That the portrayal of women in the media is by and large reductive, over-sexualized or perpendicular to reality is obvious. What’s less clear is what effect that has on the choices that real people make. That issue doesn’t receive much clarity through Miss Representation (2011), a documentary that brings up an important issue and feels that that is enough. I’m behind what the movie is about, but I can’t get behind the way it is about it, which undercuts its own message and draws some irresponsible conclusions without solid evidence, all while self-importantly pretending to be pulling back the curtain on a shocking development. “This is not new,” Jane Fonda says in an interview in Miss Representation. No kidding.
The documentary brings together an important cavalcade of voices about women in politics and power and how gender portrayal in movies, television, news broadcasts and advertising stymies their representations in the halls of business or political leadership. According to the movie, things have never been worse for women in media, judging from the violent and sexual images in ads, the catty and gold-digging types that proliferate reality television and the refusal of the news to focus on a female politician’s issues and not their looks, especially when that news is delivered by female journalists who are dressed more like cocktail waitresses than professionals. This is an important discussion, one that shouldn’t be treated lightly, and the documentary compiles an impressive list of serious advocates saying intelligent things, it gives depressing and terrifying statistics on the percentages of women in leadership positions and compiles embarrassing and infuriating clips of misogyny and sexism on screen and in print. However, the movie lacks a focus, a strong voice and an ability to make sharp connections.
The movie starts off with a quote from Alice Walker (“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”) and closes with one from Mahatma Gandhi (“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”), but in between it betrays their message. Too much time is devoted to blaming faceless corporations who “control” the media and therefore our thoughts. Too little credence is given to the idea of an individual’s ability to recognize when they are being manipulated. It spends much of its time warning of the media’s influence on the next generation, but then has a number of interviews with thoughtful teens, presumably the next crop of tastemakers and powerbrokers, who are bright enough to recognize that what they see on TV is often in stark contrast to what they see in themselves or in the women around them. Even the movie’s own marketing undercuts Walker’s and Gandhi’s self-empowerment argument. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” is splashed across the film’s print material. Leaving aside for a moment that it would seem to be more appropriate for it to be “You can’t be what you don’t see,” is the movie suggesting that young girls and women cannot become leaders unless they are shown how to by the media?
Much of the hard facts are truly horrifying, especially in regard to the rise of eating disorders among young women in the last decade or so, but when the documentary moves away from solid numbers, it doesn’t pervasively connect the dots, preferring slick juxtapositions of images in the hope of making a point that is hardly self-evident. The buttressing of a picture of Shirley Chisholm and Paris Hilton doesn’t automatically convince us of the deteriorating state of women, just as a picture of Bobby Seale against the picture of Larry the Cable Guy wouldn’t bewail the status of men. There have always been sages and fools, and sexism wasn’t invented by Louis Lumière or Philo Farnsworth. The movie looks at the images in the media then looks at the rise of anorexia and assumes that they are linked. I don’t know if they are linked, but I wasn’t informed one way or another by Miss Representation.
The movie offers plenty of people to blame (It’s the media! It’s the government! It’s the Heritage Foundation! It’s other women!), and its solution, which is shoehorned over the credits as either vague platitudes or jumbled and scattered implorations to patronize female-controlled products and media, exposes the movie’s policy of accepting responsibility only when it’s convenient. You can’t assert that it’s individuals who have the power to undo the damage of misrepresentation while ignoring that it’s individuals who created it. The movie uses a blanketed catch-all of capitalism as its target but doesn’t recognize that capitalism is driven by individual demand. Fonda, and a few others like Katie Couric and Jennifer Pozner, the Executive Director of Women in Media & News, an advocacy group, emerge as the most clear-headed participants by positioning that it’s up to individuals and families to help resist and reject the negative images and to not rely on government or media to reform itself. The movie would rather put together a flashy graphic about what corporations own which media outlets.
There’s also a proclivity toward making it seem as though female disenfranchisement is a 20th-century phenomenon and that it’s getting worse. Paul Haggis complains about how screen characters used to be more interesting and bemoans how uncomplicated modern heroines are. “We really like to put people in boxes now.” That’s irony from the maker of Crash (2005), a movie that depends largely on stereotypes. Further, Miss Representation has some spurious ideas about what can be considered positive female developments, citing both Twilight (2008) and the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match* as momentous steps forward. What does it say about a movie that extols the dangers of having a few images speak for all women when it’s trying to do the same?
What frustrates me about the movie is that it has a terrifically important story to tell and it doesn’t rise to the occasion. It pretends to be the definitive document on the issue but it’s not big enough; it feels terribly limited and small. Women face a real crisis of identity in this country and around the world, and we all deserve a documentary that strongly illustrates that instead of playing fast and loose with its assumptions. “You have to look like Miss USA, have sex like Samantha from Sex in the City and think like June Cleaver,” says Pozner and I am in complete sympathy for the impossibility of that sentiment, and I believe that Miss Representation should be seen by as many people as possible for no other reason than the valuable statistics it reveals but a complete document, it is not.
Like The Invisible War (2012), a powerful documentary about sexual abuse in the military, Miss Representation appeals to the emotions, but The Invisible War earned that by drawing concrete lines between its statistical evidence and its emotive anecdotes. There’s no doubt Miss Representation appeals to the emotional side and makes a stunning and immediate impact (I watched the movie online and some pop-up ads that accompanied the movie were teasers promoting pictures of NBA cheerleaders and pictures of what female child stars of the ’90s look like now; I’d seen ads like them before, of course, but they took on an extra poignancy), but some of that is dissolved by its making. The movie and its website of news alerts, advocacy projects and resources create an overall positive, but that doesn’t excuse the lapses in responsible filmmaking.
I often wonder if I wouldn’t rather see a well-made documentary extolling a message I don’t believe in or one, like Miss Representation, which appeals to my politics but not my film aesthetic. The answer for me is decidedly the latter (Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will  is undoubtedly well-made, but I’d rather watch Miss Representation one hundred more times before I sit through the odious Triumph again), but just because I agree with its sentiment doesn’t mean I can overlook its execution.
Still, more than most movies, Miss Representation forced me to self-evaluate, which is something I crave from issue documentaries like it. For example, a scan of my Top 100 movies page on this site shows not a single film directed by a women and it isn’t unknown to me that The Invisible War, which I used in this review as a positive example, was directed by a man, whereas Miss Representation is not. I could blame the system (some of Miss Representation’s sad stats include the paltry number of female directors and screenwriters in Hollywood and the dearth of female protagonists who aren’t solely in pursuit of a man’s love) and I won’t back away from thinking The Invisible War is a sounder movie than Miss Representation but the choice to select only male-directed movie for my top 100 was mine (though they weren’t selected for that reason). Top 100 lists are silly because they pose an impossible conundrum of ranking art and can I really say that Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1958) or Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) is appreciably better than Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (1990) or Mary Herron’s American Psycho (2000) or any other of the numerous movies directed by women that could compete for a spot on mine, or anyone’s list? Then why aren’t they there? Miss Representation would have you believe it, and a number of other transgressions, are because of the media. It didn’t convince me, and I was on its side, but it made me think which makes it more than worthwhile.
*I’m not undercutting Billie Jean King’s contribution to the movement for gender equality, only pointing out that King was one of the greatest tennis players of all time, a winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles, 39 titles overall, and her accomplishments are too often boiled down to her putting a buffoon who had been retired for more than a decade in his place. Twilight on the other hand, features a girl at its center who exists only in relation to the men in her life, it could be argued that she is the driver of her romantic destiny, but she is hardly a unanimous feminist icon.