September 3, 2013

Women in 2013 Marathon: Miss Representation


At the 2009 Academy Awards, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was the big winner and earned her the first Best Director Oscar for a woman. This award seems to signify great strides towards gender equality. Unfortunately, the truth falls short of those expectations. Studies have revealed that the percentage of women directing films may actually be regressing. How is this possible? There are numerous reasons for this trend, and smarter writers have crafted excellent pieces covering this theme. The disheartening numbers remind me that we haven’t made so much progress. I have two daughters and would like to hope that our society will keep moving forward. It’s easy for me to criticize the inequality, but it’s also hypocritical. I’ve written very few articles about movies directed by women for this blog. It’s time to start rectifying that issue.

This marathon will focus on recent films with female directors. My plan was to only write about 2013 releases, but I’m making an exception here. Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary Miss Representation was released in 2011 but provides the perfect mission statement for this marathon. It’s time to focus on filmmakers who deserve more attention and rarely get it. Beyond this group of movies, I’m hoping to concentrate more on women during each new theme. The percentages are far too low, but there still are plenty of interesting voices that warrant the spotlight.


What’s the story about?
The media landscape is shifting rapidly, and many changes represent progress. However, this isn’t always true when it comes to the depiction of women. Newsom talks to prominent figures in politics, television, and academia to identify major issues in the way our society presents women. Using statistics, striking images, and personal anecdotes, she paints a bleak picture of our forward movement when it comes to gender.

What are the primary themes explored within this movie?
Newsom opens the documentary with images and statistics that present her mission statement. We need to hold the media and others in power responsible for their limited perspective on women. Empowerment might not go as far as we expect. A good example is Katie Couric, who describes the challenges she faced as the first woman to anchor an evening news program. Commentators focused on what she was wearing and how much leg she showed. This is hardly a unique situation. The shots of others in revealing outfits while reporting the news say it all. Their counterparts are typically older guys who aren’t held to the same standards. Newsom makes similar points in a variety of areas, and they all point to the predominant theme. The representation of women in our popular culture frequently limits them into simple categories.


Which moments stand out as highlights?
There are plenty of engaging topics, and Newsom doesn’t get bogged down by the talking-head format. She throws in enough images to keep the story moving. One highlight (or lowlight) is the look at the treatment of female politicians, especially Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. The vitriol towards them is awful and says a lot about our limited progress. The double standard between how women and men are considered is brutal. The disparity in the numbers of representatives, governors, and senators also remains high. Condoleezza Rice was part of the messy Bush era, but she makes strong points about the challenges of being in a male-dominated administration. Photos of Rice sitting in a room full of white men are startling and spotlight the obstacles she overcame.

Which characters (if any) really connect us to this film?
Newsom has done an excellent job assembling intelligent women to make her case. Actors like Margaret Cho and Geena Davis remind us that Hollywood’s view of women is thin. The encouragement of actresses to get plastic surgery or risk their career is vicious. Newsom also brings her own stories from acting into the mix and gives some telling examples. Her slow delivery seems awkward at first, but it works as she delves further into her own experiences. A personal favorite is Rachel Maddow, who’s one of the brightest voices in television right now. She delves into the nasty responses about her sexuality and look with her typical aplomb. It’s also interesting to hear comments from high-school students who will really determine where our society is headed.


Does the director have an original vision and execute it well?
Miss Representation is designed to encourage us to question how women are portrayed in every aspect of the media. I consider myself a progressive guy, but I’ll admit that it’s easy to fall into the traps described in this documentary. This content may turn off some viewers who believe it’s one-sided, but I believe this perspective is needed to really change our views. The participants are intelligent, strong women that have experienced this bias firsthand. Newsom pulls no punches and shows the many ways that the structure remains set up to keep men in power. Progress has been made during the past few decades, but there’s still much to do in the future. This film makes a convincing case that we all should inspect media narratives and whether they’re truly giving everyone a fair shake.

Newsom's next project is The Mask You Live In and will explore the limits of masculinity. She raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter and met her funding goals. I'm looking forward to seeing what Newsom can do with this complex subject.

Next week, I’ll hit the road in Central Florida for Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine.

10 comments:

  1. This is a great film. As the father of two daughters, I had an intense interest in not only seeing this film, but making sure other people see it as well. I've done two presentations at work on it, both of which were very well received.

    It's a big issue, in part because it's so deeply ingrained in our culture that the attitudes have to be pointed out to people. It's greatly affected the way I view film and how I talk about the media with my girls.

    Great choice!

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    1. Steve, it doesn't surprise me that you're a fan of this film. I also have two daughters, though they're younger. Still, I'm already more engaged in how women are depicted in our culture. It isn't pretty. This film puts the issue front and center and reminds me to question the assumptions that are far too common. It's cool that you've passed it along at work too.

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  2. I agree not much progress has been made in politics and directing. The documentary speaks some truths. I'm all for the number of females in power increasing, so the female voice is heard. One of my favorite contemporary directors is a woman, Nicole Holofcener.

    On the flip side, I don't know how many women go to film school and want to be directors, I suppose its not all inequality. Granted the opportunities for them should be there, but there has to be a willingness to be a director too.

    Thanks for the bonus info about The Mask You Live In, I'll add it to my watchlist.

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    1. Chris, you do make a good point about the number of women trying to be directors probably being less. However, I think one of the reasons may be the fact that we aren't seeing that many big releases being directed by women. Role models play a big role in driving young people to certain careers.

      I think there's an institutional bias against female directors, and that does affect where people seek out jobs in the business. I know it's not that simple, but it's part of it at least. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. By pure coincidence, I just posted a review of The World Unseen, a 2007 film directed by a woman.

    The thing about Bigelow is that she directs films that you might just as easily expect a man to want to do. Most female directors tend to do films about relationships. This opens up a chicken or the egg situation - do women tend to do relationship films because that's the story they want to tell and the men prefer to do action movies, or is it because the men have taken all the big action films already and the relationship ones are all that's left for the women?

    I found it interesting that after Bigelow's win the only negative comments I remember hearing were from a woman - Sigourney Weaver. She had been in Avatar, which had lost to The Hurt Locker for Best Picture and Best Director, and afterwards she said that the only reason Bigelow won was because she had breasts.

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    1. Chip, I don't really agree with the comment about movies on relationships because there is a lot of diversity in films directed by women. However, I totally see your point about blockbusters and men.

      I think there are several factors at play here. One is definitely the boy's club mentality and idea among higher-ups that women should only direct certain kinds of movies. The other is just numbers and what's already been set up in the past. Unfortunately, there's still a long way to go before we see major changes in this arena.

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    2. "I don't really agree with the comment about movies on relationships because there is a lot of diversity in films directed by women."

      And men direct a lot more than just action films. I was making a general statement about two contrasting genres. One tends to be bigger budget, bigger box office, therefore bigger media attention - action films - and one tends to be smaller budget, smaller box office, therefore smaller media attention - relationship films.

      Check the ratios of men to women directing each genre and the latter will have far more women to men than the former, which then leads to the chicken or the egg question.

      Of course, there are always exceptions. There are cheaply made, direct to video action movies. And on the other side there's Titanic. Some would call that a relationship film since it wasn't seeing the ship sink a dozen times that kept people going back again and again.

      And it's not just women that get associated with certain genres. I remember the reaction when Antoine Fuqua directed the 2004 King Arthur film. The reaction from some was (and I'm using hyperbole here), "A black man is doing a King Arthur film? Shouldn't he be doing, I don't know, Spike Lee kinds of movies about race?"

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    3. Chip, that's a great example about Antoine Fuqua. I read a lot of similar things when Spike Lee directed The 25th Hour and Inside Man. How dare he do a genre film or a movie starring Edward Norton? I think that's the prevailing issue both of us are driving at here.

      Talking specifically about blockbusters, I believe many women aren't given a chance to direct a large-scale movie. You'll see a case where an upstart director gets to grab a franchise film for his second or third project. The opportunity is such a huge part of it.

      I do recognize this is a simplistic look at the situation from an outsider who doesn't know how it actually functions in Hollywood. The main thing (as you understand) is to question the standard narratives and wonder why things have to be a certain way.

      I really appreciate the detailed reply!

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  4. I think this is a good doc because it manages to cover so many facets of representation within one movie, but that was also it's biggest weakness. It could have probably done more with less focuses. I still think it would be a great learning tool. I watched the documentary series "Killing Us Softly" in at least 4-5 of my college classes which is pretty similar but is based around a women's lecture and is specifically about advertising.

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    1. Jess, I can see that point and do think that Newsom may reach too far in covering the media, politics, and other topics. However,I don't mind that approach because she still brings in interesting people to talk about each topic. There are a few awkward transitions, but it's still intriguing overall. I'm glad that you were able to check it out!

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