Today's blog is brought to you by active Boston GLOW volunteer, Katie Rooney. Rooney recently received her M.S. in Ethics and Public Policy at Suffolk University, while concentrating her studies in environmental policy. She is a feminist, environmental activist, and a political junkie. Follow her on twitter, @rooney_katie.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend Boston GLOW’s screening of the film, Miss Representation. I was thrilled to be welcomed by a large and diverse group of people who showed up to see the film on a cold and rainy night. To be honest, I was not sure what to expect from Miss Representation – but I can assure you that the film exceeded all my expectations. I have considered myself a feminist since I first learned the meaning of the word, and I have also considered myself knowledgeable about the discrepancies and double standards involved in how the media portrays women. I've taken the classes. I've read the literature. I've had the late night rant sessions. Regardless of the knowledge I have gained over the years, it was shocking to see the overwhelmingly negative messages about women that are prevalent in the media. This film was a powerful reminder of the dangerous messages that everyone receives from the media and the ramifications this has on young people – particularly young women.
A couple weeks after viewing the film, I've found myself continuously reflecting on the film, and, since the film encourages action, I'd be remiss not to share my thoughts:
1. The film begins with the following statistic: “In one week American teenagers spend 31 hours watching TV, 17 hours listening to music, 3 hours watching movies, 4 hours reading magazines, 10 hours online. That’s 10 hours and 45 minutes of media consumption a day.”
Yikes. I thought it was bad for me when I was teenager, but fortunately for me, I had a strict overbearing mother who did not allow me to purchase teen magazines, or use the internet (remember when we had to use encyclopedias, and almanacs to do homework? Didn’t think so.) As far as teenagers go, I was fairly well adjusted and confident. However insecurities were unavoidable – I went through periods where I hated the way I looked. I was never overweight, but I was also never going to be the “perfect size 6.” I can remember looking at models in magazines and hating myself for not having their clear skin and skinny legs.
I spent way too much time hating on myself as a teen – and it wasn’t even bad for me. As an adult it is important to realize that teenagers today are faced with a new set of challenges that did not exist 15 years ago. With the Kardashians, Snooky, Miley Cyrus, hurtful gossip on Facebook, reality TV, etc., it is a small miracle that smart empowered young women do emerge from this climate.
2. It is also worth mentioning that none of the women who appeared in the documentary were airbrushed – and it was noticeable. It was comforting to watch famous women speak about their personal experiences and struggles, while looking like normal people. Props to Rachel Maddow for appearing without make-up!
3. The piece of the film that had the most significant impact on me was learning about the discrepancies in how the media covers female politicians.
I am sure we all remember the 2008 presidential race. Hillary Clinton was a candidate with exceptional experience, and well-developed policies (certainly better than Herman Cain’s “999” plan in my opinion). However, Senator Clinton was frequently referred to as a bitch, and the media was likely to dissect her outfits and haircuts before her proposed policies and initiatives. When issues were discussed, “Mrs. Clinton’s” success was attributed to her husband. Then enters Sarah Palin – basically the exact opposite of Hillary Clinton. While I may not agree with Sarah Palin’s politics, I do think it was disgusting and unfair how the media sexualized her. From watching the news coverage of the election, it looks like female politicians are all either shrewy bitches, or sexy idiots – so much for positive female role models!
Watching the piece about female politicians reminded me of something that one of my high school history teachers said to my class when we were learning about Catherine the Great. He said, “Women tend to be the best leaders – not because they are inherently smarter or better than men, but because there are so many extra barriers to overcome that the ones who make it to the top are the best.” As I continued to investigate, I learned that it was true. Apparently, “women introduce more bills, participate more vigorously in key legislative debates and give more of the one-minute speeches that open each daily session”.
So, we're left with a conundrum. Although women tend to be better legislators, they still make up a mere 17% of elected officials in the US. We need more female legislators, and not only because they are so damn good at it. Women and minorities are underrepresented in legislatures, and when policies are primarily written by white men, the needs and priorities of women and minorities are not being addressed.
When the film ended, I could sense a thoughtful hush among the crowd. While it is certainly discouraging and overwhelming to learn about the discrepancies in how the media portrays women, I think I can speak for everyone in that audience by saying that I left with a sense of optimism, and a desire to challenge the status quo.
The poster for Miss Representation includes the tagline “You can’t be what you can’t see”. As I reflect on this, I become thankful for the women role models I can see, the famous women who challenge the status quo making women leaders visible to us all. Personally, I admire comedians like Sarah Silverman, Kristin Wiig, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey (I highly suggest reading Bossy Pants!). They have proven that women are in fact funny – they do not play the “straight man” character, or the wife on the sidelines; they play lead characters that are hilarious. Maybe if women like these empowered leading ladies were more prevelent than size zero models in bikinis, women would be more likely to direct tv shows or run town offices!
So my conclusion is that we should focus on the women that we CAN see. I am thankful for the visibility of countless mothers, aunts, teachers, coaches, and other women who serve as positive role models for young women. While media messages are no doubt influential, I believe that a strong female role model can counteract the worst media messages (in fact, the most influential teen role models are family members. There is more information on that here).
Watching Miss Representation reminded me that I am a member of a broader community with organizations like Boston GLOW, who foster opportunities for women to become empowered community leaders. I also looked around realizing we were sitting in the YWCA Boston whose very mission is eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. I remain thankful and committed to fostering a world where women are given opportunities for empowerment.
Personally, I have taken Miss Representation’s pledge to use my voice to spread the message and become another visible woman speaking up for change, and I encourage everyone who reads this to do the same. Major media outlets may be owned by old white men who are more concerned about ratings and advertisements than respecting women, but the power to shape young minds lies with us.