What are we watching?

This weekend a friend shared a trailer for a documentary that premiered this year at Sundance called Miss Representation.  Interesting timing because to me, it was a perfect example of our unit on the question of media regulation.

The film talks about how the media portrays women in the U.S. and the consequences this has on our society.  Showing clips of scantily clad women on TV, the news, in magazines or clips from newscasters discussing women politicians’ appearances, plastic surgery, or their outfits, the film argues that given the amount of time we spend consuming media – internet, TV, radio, magazines – this portrayal of women is having drastic consequences on how girls view their roles in society.

I think this movie provides a great answer to the question of why media should be regulated.

Siochrú and Girard (2002) explained that media products require different regulation than other products. Media products are unique because “they produce us”.  That is, media products help us understand and define ourselves by providing us with the “raw materials, often even the tools, to comprehend what our society is beyond our immediate experience.”   Because of their important and transformative role in society, media products cannot be left to regulation solely by the market.

Miss Representation demonstrates this by arguing that the U.S. media is influenced by advertisers who have determined that women’s bodies are what sells, so this is what gets shown in the media.  As a result, the message transmitted to society is that value lies in beauty and sexuality, and consequently women become conditioned to view themselves in terms of their appearance and men conditioned to value women according to the same criteria. The lack of focus on women’s intellectual and leadership capabilities makes it more difficult for them to get leadership roles in business, politics, and society in general, which is harmful to our society because their voices do not get heard.  The movie points out examples like:

· “Little boys and little girls when they’re 7 years old in equal number want to be president of the United States when they grow up.  But then you ask the same question when they’re 15 and you see this massive gap emerging.”

· “Women hold only 3% of clout positions in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing and advertising.”

· “Women make up 51% of the U.S. population, yet comprise only 17% of Congress”

Media regulation then becomes necessary for two reasons: in ensuring that the message is not transmitting values that will be adopted by and harmful to our society and its different groups, and second, in ensuring that all voices and viewpoints are equally heard and represented.  If media is the means through which we learn about our communities we want to make sure the lessons we are learning are beneficial and fair, and that those lessons are accurate representations of all of society’s different members, rather than a select minority group.

In the film they make a point about the power of media as a tool for change.  I think this film is not only a tool for improving women’s status, but maybe even more so as a reminder to us to look more critically at our media, how we interpret its messages and the effect it has on how we view ourselves and our lives.

Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection)





4 thoughts on “What are we watching?

  1. Z’leste, the buzz around this particular film in the various women’s organizations has been very big this summer/fall (I know as I intern for the National Council of Women’s Organizations and we hear about it frequently). And while I definitely agree that media produces who we are as Siochrú and Girard state and “Miss Representation” illustrates their point, I’m still unsure if I agree with the idea of regulating media.

    Your second point about making sure that people are heard is one that I can get behind in favor of media regulation, however, I am unsure about the first one you list, “ensuring that the message is not transmitting values that will be adopted by and harmful to our society”. I think my big problem here comes from what values are you referring to exactly as every person has a different set of values? There is no universal list that claims “X is right and Y is wrong”.

    I think that perhaps instead of media regulation, media literacy should be more prominent. If people are taught to be critical of the media they consume, they will be able to tell and differentiate what is fact, fiction, etc.

  2. This looks like an interesting documentary, I hope it would cover the advertising industry as well. Media literacy should not just include separating fact from fiction, but also an awareness that cover models and pictures are about as fake as you can get. Models sit in make-up chairs for hours, get perfect lighting, and then are photoshopped on top of it. This image of perfection that constantly surrounds us influences and harasses girls, you can’t escape it in the digital world.

  3. Becky, I agree with you about the diversity in value sets and that there is no universal set. My point here was more to ensure that a message is not continually transmitting a value that has a harmful effect on a specific population subgroup, as it blends into the second point, so as not to hurt that group’s opportunity to get their perspective heard. I think as long as a multitude of perspectives get through, rather than for example in this case, a predominate view that is hurtful towards women and results in them getting less fair representation since they then have difficulty overcoming the stereotypes and getting into positions where they might be able to make changes, then some form of quality control is necessary.
    As it is, the media is being regulated in some way by advertising so an opposing force might help create a checks and balances type situation. Like you said, media literacy being more prominent could be key, so giving the space for documentaries such as these to grab people’s attention could help with the balance.

  4. Z’leste,

    To piggyback on Becky’s comment above:

    Not only does promotion of particular values via media regulation raise the issue of “choosing” a particular set to promote; in shooting for “accurate representations of all of society’s different members,” we would quickly run into some truly sticky issues. To regulate accurate minority representation, for example, would we instate racial quotas? Gender requirements? Or, to take your example a bit further, weight requirements? Would we—indeed, could we—require a certain percentage of plus-sized models in advertising to “accurately” represent the bodies of real American women?

    I don’t want to belabor the point; I know you probably wouldn’t advocate many, if any of those proscriptions. I agree completely with your assertion that the messages our media and advertising send to women and girls can be terribly harmful to society. I just wonder if there is a solution, and if that solution involves media regulation at all? Of course, we’ve done things like this before in American media—take censorship for foul language, based on an arguably arbitrary set of words we’ve “agreed” as a society are “bad.” Who knows what the solution is?

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