Adelaide Fringe 2013
In this well-researched and gripping documentary, Jennifer Siebel Newsom examines why women are increasingly represented in the media as being catty, vapid, shrill, dumb, whorish, or all of the above. The documentary shines the spotlight on all aspects of the media, from reality TV to the tabloids, to Hollywood to the newsroom and finally, to political campaigns. Through facts, anecdotes, historical chronologies and interviews, the misogyny inherent in the American media is revealed, piece by piece. The disparaging of feminism, the ageism, the body-shaming, and the general contempt for women is all laid out in black and white, with commentators such as Rachel Maddow, Condoleeza Rice, Katie Couric, Cory Booker, Paul Haggis and Nancy Pelosi sharing their stories, and lending their support to women who simply want to be represented fairly.
The documentary opens with Jennifer Siebel Newsom explaining that she wants a better world for her unborn baby girl. Newsom then explains how she became interested in women’s rights, after trying to be the ‘perfect woman’, being smart, good at sports, and in her mind, the most important thing of all, being skinny. Being ‘desirable’. She ends her tale by saying that she was sexually molested by one of her sports coaches, and that left her feeling empty and depressed and confused.
Body image is the first subject that the documentary looks at, and it is a theme that runs throughout the film. The idea that a woman should look a certain way, that they should always be desirable to the male gaze. That they are there to be ornaments, to not challenge the status quo.
This idea that women are simply to be seen and not heard and more importantly, not to be taken seriously, is one that the documentary backs up with facts and statistics as well as statements and film clips. For example, only 16% of women are protagonists in Hollywood films each year, and of those sixteen per cent more than half will only have the goal of finding a man as a romantic partner. Only 10% of women are working directors in Hollywood, and only 7% are writers. The boards of media companies such as Fox and Viacom only have one woman on their board of directors. And in politics, the usual American politician (male, over 35, white, married) represents only 6% of the American population.
As well as body image, the documentary looks at the ways that women are constantly demeaned through the media as being idiotic, cartoonish, sex kittens, harpies, demure little housewives, or worst of all, dehumanised in rape culture. If women speak up and challenge patriarchal views, are unabashedly smart, are overweight, financially successful, middle aged, or generally don’t conform to the standards that the American media set, whether it’s in Hollywood, the news room, the campaign trail, advertisements or tabloid magazines, then they are denigrated even further.
The biggest strength of the documentary is that it is objective. It speaks on behalf of both Republican and Democrat politicians, includes women of colour, and takes care to include men such as Cory Booker and Paul Haggis who support women’s rights. The topics flow easily into one another, and the interviews with the famous and non-famous alike are illuminating. Siebel Newsom’s narration is personal without being self-indulgent, and the historical chronology, of how women are increasingly challenged by the media when they are seen to pose a threat by gaining popular power and fight for their rights, is at once deeply troubling and fascinating.
There are some criticisms, however. Even though Rachel Maddow was an interviewee, there was not much perspective given to gay women in the media, the homophobia they face. At times it seemed like there was a subtext that skinny women, “anorexic-looking Hollywood women”, were being shamed for their weight, which is not fair and is frowned upon by a body acceptance feminist like myself. But one cannot deny that there is a push for women to diet unreasonably and advertisers feed off of women’s fear of weight, which the documentary reasonably explained. I was also a bit disappointed that there seemed to be some slut-shaming in the documentary, the idea that if a woman wears a short skirt and is sexual she is a ‘bimbo’ or worse. However, I can concede that the documentary was trying to make a point that women shouldn’t be seen as just sexual objects – it could have just done so with more tact.
Ironically when I saw this documentary I was feeling awful about myself, because I had been pushing myself all day, putting pressure on myself. Yet what made me feel more awful was knowing that this problem, the media’s insidious misogyny, isn’t limited to just America; it’s here in Australia whenever our Prime Minister is called a bitch or when Karl Stefanovic smirks at his female co-hosts and fellow journalists. Walking back to my bus stop, a car honked at my legs.
This is why we need a documentary like this, a documentary that celebrates strong women. There’s no such thing as ‘having it all’, but having a world where the media challenges the awful stereotypes of women is a good start.