Mistaken “Miss Representation”: Women in the Media and Necessary Comprehensive Conversations By Jaji Crocker


This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Jaji Crocker received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University, and is now pursuing a dual degree at Claremont Graduate University, studying for her PhD in English and MA in Religion.  Her research interests and approach are innately interdisciplinary as she explores the evolution of the ethics buttressing and changing religious philosophies and practices in North America and the Middle East, as well as the evolution of the theological imagination and feminist influences in post WWII American literature.  Jaji continues to write fiction and teach creative writing.

Last week, a program graced the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) entitled “Miss Representation.”  The piece discussed the damaging influence of the media on the psyches and behaviors of girls and women in North America, pointing to the media’s hypersexualized representation of women, emphasizing women’s bodies and clothing rather than their intellect and voice.  The message being, a woman’s message – the words she speaks – doesn’t matter; it is trivial and cute and even, sometimes, dangerous.

While I found the documentary interesting, and while it certainly discusses unfortunate portrayals of women in the U.S., I think the stance taken is reductive and distracting from the more complex problem: women’s inferior social location within a patriarchal society.  The media is only onetool patriarchal society utilizes to advance men and marginalize and diminish women, and is definitely not the only culprit responsible for girls’ and women’s low self-esteem, body image issues, and skewed views of themselves and their peers.  I understand a two-hour documentary can only do so much.  But to limit the scope of the problem further reduces women’s issues (albeit, unintentionally), compressing them into a deceivingly manageable problem – the media – thus distorting the complexity of the necessary solutions.  In other words, the message becomes: improve the media’s portrayal of women and women’s issues go away.

This message, of course, is ridiculous.  Even the phrasing of the problem is problematic.  The terminology “women’s issues” implies that the problem is solely a woman’s problem, rather than a societal problem.  The problem is patriarchy.  And shrinking the patriarchal problem to the media’s portrayal of women is damaging to the feminist agenda and to the women suffering from patriarchy in North America, women who may or may not interact significantly with the media.  What about those women who don’t really watch television or go to the movies or read celebrity rags?  What about those women living in rural North America who don’t have the same access to media or whose cultures/traditions refrain from media usage or whose parents limit media exposure?  What about younger girls, two and three years old?  Does patriarchy not affect these girls and women because they don’t watch hours of “Gossip Girl” every night?  Of course, patriarchy affects these girls and women, for patriarchy is not only channeled through the media.  Every aspect of North American society has been influenced or shaped by patriarchy; patriarchy is not a “neat” problem.

Furthermore, the often negative and demeaning portrayal of women on T.V., in movies, and in magazines is not the only portrayal of women by the media.  To its credit, “Miss Representation” points this out, discussing the influx of strong, powerful women on T.V. and in positions of power in politics and business over the past twenty years, in particular.  It also points out the adverse truth that these positive, affirming, powerful portrayals of women are few and far between compared with the highly sexualized, mocking, non-intellectual portrayals of women.  Fair enough. However there is a profound difference, which “Miss Representation” does not make, between Disney’s monochromatic, narrow illustration of young princesses (whose main goal in life is to find a prince) and an attractive female anchorwoman choosing to express her sense of style with a tight dress and heels.  The former can be seen as a brainwashing device, the latter should only be viewed as a grown woman’s right to dress how she wants to dress without her male co-anchor and the public treating her like eye-candy, focusing solely on her wardrobe instead of her message.  A female anchor should be able to wear a skirt and Hillary Clinton should be able to wear her pantsuits without media commentary focusing on their attire.  Sure, Hillary Clinton discussed her views on the national debt crisis, but who cares when she’s wearing white after Labor Day?!  The nerve.

Here is the crux of the issue we must remember: the media’s main goal is to sell its audience a product, whether that product is a new soda, a T.V. show, or a president.  It is one thing to criticize a sexist politician or columnist for calling Hillary Clinton a “bitch” instead of headstrong and authoritative; it is another to insist Coca Cola stop using women in bikinis to sell its products.  The first issue requires the columnist to become aware of his patriarchal, sexist representation of Clinton, and to change his perspective so that he can view a strong, assertive woman in a position of power in the same light he views a strong assertive man in a position of power; the second issue requires conversations.  Whether those conversations occur between parents and children (“Honey, Coke only uses women in bikinis to sell their products because sex sells. What do you think about that?”), between peers in high school (“That Coke add with the bikini chicks is so hot.”  “Totally hot!  Though also pretty unrealistic and stupid.  Who could possibly let themselves be that impressionable?”), or between the public and the advertising execs (“I’m a father of a sixteen-year-old young woman and I don’t appreciate Coke’s portrayal of highly sexualized teenage girls, so I’m not going to buy Coke products.”), etc., the conversations are our responsibility.

We can point the finger of blame at the media all we want – “Baaaad little media!  Shame on you!  Go to your room!” – but that’s only assigning blame to the purveyor, and letting the consumer off the hook.  As consumers, we must communicate with one another, with our children in particular, to establish a safe dialogue about the media: its role in our society, its shortcomings, and also how we benefit from it.  Furthermore, as North Americans, we must dialogue with one another, with our children in particular, about every aspect of our patriarchal society, not just oneaspect we select as scapegoat for the rest.  Our children deserve comprehensive conversations about the way of the world and about how to change the future way for the better.

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Categories: Ethics, Feminism, Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue, Gender and Sexuality, Social Justice, Violence Against Women

Tags: , , , ,

11 replies

  1. Dear Jaji,

    You provide an apt reminder that we as consumers must bear some of the responsibility for the way in which “the media” represents and engages us as persons. You mentioned the Coke ads with the bikini girls, which reminded me of a discussion I had with some of my classmates in a Religious Education course about gender perceptions in the media. When we were asked to bring in pictures and representations of girls, Disney princesses and ball gowns were common. When we were asked to bring in pictures and representations of boys, more often than not the boys were portrayed as killers or doing something sports-related. One particular image stuck out to me, though, that of a ‘tough’-looking boy who was advertising for Pepsi 10. You can see one example here: http://www.photo4asian.com/img/Wallpapers/Jay-Chou-Wallpapers/full/Jay-Chou-Wallpaper-Pepsi-10-800×600.jpg. As you rightly state, we need to be having conversations that challenge media representation of men and women, boys and girls. I work with adolescents, and I see every day ways in which the media affects them. When we give them the means to question and critique the media and their own part in its consumption, we equip them to become more critically engaged citizens. I am reminded of a song by the Flobots entitled “We Are Winning” that states, “There is a war going on for your mind. If you are thinking, you are winning.” As we assess “the media” and analyze what it offers us, what it projects upon us, we are far more likely to “change the future way for the better.” Thank you for reminding us of this important fact.

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  2. Jaji – a wonderful post about the complexity of both social criticism and the role of the social critic. You are totally right – it is one thing for a multinational company to use sexist images to sell products (with consumer boycotting being one way to show disapproval); it is another thing when journalists or politicians fall into the same sexist mindset in their coverage of current events. Thanks for your insightful post!

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  3. Jaji, a thought provoking post to be sure.

    The media has always had an unhealthy and unbalanced influence in North America, from setting style trends that only a small percentage of people can achieve to what cereal the “real” athletes eat…always aimed at the almighty buck and market share, capitalism at its best? I think not. Media is so ingrained in our culture, so incredibly intertwined and gets its power from the very public it entertains and ultimately harms! As you suggest, we must start to unravel the machine by educating and communicating our youth and ourselves. We must own our responsibility in contributing to the problem by using our dollars to support products and companies that don’t use sex, peer pressure and the like to capture market share while we reject products and services that prey on the public. Honest, open, frequent and accurate communication about our society’s patriarchal system must happen now. I have hope! Recall the sexist and gender stereo types that were pervasive and acceptable in media decades ago. Archie Bunker was a weekly show that personified behavior that was sexist, rude and filled with prejudice, if a network tried to replicate that type of show today they would be fired, NO, they will put it on a paid channel and make more money off it and get a promotion! Amazing. America is ripe for change!

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  4. Jaji – Thank you for your thought-provoking post. I’m unsure as to my reply, because I have very mixed feelings on this issue. I’m going to show my age here — I remember having only 3 channels – NBC, ABC and ? (I’m forgtting — this happens as you age:)). The point is, when cable showed upon the scene, all tv watchers were thrilled, but it quickly developed into a mechanism for 24/7 advertisement. Some of that advertisement is explicit and some is implicit.
    But as to ethics and the responsibility of the media, I know they are not alone in their actions and that we as consumers have the ultimate responsibility. Agreed entirely. Further, I contend that the media is playing by the rules of the capitalist society which America has long claimed. (Perhaps that will shift, but that is a topic for another post). But here is my question — are we seeking to reform the media (e.g., create incremental change so that it is less patriarchial) or revolutionize the whole system so that there is not a profit for exploitation balance?
    As a long-time employee of Corporate America, I have witnessed, again and again, that large entities will shift their actions – positively – when incentivized to do so. It is then up to us as the public – to consumein a way that supports our beliefs (your cogent point), but I believe also to put a govenment in place that supports these values.
    Lots to think about, and I appreciate you raising these issues.

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  5. [I am not in this class, but I am a Claremont alum ’02; I took Marjorie Suchocki’s Christian Feminist Theologies class while at CST and am glad to see the conversation continuing through today’s students and this blog! I consider myself to be a feminist pastor.]

    I have not seen Miss Representation, but I do hope to see it.

    I, too, would like to take on all of patriarchy, but what I have observed since leaving seminary is another approach which I find to be very hopeful. Feminists in a wide range of fields are working within their fields to critique patriarchy and make changes within their spheres of influence. Feminist librarians created the Amelia Bloomer Project as a way to educate parents about children’s books with strong female characters. (As a parent of a young daughter, this is a very hopeful and helpful feminist contribution to the world.)

    Feminist CEOs and COOs are working to create equal pay and professional advancement opportunities for women in corporate America. Feminist pastors are working on inclusive language, empowering women to find their own theological voices in congregations, and equipping women to be strong and compassionate leaders in their homes, communities and workplaces. Feminist scientists are developing programs to encourage more girls to enter into math, science and engineering professions. Feminist politicians like HIllary Clinton are travelling around the world speaking out for women’s basic human rights. Feminist philanthropists are funding the education of girls and investing in the ideas of women entrepreneurs. Feminist filmmakers are making films about the sexist ways in which women are portrayed in and by the media.

    What I hope to see when I watch Miss Representation is a contribution to this feminist chorus. No single person, film, project or woman can take on patriarchy alone. We need each other, and we need to keep telling each other the stories of how we are working for change within our own direct spheres of influence.

    Thanks for this wonderful blog and to all the people writing and contributing!
    Peace,
    Siri

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  6. Jaji –

    I recently watched a trailer for “Miss Representation” and came away with a certain disgust – not only at the misogynistic media images, but by the exact misunderstandings and/or lack of engagement with patriarchy that you are describing. Thank you for articulating it better than I could have. If often find popular mediatized feminist critiques misleading, especially when they are meant for mass consumption – these types of critiques are problematic in themselves – they present “women’s issues”/lives in a seriously watered down way, and tend to sidestep the oppressive power structures at work – not just patriarchy, but capitalism as well. As you said, media is a marketing tool. But it is not only that. What I think would be productive of a documentary about women and media would be not just an engagement with patriarchy, but actually presenting instances in which women use media as a feminist tool – for the sake of a type of counterdiscourse. I have yet to see the documentary, but based on the trailer it seems to present social media as a type of unidirectional power structure that dupes people into believing whatever it presents. And yet, the world has witnessed quite a change in the way social movements have co-opted social media for the sake of revolution, social equality, and justice. I hope the film urges people to stretch their feminist imaginations instead of scaring us from the very structures that pervade our culture.

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  7. The media is over loaded with heteronormative images, so most of this stuff is just personally irrelevant to me. It’ll really be up to hetero women to get outraged. As a lesbian feminist, I find the hetero women’s world bizaar in the extreme, and it seems to me that women buy into all of this stuff.

    The toxic images probably have a more adverse effect on women who are already bought and paid for and well rewarded for being male pleasing, conforming and consuming. I just sit back and am amazed at what women will buy into.

    We do have the heroines out there, trying to change this horrific situation, but again, lesbian nation has stood apart from all of this. We reject the man in the home, the master in the house, the consumer society out of control. Just walking past a cosmetics section of a major store is mind blowing to me. Do women buy this stuff? How much money is wasted on the heterosexual image machine going 24/7 on every channel, magazine and media outlet in the land? And what keeps women so captive to this. It would all end tomorrow if women simply stopped buying cosmetics, stopped the shop-a-holism, refused to marry men or bear children. It could all end tomorrow….

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  8. Jaji,
    Thanks for such a great post. While I have never seen the documentary “Miss Representation,” I do think it is worth pointing out that the program is being shown on OWN – the Oprah Winfrey Network. The idea that a woman, particularly an African American woman, could have the power (both financially power and the power of social influence) to create such a network that has the ability to show a documentary such as this is a tremendous accomplishment in itself. I think the OWN network places a dent in the patriarchal construct that we call “the media.” Given that it is owned by Oprah, it is most likely a large dent! Hopefully, with constructive critique networks such as this can begin to gain the influence that will be required to make the changes we all hope to see.

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    • You make a great point, Chris. Oprah’s positive dent on the world is indeed a tremendous accomplishment and a fantastic “glass ceiling” cracker for all women and in particular African American women. Given her power, I appreciate the beneficial and far-reaching influence Oprah has had on America (and across the globe, for Pete’s sake!). Of course, because of her influence, she has a heightened degree of responsibility concerning which issues she portrays and and how she portrays them. Basically, I think she and EVERY head of EVERY Network need a few graduate students or professionals in a variety of fields (Feminist Ethics, to name one!) to act as advisors and touchstones such that network execs better understand the messages in the media materials for which they’re responsible. I’ve often thought: “If only that producer or network exec took this feminist ethics class… or got her MA in Social and Political Philosophy, etc… this piece would reach a richer dimension, and yet still retain its accessibility” (because of course that’s always an issue that concerns networks… will the public stay tuned or switch channels because the material is too dense?). I mean, what if Oprah read this blog?? This blog is plenty accessible! Would she think differently about “Miss Representation”? Would she include another segment about the overall structure of patriarchy of which the media is only a part? Anyway, I wonder…

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  9. Dear Jaji,

    This post ties in closely to what I’m also thinking to present about: Womens Portrayal in the Media. The question: why is it OK with women to be objectified with the clear intention of the media to flaunt them to the world? Over the years, women have allowed their skirts to get shorter on TV, their cleavage to be enhanced- or all together exposed with just litle nipple tags (Janet Jackson super bowl), or Lady Gaga jumping around in just a leotard. I get that women use their bodies as a form of expression for visual art, but sometimesI wonder, is that really the only way they think they will be recognized or get the attention they deserve? I agree that the conversation should start with the consumer, because it us who can change the trend one way or the other. Thanks Jaji!

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  10. Jaji,

    Thank you for your post. I too think that there are serious problems with the way in which women are portrayed in the media. The double bind seems so starkly apparent in the media. Women move forward in visual media if we sexualize ourselves (or the backlash that comes with it when we do not), then absolutely punishes us for using such sexuality to get forward. (I admit that I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s on my winter vacation, “Hmm. I should watch this list).

    What I always want to know is what does feminism WANT. I think that feminism has done an amazing job of describing what we don’t want something to look like. We don’t want 16 year old’s exposed to the idea that sex sells through, like Coke and bikinis; yet what commercial could we see that would make us buy a product? I wonder if there would be a way for a feminist movement to say “Hey! Did you see that advertisement about that one widget. It was two women reasonably portrayed. Let’s go buy it because that advertisement was awesome.”

    In some ways I think that was what was happening with the popularity of “The Help” and “Bridemaids.” Women were flocking to a movie that told women’s stories. Yes there were some massive flaws with the stories and the way they told, but it was SOMETHING. It will be interesting to see how the movie studios move forward with this new found formula. Maybe there could be ways that we could overcome the stereotype with our support of (well more) positive depictions.

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