‘Miss Representation’: Local women discuss sexism in media

State Rep. Livvy Floren (R-149th) takes part in a post-film discussion about the documentary Miss Representation, which discusses the ways the media damages women through its portrayals and how that can be overcome.—Kait Shea photo

State Rep. Livvy Floren (R-149th) takes part in a post-film discussion about the documentary Miss Representation, which discusses the ways the media damages women through its portrayals and how that can be overcome.
—Kait Shea photo

In the United States, 65% of women and girls have an eating disorder, the number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed on youth 18 or younger more than tripled from 1997 to 2007, and the country is 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures — and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

These and other astounding facts about female inequality in the United States are revealed in Miss Representation, a 90-minute documentary recently viewed and discussed by members of the YWCA and the Junior League of Greenwich (JLG).

The organizations banded together for the film event at the Bow Tie Criterion Cinema on Railroad Avenue, in hope of fortifying their common goals of empowering women and developing their potential, said YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer. It seems their goal was accomplished, as an open discussion after the documentary brought high participation from women in the audience who voiced concerns about the film’s central issues relating to women, power and the media.

“This is the third time I’ve seen this [film] and my jaw continues to drop,” said Suzanne Adam, director of domestic abuse services for the YWCA.

Miss Representation was written, directed and produced by actor and filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom — one of many familiar faces found throughout the documentary. Interviews with a number of well-known men and women, including Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Nancy Pelosi, Margaret Cho, Geena Davis, Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, Cory Booker, and many more, constitute the majority of the film, as they comment on the mainstream media’s sexism and mistreatment of women.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, the film had its broadcast premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network and continues to be viewed in theaters across the country. It has even become somewhat of a Twitter phenomenon, urging women to use the hashtag “not buying it” to call out the media when it misrepresents or degrades girls or women.

Perhaps it is the film’s staggering statistics that keep audiences coming back for more: Women make up 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs; 33 countries have had women presidents; American women respond to advertising by spending more money on the pursuit of beauty than on their own education; women account for 7% of directors and 13% of film writers in the top 250 grossing films.

In fact, women and girls are the subject of less than 20% of news stories, said Martha Lauzen of the Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film.

“When a group is not featured in the media …  it is called symbolic annihilation,” she said.

That topic took off after JLG and YWCA members held a discussion following the documentary, led by state Rep. Livvy Floren (149th District) and Teresa Younger, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.”

One of the first questions posed by the audience was how Miss Representation could be used to teach children. In response, Ms. Floren said children must be taught what’s right and wrong when they are young and parents must serve as models for the changes they want to see in others. Ms. Younger agreed, saying parents must be aware of sexism if they want their children to recognize it.

The film “causes us to stop, think and question, and I don’t think we do that enough,” Ms. Younger said. Women must always be aware of “what’s missing,” such as women in general, women of color or women of a specific age group, and should teach their children the same way of critically thinking, she said.

When asked by a college student how to reconcile women’s sexual liberation with empowerment, Ms. Younger told the audience the key to the issue is not only being true to oneself but remembering not to judge other women by how they interpret it. Most important, she said, is for women to make sure they are being given attention for the right reasons.

“Wear what you want, be confident, but make sure you are heard,” Ms. Younger said.

Ms. Floren also focused on the importance of women knowing who they are, adding, “then let them get out of the way.”

Another audience member identified herself as the mother of three daughters, one of whom was “distraught” after her local elementary school conducted its first rehearsal for the school play. Students were practicing the cancan, and the young girl, whom her mother described as having glasses and being “a little heavier,” was in the back row, along with friends who had a similar look.

Though it is directed by women, the play is “the most sexually explicit elementary school show you could ever imagine,” the mother said, asking Ms. Floren and Ms. Younger what she should tell her daughter about being cast in the last row because of her physical appearance.

Ms. Younger responded by suggesting that the mother have at least two conversations — one with the women directing the play about her expectations as a parent and one with her daughter about finding her own voice.

“Tell her she has a voice to challenge authority,” Ms. Younger said.

Other audience members wanted to know where the status of women stood and if they had taken “a step backward” since the debut of Miss Representation in 2011.

Ms. Floren answered by addressing violence in video games and advertising.

“It’s going to be the women that are going to stand up and say, enough,” Ms. Floren said.

Ms. Younger responded by discussing the half-time show at this year’s Superbowl. While it was “exciting” to see singer Beyonce working with an entourage of all women — from the band to the dancers — the performers “were completely sexualized in as little bit of clothing as they could have gotten away with,” she said. Women’s status at the present seems to be an attempt to balance sexual liberty and empowerment, Ms. Younger said, adding that women have all of the purchasing power in the country.

“If we decide not to buy a product or clothing from a store with half sizes … it will happen … but we as a society haven’t done that as women or given men that option,” she said.

Another woman in the audience asked, with 92% of the media owned and controlled by men, how can women be given more control over the messages sent to the public?

One of the first ways to reverse this trend, Ms. Younger said, is for women to write letters to local newspaper editors and others in charge of local media. Making an impact on one’s community by challenging the media at a local level is the first step towards a nationwide change, she said.

Ms. Floren said the issue was a matter of education, economics and training. More women need to not only enter the media field, she said, but to rise up to active, important roles within the industry.

“We’re going to have to be the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit,” Ms. Floren said.


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