This year has been a pretty awesome one for me. I started my Masters at UNE and was lucky enough to become a member of UNEWS (University of New England Women’s Society), gallantly lead through its first year by the most awesome Milly Roberts (hip hip hooray!). UNEWS has held some great events over the course of the year – the memorable Blue Stockings Week Debate, more recently a peaceful protest picnic to demonstrate the sheer ridiculousness of Abbott’s one woman cabinet, and most poignantly for me, the screening of “Miss Representation”, a documentary made in 2011 by American film maker Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
I’ll be honest: it’s stayed with me. Newsom covers a lot of ground in a confronting 85 minutes, hitting her viewers with some unnerving statistics to hammer home the point that representation of women in the media is not only done in an incredibly negative way, but also fails to offer up healthy role models for young women. In 2011, the year “Miss Representation” was made, only 11% of protagonists in films were female. Only 20% of news articles were about women. And here’s a scary one: Between 1937 and 2005 there were only 13 female protagonists in animated films... All of them except one had the primary aspiration of finding romance.
Given the media saturated world in which we all exist, these statistics are pretty alarming. It’s not just grown women that are living the consequences of media decisions, it is young women and girls who are inheriting the implications of this sort of representation. Newsom’s examination of media coverage surrounding American female politicians like Hillary Clinton brings to mind the appalling treatment of our former Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the hands of not only Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party, but Australian media at large. Constant discussion of the former PM’s clothing choices and over-examination of her family life was an overt attempt by the media to reduce her to a person who couldn’t possibly run a country. Regardless of your politics, it seems like common sense that the Prime Minister of Australia should be judged by her leadership skills, and not being childless or unmarried or female.
Real world women as role models aren’t to be found in popular media either. Anybody opening a fashion or beauty magazine is met with a flood of slim, young, white women. This uniformity offers us, the consumers, a very select representation of what it might mean to be a woman or a girl. ‘Miss Representation’ argues that we need a much broader spectrum of society represented for us: a variety of shapes and sizes, backgrounds and ages.
The upkeep of this very narrow definition physical perfection and beauty is very important to the media. We are meant to look at the people on the pages of our magazines and see that they are ‘beautiful’, and of course we know that advertisements are made with the intention of selling consumer products. What we think less consciously about is what else we as a society are being sold when we consume advertising and popular media. All of us are being sold a particular ideal which we understand to be desirable. In a world where even the small part of the population that fit this ideal are airbrushed before they hit the magazine page, how do the rest of us fit in? How do women ever feel as though they’ve succeeded in such a visual world? How do we learn to value ourselves when we don’t match the people in the pages of magazines?
‘Miss Representation’ notes the measurable effect of popular media’s focus on this ideal: 53% of 13 year old girls are unhappy with their bodies. That number increases to 78% by age 17. The most telling statistic of all: American teenagers spend 31 hours a week watching T.V., 17 hours a week listening to music, 3 hours a week watching movies, 4 minutes a week reading magazines and 10 hours a week online. That gives a lot of air time to the warped ideal currently being sold as ‘beauty’. It’s not much of a leap to come to the conclusion that the constant exposure of teenagers to popular media generates and reinforces significant body issues.
The documentary gives us tough stats to deal with – it may take a focus on America, but given the huge amount of American media that Australians consume, these are statistics we need to be thinking and talking about.
So what now? It’s easy to be blown away by this information and increasingly disillusioned with the state of things. But that’s certainly not going to improve the situation for us, or for the young women and girls, or the young men and boys that are inheriting our media-saturated world. The fact of the matter is that the media working against us can be used to work for us, whether it be to create new representations of women and girls who can be role models, who expand our understandings of how a woman and a man might look and behave.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom notes on the ‘Miss Representation’ website that “The media can be an instrument of change”, and it’s up to us, the consumers of media, to make that change. It might be as simple as consuming with a critical eye, starting conversations with your friends about how unrealistic the images used in advertising are. It might be having a conversation with a young woman or a young man that you know about what a real role model is, and who the really interesting and significant folk are, the ones that aren’t selling us perfume or holidays. It might be challenging yourself to step away from the magazine that makes you feel insecure or like you’re failing to be good enough. It might be a more active role in advocating for change in advertising: making use of the #notbuyingit tag like the ‘Miss Representation’ website suggests, along with a conversation starter kit, a houseparty, or a letter (you can visit http://therepresentationproject.org for ideas).
The important thing for me, as a feminist in Armidale in 2013 is that I have the ability to make my own contribution to media representation. I have the Nucleus to write for, and the UNEWS crew to share thoughts with and ask questions of. More talk is better than less in a world where we are the users of media and have the ability to demand that changes are made. So here’s to the next year of UNEWS awesomeness with Kate and Hanna at the helm for an exciting 2014.