“Miss Representation” Shows How Media Mistreats Women

“You never see the photograph of a woman, considered beautiful, that hasn’t been digitally altered to make her absolutely, inhumanly perfect.  Girls are being encouraged to achieve that ideal at younger and younger ages all the time. They end up measuring themselves against an impossible standard and feeling themselves wanting as a result.” — Jean Kilbourne

We hate that, right? So does actor and filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Which is why she made the documentary Miss Representation, in which she explores the mainstream media’s unbridled sexism and mistreatment of women.

Scheduled to show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) in October, Miss Representation is replete with statistics–some we’ve heard before, others new and staggering. Of course you know that women make up 51 percent of the world’s population but only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and a mere 17 percent of the U.S. Congress. But did you realize that only 16 percent of films feature women protagonists? Ilian, a high school student interviewed in the film, is particularly annoyed by the lack of leading women:

Women are never the protagonists. If they are the protagonist, it’s some drama about getting the guy or something. It’s never really about finding your destiny or whatever the way they say for the guys. Like in Star Trek, it’s like this is your destiny—being powerful, being the captain—but if it were a girl, they wouldn’t say that. And what’s weird about it is that it seems normal for us.  We don’t question it, we don’t say, ‘Why isn’t a girl the protagonist or why isn’t a girl powerful?’

And then there’s my personal favorite interview in Miss Representation, during which assistant professor at Occidental College and Ms. blogger Caroline Heldman derides the way in which even strong female superheros are turned into a “fighting fuck toy.” Besides Heldman, the film is packed with some of our other favorite feminist faces, including Kilbourne, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Nancy Pelosi, Margaret Cho, Geena Davis, Jane Fonda, and Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem.

The Ms. Blog caught up with Newsom–who’s married to California lieutenant governor (and same-sex marriage hero) Gavin Newsom–to ask her more about what drew her to the project:

Ms. Blog: When was the ah-ha moment when you first recognized gender inequality?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: When I lived and worked in Africa and there was an expat that I was working with who just dropped these sort of sexist remarks. He was very disrespectful and disingenuous with his words. And [he] would make these comments about me being a young woman and that I didn’t know anything. I think I was in my mid-20s then.

This is the 21st century–why do you think such sexism still exists?

I think it still exists for many reasons. There’s institutionalized sexism that has become a part of the architecture of our country and our success. It’s become that much harder to break. There’s the obvious that women give birth to children and raise children and [this country has] done nothing—or very little—to support or to put an economic value to raising children. And men have succeeded at their jobs at the cost of women basically subsidizing their careers, because the women are staying home raising the kids. I think that’s a huge reason why we still have this inequity. Also, the media has polarized women.

Did anything surprise you during the making of the film, either in the information you were taking in, or in the process?

I did have a sexist experience working with someone, who I ultimately let go, but who came on and wanted to take over and direct the film and was very objectifying of me and condescending. This was a young male. That was a very challenging experience for me, given the theme of the film. I couldn’t believe that he was actually doing what our film was talking about as [being] a bad thing to be doing. In terms of the information, I was shocked by a lot of the statistics. I just couldn’t believe some of the statistics myself, and [in the research] I also started to pay more attention, and I think once you actually start to pay more attention, you see it everywhere, in very subtle ways. What really surprised me is how we just accepted the status quo.

Are you hopeful that films like this will make a difference?

I am confident that we’ll be successful with our movement because studies are proving the economic benefit of having more women in leadership in the government and corporate sector. It’s better for productivity, creativity and the bottom line. I think empowering women is a no-brainer. The fact that we have men and women speaking out against sexism, I feel very optimistic that we’re going to be able to transform the culture. And, hopefully, to help people understand how damaging those, often innocent, little sexist remarks can be. The timing is right.  We’re working with men and women across all generations and we have incredible leadership within the women’s movement and politically, and in the media world even, that understands and recognizes that we have to do something about it now.

Check out the trailer (below) and find a screening near you!


Photo of Jennifer Siebel Newsom from Flickr user Miss Representation Documentary under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. I guess

    “… only 16 percent of films feature women protagonists” makes perfect sense considering””… women are … a mere 17 percent of the U.S. Congress.”

    That is one statistics that hollywood is 100% complying with.

    Maybe the important question is the egg or chicken question.

  2. Iliana Echo says:

    “Like in Star Trek, it’s like this is your destiny—being powerful, being the captain—but if it were a girl, they wouldn’t say that.”

    Actually, the Star Trek franchise featured a Captain who was EXACTLY like that. I know that’s the exception rather than the rule, but it’s a really cool exception.

  3. Really excited about seeing this movie! it makes me think of an article I read literally a few minutes ago.

    Interesting read on how western prescribed beauty ideals permeate throughout asian cultures.

  4. Saw this film last month. Definitely worth seeing and sharing with others.

  5. Great article! Just a couple corrections: the film has not yet appeared on the OWN network, that will happen October 20th. Also Jennifer’s last name is misspelled in the first line of the interview section. Thanks!

  6. Jane Bretz says:

    Great article, but why did you have to mention who she is married to. Seems like the fact that she is married to a powerful man that we like makes no difference. This should have been worthily on its own.

  7. Thought provoking article and clip. I would go see the movie. The challenge will be how to show young girls and women how to own their intellectually capability AND sexuality. And by that I mean, not to allow men to literally disempower us by creating a false internal and external ‘mind vs body’ dichotomy within us. We can have BOTH. We ARE both. And much much more. In other words, right now the clip (and therefore my impression of the movie) is making the issue seem to be anti-sex or sexuality; particularly by highlighting the most obvious sexist and misogynistic images in the media. Not that that isn’t true and pervasive, but from my personal experience and other women I know, sexism is usually much more subtle and insidious. I’m interested to see how the film tackles this!

  8. I want to see this film. However, I hope it will openly give credit to the feminist movement. Without feminism, Jennifer Siebel would have never been able to make the film.

    I hate to say it, but Siebel privileges men over women at times. Consider what she says:

    “The fact that we have men and women speaking out against sexism, I feel very optimistic that we’re going to be able to transform the culture . . . We’re working with men and women across all generations . . .”

    Notice how she always put men first even though women have done most of the feminist activism. It would have been much more fair if she had said, “The fact that we have women and men speaking out against sexism . . .”

  9. I actually did not enjoy this film when I saw it last night. Some of the statistics were reported inaccurately in order to be deliberately sensationalizing, and most of the funny comments were snarky, degrading things about men. The audience would have been outraged if these types of comments had been made about women, and I was disappointed that the film maker defaulted to trying to empower women by degrading men. I did not find this appropriate or productive. I really had higher expectations for this movie. There were many good points, though.

  10. I really liked this article! I haven’t seen the film, but I hope to soon. I feel this is a very strong and inspirational topic. It can show women the rights and privileges they have, and inspire them to stand up for women! This is a great article and sounds like a great film as well.

  11. Where can I get this film?

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