The first reaction I had while watching Miss Representation was “Nawwww. No way.” This was in response to a clip of some political pundit implicating Hillary Clinton for some deep-seated desire to castrate men, accompanied by a sustained urge to choke in disbelief.
The second reaction went something like “Not all men…”, or to be more honest, “Not me! I don’t do that!”
And I would tend to think that this perspective is shared among the educated subset of my gender. No one’s really sexist anymore, right? Sexism is dead and gone, eliminated fifty years ago. Women can vote, women hold professional jobs and political positions, women win Emmys and Oscars and Nobels. The age of gender discrimination is long gone, a book opened at Seneca Falls and closed by the Nineteenth Amendment.
But of course, societal change hardly ever effects itself so neatly. Just as the African-American struggle against discrimination didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation, so too do women continue to face subtle yet unbelievable societal barriers against achieving true equality in every field from politics to education to science and engineering, and nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal and presence of women in our media.
Here are some numbers from Miss Representation:
1. Of all major players in media corporations, those kingpins of media who largely control what we consume, only 3% are female.
2. Out of all film protagonists, only 16% are female.
3. The United States ranks 90th in the world when it comes to the number of women we have in politics.
4. Women are twice as likely as men to be described as emotional, or to be described with emotionally-connoted words.
The fact of the matter is that media both reflects and influences our society, and we as people have a tendency to align ourselves with the ideas, direct or implicit, proffered to us by what we see. And what is it that we see? Princesses waiting for princes to rescue them. Women who exist only as love interests for the protagonist to win. A societal norm, taken seemingly for granted, that what matters about prominent women (whether they be celebrities or Secretaries of State), is foremost how they dress and how in shape they are.
How did we arrive at this juncture in our civilization? Could it be that we as race are just inherently sexist? Miss Representation points instead at the deregulation of media content beginning in the late 1970s, resulting in a decreased emphasis on quality journalism and content and an upswing in shock value, sex, profanity, violence, and everything else that wins eyeballs and profits for media conglomerates. Any sense of social obligation for producers disappeared, replaced by the mantra that “We exist to make money,” and it seems to be in fact the case that sexualizing and objectifying women rakes in the cash. Mix that with the crushingly high proportion of male producers and writers who seem only able to write about male perspectives and male stories, and we have a self-fulfilling cycle of institutional sexism and an absence of dimensional role models for young girls in film or TV.
So where do I fit in? In a society where mutual human respect seems scarce, how can we stop the turning wheel of the self-interested media machine? Luckily there’s one aspect of the media world that Miss Representation wholly failed to examine–and that’s social media.
A large part of the reason I was shocked by the clips in Miss Representation was because I’d never been exposed to the kind of punditry that blatantly insults women simply for their gender. My favorite (and only) TV show in childhood was Glee, and as I entered college I moved on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both excellent shows with prominent, even heavyhanded messages of human value, basic respect for others regardless of differences, and self-empowerment. More importantly, I was privileged enough to grow up in the social media spheres on Tumblr and Reddit that exposed me to ample information about institutional or casual sexism, the Bechdel test, basic theories of gender and sexuality, and above all, fandoms celebrating prominent role models of human equality, fictional and nonfictional, that seem now to be gaining traction: Hermione Granger, Emma Watson, Beyonce, Laverne Cox, Jennifer Lawrence, Buffy Summers, Wonder Woman, and Gail Simone. For me, media was a way to understand, accept, respect, and celebrate the diversity of humankind. It provided me a sprawling window into the lives and struggles of myriad people whose existences were never represented or even acknowledged in mainstream content.
Mainstream media does appear to be picking up the social obligation it dropped three decades ago, demonstrating that sex isn’t the only thing that sells: Orange is the New Black, Frozen, Tangled, Brave, Firefly, and Once Upon a Time are all shows or films with incredible amounts of pure artistic value, not to mention diverse, dimensional, and therefore interesting female characters in all sorts of roles.
Moreover, the new connectivity of our modern world means that independent media production is becoming more and more common, with Welcome to Night Vale featuring a gay protagonist and the upcoming crowdfunded movie Hullabaloo, featuring a female steampunk scientist/adventurer on a quest to find her missing father. The gates of media, guarded so zealously by a bastion of male producers, are no longer the only way to enter the media conversation. Because that’s what media is now: no longer a one-way street from corporate producers to passive consumers, but a thriving dialogue between producers and fans who themselves produce, critique, and reimagine content.
This is not to say that sexism in media is no longer a problem. Scantily clad women remain abundant in contexts where it makes no sense to be scantily clad (helloooo, video games and car advertisements). Pundits continue to place female politicians under unfair scrutiny about everything from their qualifications to their clothes. But we are no longer simple consumers subject to the stories of the powerful, and the tools to create and publish our own stories are giving rise to a newly egalitarian media ecosystem where everyone has a voice. Corporate media must eventually submit to the will of the new society, but until then, it’s up to us to represent ourselves, take up those tools, and start making our stories known, filling in the gaps in the mainstream perspective and initiating a media tradition that is socially aware instead of self-interested.