Distributed by Ro*co Films International, llc, 80 Liberty Ship Way, Suite 5, Sausolito, CA 94965; 415-332-6471
Produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
DVD, color, 90 min.
Jr. High - Sr. High
Media Studies, Women's Studies
Reviewed by Gary Handman, University of California Berkeley
Recommended with reservations
Date Entered: 9/8/2011
If you watch and review enough documentary film, you inevitably learn a couple of rather disheartening lessons. For one, it becomes quickly and abundantly apparent that noble intentions, good causes, heartfelt sentiments, and even fascinating ideas and subjects don't automatically (or even frequently) translate into effective and engaging filmmaking. Spend enough time in a dark screening room and you also begin to realize how often documentary filmmakers tend to tread the same well-trod territory, particularly in the case of topical or "socially engaged" documentary films. (What the world probably DOESN'T need now? Another documentary decrying petrochemical dependence, obesity, or the Rwandan genocide). Unfortunately, Jennifer Siebel Newsom's film Miss Representation does little to disprove or mitigate either of the above glum observations.
The central focus of Newsom's film is the insidious connection between the media's incessantly negative and biased gender representations and the degradation and disempowerment of women in public, political, and private life. Newsom's earnestness and sense of urgency are apparent from the outset. She addresses the film to her newborn daughter and expresses the desire to create a better world for her. Her passion, indignation, and desire to reveal the broad scope and pervasiveness of the problem are also clear. And it's this rather undisciplined impulse to tell it all that ultimately grounds the documentary. The film flits and lists, rushes and repeats itself, frequently losing both focus and the viewer's attention along the way. If Newsom had stuck more closely to her central themes, and had she avoided the endless barrage of A-list talking heads and on-screen printed factoids, this would probably have been a considerably more effective work. The sidetracks and asides and sound-and-text bites begin to swamp the film, and it ultimately becomes mired under its own well-intentioned weight. Ironically, these are some of the very same rhetorical and discursive pitfalls that are characteristic of the media that Newsom so vigorously criticizes.
There are other problems as well. While the deleterious impact of mass media and popular culture on the hearts, minds, and societal status of women is undeniable, Newsom seems to allow, or at least discuss, few other societal or cultural influencing factors. Some of the implications and arguments made in the film are both facile and seriously underdeveloped. For example, a fair amount of time is spent talking about the patriarchal nature of Big Media conglomerates and Hollywood studios; as if improving gender equity would somehow magically trump the forces of capitalist greed when it comes to the nature of mass media content. There are also too many easy and obvious shots: is anyone possessing even a thimble of gray matter really surprised or even vaguely riled anymore by the moronic, right-wing screeds of radio and TV gasbags such as Bill O'Reilly or Michael Savage? How influential are these clowns, beyond their knuckle-walking primary audience, in any case? And in one of the more curious discussions in the film, Newsom offers a brief bit of misplaced sympathy for Sarah Palin, somehow primarily attributing liberal media ridicule to her gender. The fact that Palin couldn't identify Russia on a map doesn't seem to have entered Newsom's mind. I don't recall Dan "Spell Tomato with an E" Quayle getting much gentler treatment in the press or on the air (although it is true that leering, cat-calls or "hot dude" comments were completely absent).
The topic of gender representation in the media is perhaps more timely than ever in a world where the boundaries between personal and private, commerce and art, information and entertainment have become almost completely permeable and often indistinguishable, and where civility is apparently a thing of the past. Unfortunately, what Newsom has to say on the topic has been said before in considerably more skillfully scripted, developed, and edited films—almost any of the many films on media and gender distributed by the Media Education Foundation, for example. While this documentary may be an OK choice for upper middle school or high school classes, colleges and universities can definitely do better.