You Can't Be What You Can't See: Why "Miss Representation" Is a Must-Watch

The award-winning film, premiering on the Oprah Winfrey Network tonight, has us asking: Can we really change media portrayals of women so our daughters believe they can lead?

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

That’s how the award-winning film Miss Representation begins, a movie that takes a critical look at negative portrayals of women in the media and how that undermines the ability of today’s generation of girls to see themselves as future leaders.

As the mother of a daughter, I’ve always been sensitive to the media imagery my husband and I exposed her to, from cartoons to commercials to Disney princesses, and how they would impact her view of the way women are valued in our society. But as parents, we can’t be everywhere or keep all potentially negative images away from our children. And to be honest, I didn’t think I’d have to worry about that in our 21st century world. As someone who came of age at a time when I thought the battle over women being viewed as less competent, smart or capable as men were over, I didn’t think I’d be worrying about whether women leaders were a rarity or would routinely be mocked with sexist criticism.

Miss Representation
is the brainchild of Jennifer Seibel Newsom, an actress, mother and the wife of California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. Through interviews and stories of notable activists, women leaders and high school students, the film explores how the ways women are portrayed in movies, television, and pop culture seriously undermine their ability to achieve power. The film also explores how this phenomenon makes it tougher for young girls to even consider the possibility of being leaders themselves. Even though the teen girls in the movie lived through Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential candidacy, as well as Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination and Michele Bachmann’s current run for the White House, they speak openly about their concerns that women are still valued more for their faces, their bodies or their outrageous behavior, rather than their brains, their ideas and their abilities.

I have to admit, even though I was familiar with the statistics discussed in the movie that show women still lag far behind in positions of power across all professions, I was a little depressed that Miss Representation reminded me in such stark fashion that the world is not a friendly place for our daughters. And it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon – unless women step up to be more pro-active. For the girls interviewed in the movie, the idea of actually managing to break those stereotypes and becoming leaders for their generation seems almost too large a task to imagine in the face of pop culture portrayals of women as sex objects and a serious lack of real leadership options to change that.

Fortunately, the movie is more than a lament that nothing will change for our daughters and granddaughters until more women occupy the full range of leadership roles in media and across the full professional spectrum. “Miss Representation” is also a call to action, to take it upon ourselves to be the change that we want for the future. One simple way parents can start is by focusing on how much time our children are actually being bombarded by these themes and images. Consider yourself strict when it comes to media consumption in your household? Your children might be seeing a lot more than you think. According to the Miss Representation website, each week American teens spend “31 hours watching TV, 17 hours listening to music, 3 hours watching movies, 4 hours reading magazines, [and] 10 hours online. That’s 10 hours and 45 minutes of media consumption a day.”

After viewing an advance copy of the film, I want to watch this movie again with my daughter, even though as a sixth-grader she might be a little on the young side to really absorb the reality that despite the advances women have made, we’re still fighting an uphill battle. And I’ll be making sure that she does “see” the women who have blazed a trail so that her generation has more seats at the power table.

You can see Miss Representation at 9 p.m. Eastern Time tonight on the Oprah Winfrey Network as its premiere feature for OWN’s Documentary Club.

iVillage contributor Joanne Bamberger writes about the intersection of motherhood and politics at her blog, PunditMom. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America, which is on sale now at Amazon.com.

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