Sundance Review: 'Miss Representation'
Jennifer Siebel Newsom's doc challenges viewers to look at media in different ways
PARK CITY - When reviewing "The Green Wave" yesterday, one of my complaints was that despite a fair measure of artistic ambition, the Iran-centric documentary was a polemic without a clear call-to-action. It's not a bad film by any means, but it's something of an intellectual dead-end.
That is one complaint that you won't hear from me regarding Jennifer Siebel Newsom's "Miss Representation," an American Documentary competition entry that premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on Saturday (Jan. 22) afternoon. "Miss Representation" is also a polemic, but while it lacks any notable aesthetic vision, it delivers its message and its progressive objectives with impressive clarity, closing with an admirable and reachable call-to-action.
"Miss Representation" may often feel like the barely cinematic equivalent of a grad school media studies thesis, but it's also a documentary that will spur questions and conversations, one that could inspire and change lives.
Full review of "Miss Representation" after the break...
The message behind Siebel Newsom's documentary is shouted loud and clear: The treatment of women in popular culture and the mass media is disgraceful and due to the perpetual objectification of women and due to particularly heinous treatment of women in leadership roles, a vicious cycle is created, denying young girls of aspirational figures outside of certain hyper-sexualized molds and perpetuating damaging social norms through the generations.
When I call "Miss Representation" a grad school media studies thesis, that may be giving it slightly too much credit for original scholarship. If you went and pitched this to an advisor, the likely response would be, "Well sure. OK. Now what's *your* angle?"
Featuring more than a few academics who have, themselves, developed unique angles within this field, "Miss Representation" is content to extrapolate on this thesis and give it depth. Not surprisingly, the film's core villain is the financially driven entertainment industry in which male-driven media conglomerates and male-driven advertisers have made unilateral decisions on what people want to watch and what people want to buy and they've completely mingled the representations that appear in commercials, movies and TV shows. The exploitation of female bodies sells products and it sells entertainments and as long as that's the case, there's little incentive for anything to change.
But getting past a system that is, itself, broken from the very top, Siebel Newsom points fingers in many directions. There are the talent-free self-exploiters like Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson and basically every woman to ever appear on a reality show. There are the pundits on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, whose handling of women like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin or Nancy Pelosi has largely embarrassed. There are the meat-market tabloid magazines and entertainment news programs that thrive on bikini bodies and cellulite and accuse starlets of being pregnant if they don't have eating disorders. There are the fashion magazines and less-tabloid-y glossies that airbrush and doctor their images, while accentuating very limited ranges of female beauty. There's the FCC, which has pretty much abandoned the idea of a family hour, or the once-held doctrine that networks utilizing the public airwaves have a responsibility to the public good. There are the women who reinforce stereotypes that strong or pretty women will inevitably be catty and competitive with other strong or pretty women and are dedicated to bringing each other down.
Siebel Newsom assembles her evidence in three different ways.
There are the statistics, damning statistics, that materialize on the screen in blue puffs of animation and list the number of women with eating disorders, the number of women who have been sexual assaulted, the number of women on Viacom's Board of Directors, the paucity of depictions of women over 40 on television and in movies, the extreme rarity of female writers and directors in both media, the number of female US Presidents throughout the years, etc, etc, etc. Sometimes the linkage of statistics to surrounding material is a little weak, but you can't quibble with the numbers.
There are the clips and the clips are lethal. Focusing mostly on recent films and TV shows, Siebel Newsom manages an evisceration-by-assocation that targets everything from "Gossip Girl" to "The Bachelor" to "Transformers" to half the Super Bowl commercials that have ever aired. Even if you already knew with absolutely certainty that Siebel Newsom's thesis is correct, or at least easily defendable, it's hard not to be moved (disgusted, guilty, aroused) by the preponderance of evidence.
Finally, there's the all-star team of talking heads Siebel Newsom was able to recruit, including the aforementioned academics, plus Condoleeza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Daphne Zuniga, Gloria Steinem, Catherine Hardwicke, Rosario Dawson and many, many more. Also making more than a few appearances as The Most Enlightened Man in Politics, Gavin Newsom.
You probably already know that Newsom is Siebel Newsom's husband and there's something a bit awkward and unacknowledged about how noble he makes himself look. It's odd that the California Lt. Governor's connection to the filmmaker isn't mentioned, since Siebel Newsom inserts herself and her own biographical details into the film with with varying levels of effectiveness. I completely understand using her own childhood and the birth of her daughter as bookending segments, since "Miss Representation" is nothing if not a movie dedicated to all of the daughters out there. It's less appealing when Siebel Newsom tries to use her own experiences as an actress as proof of the lack of good roles for women, as if there could be no other possible reason she wasn't in the Oscar race each year. And while I understand Siebel Newsom's desire to narrate the film, it's imperative that she re-record the voice-over, since flat, affectless readings spoil several otherwise fine points.
There are places the film also prefers not to look. "Popular culture" to this doc means movies and TV only, because bringing in the way women are presented in the music world might force the acknowledgment that particularly in certain genres, the female singer-songwriter is a figure of some power and agency. A slew of successful female-driven TV shows -- "The Good Wife," "Damages" -- are passed over quickly as exceptions, while a show like "Grey's Anatomy" is simultaneously praised for strong female characters courtesy of a strong female showrunner, after having had several objectifying clips derided earlier. The inclusion of several clips and shows raised my hackles because I watch the shows and I know that in context, the clips meant very different things than the way they were presented here. [And finally, if you want to do a survey of great feminist achievements of the past 30 years, don't include Billie Jean King's victory over a geriatric Bobby Riggs if you don't want me to snort.]
Plenty of films can lay out evidence of a problem, but committing to saying, "Here are at least a few solutions" is gutsy. The last 15 minutes of "Miss Representation" are dedicated to what I keep referring to as the call to action. Some of the suggestions as as nebulous as "Measure yourself by your accomplishments and not how you look," but some are more concrete, including participation in mentorship programs and, if you happen to be a parent, encouraging children to examine media critically. I don't know how many of the viewers at Saturday's packed Sundance premiere weren't already prone to a confrontational approach to media, but I'm guessing that with wider exposure, "Miss Representation" will win converts.
Other Fien Print reviews from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: