Power and Media in “Miss Representation”

Jennifer Siebel’s “Miss Representation” is a response to her own fears of raising her first daughter. The statistics, images, and soundbites in the film present a discouraging picture of the connection between two American cultural mainstays: media and power.

In accordance with Jean Kilbourne’s argument in the “Killing Her Softly” documentary series, Siebel presents the media as an influential cultural empire that bombards consumers, often times unknowingly. In her words, the media is both “the message and the messenger,” suggesting the pervasive way TV executives control the media’s representation of select bodies. The message focuses on self-worth being determined by physical attractiveness, particularly in relation to body size and hypersexualization. The images offer a limited (often unreal and, therefore, unattainable) definition of ideal beauty, which has back lashed in society in the form of staggeringly high rates of self-image problems and eating disorders among adolescent girls. Academic and/or athletic achievement are often left out of the media’s narrative. Even images of strength, such as female, crime-fighting protagonists are tagged as serving the one-dimensional purpose of pleasure for a male viewer.

Siebel cites a strong correlation between the self-objectification promoted by the media and a lack of self-efficacy and power. Young girls who desire leadership roles have difficulty in finding roles models that mirrors themselves in the positions they seek. Furthermore, women who do occupy these positions, like Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton and news anchor Katie Couric, undergo harsh critique of their physical appearance and perceived upkeep. Women in leadership face comments and headline that contain just as derogatory language as misogynist music lyrics. Women leaders are pitted against each other in the media, perpetuating the “ cat fight” framework of female-to-female relationships. In a moment of optimism, however, news anchor Rachel Maddow’s personal narrative dispels the notion that every rise to success is isolating; she cites many women who reached out in an effort to help Maddow gain her footing and climb the ranks of their mutual profession.

The panelist, Dr. Felicity Paxton of the Penn Women’s Center, brought up a critique of the film that I share as well: the absence of discussion surrounding women and family. The narrative of women’s labor, both domestic and in industry, and its connection to expectations for women in marriages and at home contributes important context to the ideas surrounding female access and opportunity to power. While a few interviewees, including Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, touched on the considerations of family, I believe a larger and more deliberate emphasis should have been placed on the topic. What other cultural influences play a primary role in maintaining barriers to power and success for women?

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