The Media is the Message and the Messenger

A Film Review

by Dana Gore

I saw the premiere of MissRepresentation this past Friday at the Vancouver International Film Festival and have been thinking about writing about it since.  MissRepresentation was an exposé documentary about the mass media’s devaluation of women in North America.

The film illustrated the pervasive sexualizing and objectifying gaze that is placed on women in the popular media – in advertisements, movies, TV shows, music videos, journalistic articles, newscasts – pretty much everywhere you can imagine. It was argued that women are valued in the media only for their physical appearance – they have worth only insofar as they are "attractive" bodies. This attractiveness must conform to the (white) male ideal of female beauty – flawless skin, symmetrical features, silky long hair, and impossibly tiny proportions.  These characteristics are marketed to women and girls as standards that they must achieve in order to succeed in our society. This is an endeavour that is made futile by the advent of photoshopping, which airbrushes, slims and adjusts features to impossible perfection.  The viewing of women as mere bodies has become so extreme as to turn women into objects, literally, in advertising. For an analysis of this phenomenon, see Jean Kilbourne’s "Killing Us Softly".

Complementary to the message that the most important thing about women is their physical appearance is the limitation of roles they are depicted playing in the mass media. These roles are all too often supportive roles to men, who are the real "protagonists". It was pointed out that rarely are women the protagonists in movies, and that when they are, the majority of their pursuits revolve around securing love and a stable relationship. Female characters that might be considered powerful are stripped of their power either by their sexualization (for example the archetype that Caroline Heldman defines as the "fighting fuck toy" in movies which feature barely dressed female superheroes, often in dominatrix-type attire) or their demonization (for example, the character of the "bitchy boss" who has traded fulfilling relationships for career development and is consequently bitter, uptight, and unattractive). The devaluing and delegitimizing of powerful women through demonization/sexualization can also be found in the media’s portrayal of political figures such as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. While Hillary was vilified as calculating, cold and nagging, Palin was sexualized as a "Barbie", a "ditz" or pornography for Republicans. 

The overwhelming message sent by the media is that women exist, and should exist, primarily as objects of desire, whose ambitions and desires revolve around securing white male attention and approval. There is no acknowledgment of women’s diversity, intellectual and creative capabilities and achievements, or capacity for self-determination.  Considering that the only role attributed to women is to please men, it is not surprising that they are constantly pitted against each other in their competition for male affection. An arena in which this is most painfully and shamelessly demonstrated is that of "reality" television, for example "The Bachelor" or "America’s Next Top Model" – which in my opinion is as far from reality as things can get. Here’s Jennifer Pozner, unpacking reality TV for GRITtv.

While MissRepresentation does an excellent job of illustrating how the media treats women, it is limited in its analysis, which is primarily from a U.S., white, middle-upper class perspective. The movie portrays media representation of women as if it:

a) applies to all women equally and

b) affects all women equally, neither of which are true.

While women are objectified and sexualized, the overwhelming majority also fit a highly specific profile: white, young, affluent, able-bodied and heterosexual. Where is the representation of the fantastic diversity that exists among us? Where are the women of colour, Non-status, Immigrant and Refugee women, poor women, old women, Indigenous women, lesbian women, women with disabilities? In the mass media -especially in mediums such as advertisements, which are meant to represent the "ideal", these groups are nearly non-existent. Where they do exist (more often in movies and TV shows) they are portrayed in a highly negative manner. I can’t count the number of times that I have seen stereotypes of women of colour, Indigenous women, lesbians, and fat women. Often these stereotypical characters are used as comic relief, tokens, or supporting characters that are used in order to help the main characters achieve a mean to their ends. They are rarely complex, rarely taken seriously, and certainly never protagonists. Mass media is not only misogynistic; it is racist, classist, heterosexist and colonialist as well.

What are the effects of the messages that mass media sends on women? MissRepresentation lists a host of dangers and harms, including low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, lower scholastic achievement and less participation in civil society (for example vot
ing). This is tied to a lack of positive role models and a phenomenon called self-objectification, in which women are subjected to constant external pressures in which they are viewed as objects by society, and ultimately come to view themselves as objects as well. Self-objectification is a type of internalized oppression, in which the oppression that one is subjected to is turned inward against the self and others of that same group.  Another similar consequence may be internalized sexism, where women begin to adopt sexist beliefs about themselves and each other. A personal example I can provide of this is that as a child and teenager growing up, I was convinced that I only wanted sons as children. I did not want a daughter because I was convinced that she would be catty, fickle and difficult to deal with. It was only later in my life that I was able to realize that these views were a result of me assimilating sexist stereotypes about my own gender.

I would like to add that while these harms may be shared to some extent by all women, they are experienced to different extents and in different ways by diverse groups. Marginalized women (who, globally, are the vast majority) from diverse groups are told by their relative invisibility in mass media are told that they do not fit into North American society, that they are not welcome, that they do not have value. These messages are reinforced by the negative ways in which these women are portrayed when they do appear in the media. They have to struggle under intersecting oppressions that attack multiple facets of their identities, and the consequences they suffer can be much more pervasive and severe than for women who fit the idealized norm. It is important to recognize that although we live in a society that values men over women, white, middle to upper class, heterosexual, able-bodied women exercise considerable privilege over other women.

Media messaging does not only have consequences in terms of how it affects the way that women feel and act, but how they are treated. One of the most serious consequences touched upon in MissRepresentation is violence against women (VAW), particularly sexualized violence. In the film, the link is made between media messaging and violence, pointing to the fact that objectification is a form of dehumanization, and dehumanization is the first step towards legitimizing and encouraging violence towards that person. MissRepresentation also shows how sexual exploitation and violence against women are depicted in capitalist bids for more shock value and thus higher viewer ratings, which in turn encourages male acceptance female domination and rape myths. As with other forms of oppression, this violence does not affect all women equally – as can be seen with the substantially higher rate of rape of Indigenous women and black women than of white women. It is also important not to confuse media as the cause of violence against women. MissRepresentation positions media-induced objectification as a potential cause, but the long history of violence against women proves that it runs much deeper than that. Violence against women is the result of a society that gives some groups the right to oppress others based on attributes such as gender, class, and race, among others. Mass media is a tool that is used to enforce this culture, but it is not the root cause.

One question that MissRepresentation begins to address is, "what purpose does the negative portrayal of women in the media serve?" They link it primarily to capitalism, noting that holding women up to an impossible ideal of beauty drives the sale of body-related products such as clothes, makeup and hair products, plastic surgeries, etc. Using women as objects on male-oriented advertising (for example, beer) also makes men more likely to buy the products. I agree with this, but I also think that there is a larger analysis that can be applied. As I mentioned above, mass media is used as a means to enforce the dominant paradigm and oppress any other groups that challenge that. The paradigm is white male supremacy, operating through capitalism. Looking at which groups are best served by capitalism, one can see that it is a extremely small, elite group of older white males. Looking at those that are most harmed by capitalism, it can be seen that those bearing the brunt are largely poor people of colour, the majority of those women. Mass media serves the interest of capitalism, yes, but capitalism is not a neutral phenomenon. It is part of a larger system of domination that oppresses people not only according to gender lines, but class lines and race lines in order to maintain an existing hegemony. For an excellent and interactive analysis of capitalism see "The Story of Stuff".

We are coming to perhaps the most important question of all, which is "what can we do about it?" About 7 minutes of the movie was dedicated to this portion, with suggestions going into the credits. The solutions were mainly individually focused – such as using your consumer power to boycott sexist media products, taking a pledge, supporting other women in their endeavours, attempting to be a good role model for youth, and mentoring other women. I was a bit disappointed with these suggestions, as I was with the time that was allocated to them. I was disappointed because I think that women are already doing these things – the problem is that they are not acknowledged. While I think it is important that we attempt to act as individuals, I think that we need to act on broader levels as well – relational, community and societal levels, in order to effect a significant change.

Right now, the media is pushing a dominant discourse about what women are, what they should be, and what they do or do not have the potential to be – and as passive consumers, we sit back and take it. A step towards the solution is not to only to try to ignore this discourse, but to create a new one. We need to organize to create the space that will allow this to happen. Although it’s not highly advertised (of course it isn’t), women are already in fact doing this and have been for some time. Take for example The Women’s Media Centre, which works for the empowerment of women in the media. Feminist Frequency creates video blogs to have “conversations about pop culture.”  Reel Grrls based in Seattle, Washington that focus their efforts on empowerment of young women from diverse communities to realize their power, talent and influence through media production.  #notcool a micro blogging site run by The National Organization for Women – New York inviting posts of offensive ads as action to fight discriminatory, sexist, racist, misogynist and overtly-sexualized images in the media. WIMN – Women in the Media & News a media analysis, education and advocacy group, works to increase women’s presence and power in the public debate. WIMN is headed by Jennifer Pozner author of Reality Bites Back: Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV.   In Vancouver, British Columbia, a feminist media collective called The F Word hosts a radio show dedicated to alternative media and feminist dialogue. Beyond media, there are innumerable actions that women are taking every day that challenge the ideology that women are things, that they are incapable, that they exist for men. What is needed is a stronger, organized movement to make these actions visible and to make our voices heard.

Dana Gore is a volunteer crisis worker at Battered Women’s Support Services, currently studying Public Health at Simon Fraser University