Miss Representation

Does the Media Hate Women?

In Miss Representation, a new documentary that aired on OWN, Jennifer Siebel Newsom probes the distorted way the media portrays women—and how it affects girls. The director tells Jessica Bennett such depictions damage self-image.

10.20.11 6:10 AM ET

It starts young. “I remember in fifth grade, I was worried about my weight,” says Urenna, a California public-school student.

“I straighten my hair just so I can fit in,” says Alexis.

Another high schooler tearfully confesses to being teased by her peers because they thought she was anorexic.

One by one, each girl shares a story.

Finally, in a navy-blue school uniform, Maria looks straight into the camera. “When,” she asks, her voice quavering, “is it going to be enough?”

These are the young women we meet in Miss Representation—a haunting new documentary, from first-time filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, about girls’ body image, self-confidence and leadership aspirations, and how they are intertwined with the way women are portrayed on television and in media. Making its debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network  on Oct. 20, the film tackles Hollywood, TV news, advertising, politics—all against a backdrop of the young women who consume all of it.

Juxtaposing images of cat-fighting reality television stars with women’s-rights leaders; lip-plumped Housewives with “in” political leaders—and peppered with powerful interviews with Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi, Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and a dozen other women—Miss Representation makes the case clear: “We are teaching young women that their worth lies in their youth, their beauty and their sexuality,” says Newsom. “Not in their capacity to lead.” Ultimately, she says, the gap between women in media and women in real life is huge, and growing.

It’s an argument we’ve heard before—and there are more than a few books that have tackled the subject. But what’s different from even five years ago, says Newsom, is just how prevalent such media has become. Today’s teens spend an average of 10 hours a day using media; girls ages 11 to 14 are bombarded by some 500 advertisements each day. This is a generation that’s been reared on reality TV—watching bodies transformed on Extreme Makeover; faces taken apart and pieced back together on I Want a Famous Face. They are, as Jane Fonda puts it, bombarded by "toxic, hyper-sexualized" images.

It’s always been hard to be a teen girl—but now, says Newsom, media pervades every aspect of our culture. “I worry about how much pressure my daughters feel in a society that features anorexic actresses and models and television stars,” Katie Couric says to the camera. “We get conditioned to think this is what women should look like.”

If girls weren’t confused already, plop them down in front of the tube for a few hours of the Kardashians—complete with fairy-tale weddings, 20-carat rings, facelifts, and Botox, all against a backdrop that this is a family famous for a sex tape gone viral. (No wonder the Obamas don’t let their daughters watch the show.) According to a new Girl Scouts study, reality TV shows prime young women to believe that their value is based on looks, that gossiping and competition are normal parts of a relationship, and that it’s better to be recognized for outer beauty than inner.

“When girls look to the media for models they can achieve in the real world, they see newspapers and TV anchors talking about female politicians’ haircuts and fashion choices,” says Jennifer L. Pozner, the founder of Women in Media and News and the author of Reality Bites Back. “And then they turn to reality TV, where they’re told that the only route to power is through beauty and humiliation. So what are girls to think about what’s possible for them?”

From the outside, it’s easy to convince ourselves that girls are doing just fine: they graduate in higher numbers and earn more Ph.Ds than their male peers. But there is a darker reality to what’s really going on. Today’s young women have higher rates of eating disorders, depression and self-destructive behavior than in any other moment in history. They are spending enough money on beauty products—$7,000 by the time a girl is a tween, according to a Newsweek survey—to pay for the equivalent of five years at a community college or two years at a state school. And after years of watching powerful women called “bitches” and “ball-busters” in the popular press—cue Hillary Clinton—these girls are avoiding leadership roles for fear they’ll be labeled “bossy.” As Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., puts it: “We’re shortchanging voices that are urgently needed in public forums.”

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These extremes are no accident, says Newsom—but are inextricably connected. “Low self-esteem, eating disorders, the media we consume, and ultimately, fewer women aspiring toward leadership—these are all one and the same,” she says.

Newsom’s own interest in the issue is rooted in her teen years struggling with anorexia. But it took much longer for her to start to consciously take note of what was going on around her. At 28, she went into acting—and was told by an agent to lie about her age, and remove her Stanford MBA from her resume. When she got married—to California’s lieutenant governor (and at that time San Francisco mayor), Gavin Newsom—she began noticing how the female politicians around him were treated in the press. When the couple got pregnant with a daughter, she worried how her daughter would avoid the insecurities that had paralyzed her as a teen.

She imagined her watching movies, where only 16 percent of the protagonists were women. Or where the girls in the G-rated films—cartoons though they may be—were wearing clothes just as revealing as those worn by women in films rated “R.”

She thought about her learning, inherently, that women must be pitted against each other—that if both Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer were to be female anchors, they had to be seen (as Couric puts it in the film) readying for a “mudfight” behind the scenes.

She thought about how all of this is controlled, ultimately, by a media industry where women own just 6 percent of commercial broadcast stations and hold fewer than a third of top news jobs.

And she knew she had to do her part to stop it.

So far, Miss Representation has launched an action campaign, with screening parties around the country, and Newsom is working to get a media-literacy curriculum into schools. She’s also partnered with the Women’s Media Center on a social media campaign called ”Sexy or Sexism?

“This film isn’t about threatening men, but it’s about getting more women into the pipeline,” says Newsom. “We need a real wakeup call.”

Miss Representation premieres Thursday, Oct. 20 at 9pm on OWN, followed by a one-hour Rosie O'Donnell special that will highlight the film's call to action.