Friday, October 21, 2011

Women are misrepresented in the media: is this really a surprise?

Photo courtesy of
There's been a lot of talk about the representation of women in media, talk that is largely centered around Jennifer Newsom's documentary Miss Representation, which premiered on OWN last night. Everyone from FOX News to The Daily Beast has written about the film, detailing the disheartening influence that portrayals of women on TV, in films and in magazines have on women of all ages. The comments from young girls who are interviewed in the film are certainly heartbreaking; no woman should spend all her time obsessing about her appearance, much less the elementary school-aged girls interviewed for the film. The issue at stake here is certainly an important one; it just isn't as shocking as these news outlets are presenting it.

The article on The Daily Beast, for example, begins with a selection of shocking (and terribly sad) quotes from teen and pre-teen girls about the body image the media has forced on them, and then goes on to describe the way that Newsom "tackles Hollywood, TV news, advertising and politics - all against a backdrop of young women who consume all of it." It isn't until a third of the way through the piece that the author acknowledges that this issue certainly isn't a new one; even then, the many other films, books and articles that have discussed this issue - none of which are even mentioned by name - by saying that these pieces are outdated as a result of increasing media saturation.

This isn't really a problem with the article itself; I actually felt it was generally interesting, well-written and well-researched, which is more than I can say for many other articles found on the site. The problem here seems to be that, no matter how often this issue is brought to the public's attention, it fades out of public consciousness just as quickly. Of course, the very news media doing the reporting on the issue is certainly complicit in its burial; after all, the coverage of Newsom's documentary is found pretty far down on The Daily Beast's entertainment page. What's above it? A list of men Scarlett Johanssen has dated and an article about the many permutations of sexual partners on Jersey Shore.

The Daily Beast, busy correcting the misrepresentation of women in the media.

I think it's great that Newsom's documentary is getting so much attention. As a woman who has moments of absolute, pathetic self-loathing as a result of comparing myself to the women I see in the media, I completely agree that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with. (I've talked about it multiple times before, in fact.) And I'm a smart, confident woman who is generally pretty happy with her physical appearance (except for those aforementioned instances of self-hatred). I'm not an impressionable middle-school girl.

The problem here is the likelihood that Newsom's documentary will have no long-term impact. In 2006, the fashion industry became the center of a women-in-media firestorm when Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston and Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos both died of complications from eating disorders. This led to attempts to create and enforce guidelines, including a Madrid Fashion Week ban on models whose BMI fell below a cutoff number and attempts by various fashion bodies to pass guidelines about model weight. Five years later, runway models are just as skeletal as they were in 2006 while fashion magazines are lauded for featuring "plus-size" models who are two sizes smaller than the average American woman. Is there any indication that the increased awareness of the issues raised in Newsom's film will fare better?

Pointing out these problems doesn't do any good unless it affects change in the media, and the media is nowhere close to the kind of major overhaul that Newsom's film posits as an ideal. The vast majority of high-ranking entertainment executives are men, and the most coveted demographic for advertisers is young men. Until the entertainment industry is no longer geared towards an advertiser's perception of what young men want (which, I should be clear, does not always correspond to what actual men want; most of my male friends care more about a woman's personality than whether she looks like Jessica Alba), the portrayal of women on television isn't going to change, no matter how many documentaries Newsom makes.

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