After viewing Miss Representation at Court Square Theater, then sleeping on it, then thinking on it, and then writing about it for several days, I reached this exciting and hopeful conclusion: we’re ALL culpable. Women point the finger at men, and at each other, men point the finger at women, and all that’s left is your own finger pointing at yourself. Which finger you choose to point with is entirely up to you.
When Marian Wright Edelman, Founder & President Children’s Defense Fund, states in the documentary, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” I understand what she means. It’s hard for children, male or female, to become something that, for lack of a decent example, they’ve never been exposed to. For instance, if a child never had a responsible, loving parent, then how can he or she become one? But tell that to Sally Ride or Amelia Earhart. History shows us that every new advance, any kind of progress, starts with some sort of pioneer… there’s a first time for everything… and those pioneers — people of all genders and races and backgrounds — did indeed become what they couldn’t see. This pioneer spirit might not be fully awakened in us all, but if one female child can aspire to be the president of the United States, she clears a path of hope for the rest. What I’m saying is… we don’t need a TV commercial to show us our potential. We don’t necessarily even need a good role model, although that certainly helps. Some people need only the pioneer spirit, to rise above their current circumstance and see themselves differently. This is where social progress occurs. In the heart of each individual.
One part of the film I thought particularly interesting discusses the impact of WWII on women. As I’m sure you know, during WWII women entered the workforce in droves to fill the gaps left by deployed men. This was a new and tantalizing taste of freedom and purpose and ambition for women. After the men returned, most women were laid off. Okay. But what I didn’t really think about, which the film points out, is that television during that time — its programs and commercials — subtly urged (is that an oxymoron?) women to stay home and attend to domestic responsibilities. Commercials and shows depicted women cleaning and cooking and the like, and doing a good job of it. Here were thousands of women feeling displaced because they’d enjoyed their jobs during the war and were now relegated to scrubbing Jello off the kitchen floor again… television gave women a renewed sense of pride in being the woman of the house. And it was necessary, really. (Personally, I would have LOVED being a stay-at-home mom. That ship has sailed, and I accept that, but I am nurturing by nature and would have been GREAT at it!) Anyhow, the film contends that this steady diet of domesticity fed to women by their televisions created a social environment where women stopped believing they could competently work outside the home. It’s been nearly seventy years since then, and the film asserts that seven decades of this message has caused today’s young women not to aspire to high-level professional occupations. I don’t recall the exact statistic, but the idea is that if you poll really young girls, many of them will say they want to be the president or a business owner when they grow up. When asked a few years later, after countless hours of discriminatory media consumption, those same girls say they want to be teachers (gasp!), or nurses, or other typically female, lower-level positions. Ergo, the media erodes a girl’s confidence, and fewer women enter high-level jobs or seek positions of power. But… Sally Ride and Amelia Earhart and countless others have transcended gender stereotypes….
One of the female interviewees in the film states that men are “emotionally constipated.” They, too, have been negatively affected by how the media portrays women. They are not immune to the objectification, dehumanization, or “pornification” of women. And as her remarks continue, she seems to imply that men are being conditioned to be abusive. I am concerned about this with my son. As his mother, I’m his primary female role model, but there’s only one me, and lots and lots of other females in the media who project a different image. Of course I don’t want him to grow up thinking women are fake or plastic or worthless objects. Then again, my dad served in WWII and until 2005, also received this same diet of June Cleaver and Lucy Arnaz, and, other than making us eat dinner in the family room on Saturday nights so he could watch Solid Gold, he didn’t objectify women. He had great respect for his mom, his wife, and his three daughters. Heck, even my tenth-grade students understand that wearing Victoria’s Secret underwear will not make them look like Heidi Klum.
So what’s our excuse? Women can’t totally blame the media for all their issues or shortcomings, because someone like Oprah Winfrey or Billie Jean King will come along and shatter those misconceptions. Likewise, men can’t blame their “emotional constipation” on the male-dominated media, because someone like my dad will come along and show he doesn’t buy into all that.
That’s the key. We just have to get every single person on the planet to stop buying into ridiculous images and ideals of women AND men. It’s really just awareness. I mean, once you realize you’re being manipulated, then it’s your own fault if you continue to be. Hence the finger pointing earlier. And so that’s what Miss Representation strives to do, even though I’m still not sure the film adequately conveys it… Let’s just drop all notions, related to groups of people (genders, sexes, races, income levels), that are limiting. Let’s just decide not to believe it any longer. And let’s stop blaming the other groups for our own oppression and access our pioneer spirits. Visit the Miss Representation web site to join one of their many campaigns to empower ALL people and dismantle sexism altogether.
Thanks again to Court Square Theater for providing a chance for the Harrisonburg community to explore our own culpability.
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