So the other day (when I should have been doing homework) I watched Miss Representation. In case you haven’t heard about it, it’s a new documentary discussing the treatment and representation of women in the media and the effects this has on attitudes toward, and aspirations of, girls and women in US culture. You can watch the trailer here or watch the full film (as it was aired on OWN) here. Over the past couple of days of reflecting on it, and in conjunction with some thoughts I’ve had regarding some of the readings I’ve had for two of my classes (Gay and Lesbian Studies and History of Anthropological Theory), I’ve noticed a few issues with the film.
I’d like to start by saying that I think the makers of Miss Representation had good intentions, and I do think it is a decent, if not groundbreaking, documentary. Although it doesn’t really present any new information or issues, nor does it suggest any new solutions to the problems it discusses, it does summarize many of the problems with media’s relationship to women in a format that is accessible to the general public, which I believe is its intent. So in that regard it’s a very good documentary.
My main issue with it (and other films, books, etc. like it) is that it approaches the issues of sexism and feminism in extremely gender normative ways. There is a tendency throughout the film toward conflating sex and gender so that the words “woman” and “female” are used interchangeably with the implication that if a person was assigned female at birth they are a girl/woman (depending on age) and that if a person was assigned male at birth they are a boy/man. Some of this (alright, a large part) is due to the fact that American culture generally views sex and gender in this manner, so that people who are assigned female at birth are raised as girls regardless of what their gender identity ultimately turns out to be. This does not, however, excuse the fact that the experiences and views of gender variant* people continue to be unexamined and removed from discourses on sexism and feminism. These thoughts and experiences complicate and expand the ways we, as a society, look at patriarchy, sexism and feminism. Gender variant people are impacted by, and relate to, sexism just as much as cisgender, however the form this impact takes may be different than those traditionally examined. To deny gender variant people the chance to discuss their experiences with sexism is not only discriminatory but also denying our discourse a fuller understanding of what sexism is and how it functions in our society. Of course none of this is to say that the experiences of ciswomen shouldn’t be discussed, it’s merely pointing out that we reduce our ability to combat discrimination when we perpetuate it in our discourses about its effects.
My second (and somewhat related) issue with Miss Representation is that it is very focused on the impact of media on feminine women and girls without addressing how masculine women and girls may relate to these same issues. Although Rachel Maddow is interviewed in the film and makes reference to the fact that she receives hate mail based on her appearance, there is essentially no discussion of the compulsory femininity that permeats US culture. And since compulsory femininity is one of the effects of media representations of women, I find the omission of a discussion of masculinity/femininity particularly glaring. Again, I know that some of this omission is due precisely to that compulsory femininity which means that it is extremely difficult for women to attain power (whether through fame, politics or otherwise) without conforming to certain cultural ideas about what is properly feminine. But there are masculine women in the public sphere who the film could have interviewed, and it could have better used the interviews it did include with masculine women. Not addressing the different ways these women might (or might not) relate to media representations is dismissive and enforces some of the very issues the film attempts to combat. I don’t want anyone to think that I am disparaging or calling for an end to femininity and feminine women in these critiques. I’m simply trying to point out the ways in which the arguments could have been expanded (and in that expansion, likely strengthened).
I guess I’m just tired of watching documentaries like this and not seeing myself reflected in them. I do not identify as a woman and I am certainly not (and never have been) feminine, yet I am impacted by sexism and media representations of women. I am impacted in ways that are similar to the way the ciswomen presented in the film discussed but I am also impacted in different ways. And these are distinct from the ways (according to the film) cismen are impacted. We need a radical reimaging of how we address sexism and feminism that includes gender variant people and more nuanced understandings of gender presentation. We need documentaries about sexism that aren’t made simply by ciswomen about ciswomen and aired on tv stations targeted at women (e.g. OWN). We need representations of the wide variety of gender identities and presentations that make up our society because if we don’t have them, our understanding of our culture will continue to be limited by the narrow view through which we interpret it.
*I use the phrase “gender variant” here rather than some variation of “transgender” primarily because, although many people use transgender as an umbrella term for people who do not conform to gender norms, many others do not. Particularly since I do not identify as transgender despite having a nonbinary gender identity, I felt that using “gender variant” would be less alienating.