that the BBC / Channel Four as providers of public service broadcasting should be screening. However in the meantime you can organise a screening yourself – have a look at the website for more information. There is a cost, but this is the sort of thing that individual students, teachers or indeed any individual can do to ensure more people have access to and are made aware of this situation.

Miss Representation: Host a screening

Broadcast Petition on increasing number of female experts on TV and Radion

OBJECT Turn your back on Page 3 petition