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Miss Representation February 18, 2012

Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Feminism, Queer politics.
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I found this film both poignant and disappointing. Particularly in the beginning, it effectively calls attention to obsessive and oppressive objectification of women’s bodies in popular media and the profoundly pernicious influence this has on women’s lives. Miss Representation then explores the sexism women face in business, academic, and governmental positions of power, and encourages women to support each other in these endeavors. The film employs scholars, activists, news anchors, corporate executives, and politicians as sources of knowledge and models of women in power. Political differences between these figures disappear in order to promote the central theme of liberal inclusion and paternalistic protection of children, especially girls. Jane Fonda here serves essentially the same purpose as Condoleezza Rice; fleeting critiques of capitalism merrily accompany the parade of CEOs. Radical alternatives to liberal inclusion and the dangers of assimilating into the dominant system receive no mention. In this fashion, Miss Representation advocates for a platform obviously superior to the patriarchal status quo yet still deeply troubling.

The testimony from high school students on the soul-crushing effects of media portrayals of women constituted the most compelling part of the movie for me. Students recounted how negative body image inspired by absurd beauty ideals lead to depression and self-mutilation, two things I’ve considerable experience with myself. The emotional intensity brought tears to my eyes. Unfortunately, the patronizing and infantilizing rhetoric about how the state needs to safeguard oh-so-vulnerable young people from the media raises a dark shadow behind this otherwise liberatory project of blaming the patriarchy. Commonsense Media CEO Jim Steyer leads the charge for government media regulation as the solution to this crisis. Steyer passionately argues for the biological inferiority of younger folks and the necessity of returning to family values that allowed children to be children. I consider this patriarchal and oppressive in the extreme, but the film lets Steyer purvey such nonsense repeatedly.

Miss Representation as a whole has a conflicted relationship with the U.S. past – constructed as a vague era of family values – which it often idealizes in relation to pornified contemporary culture yet also recognizes as overwhelming limiting for women. The parental prerogative functions as the film’s foundation, the story of a mother worried about her daughter’s future in this (increasingly?) patriarchal world. Given the minimal coverage of homophobia – only through a few brief comments from Rachel Maddow – this mother-daughter framing threatens to naturalize heterosexuality and the nuclear family.

The crowning examples of Miss Representation’s problematic quest for liberal inclusion come from the repeated interviews with Rice and from Gavin Newsom, who brags about how he appointed the first female police chief as mayor of San Francisco. Apparently, the filmmakers do not have any concerns about citing an imperialist and likely war criminal like Rice or in trumpeting women’s incorporation into the settler-colonial U.S. nation-state more generally. Or at least they believe the matter of women’s advancement – which invariably only involves the relatively small number of women who can confirm to the ideals of corporate and government hierarchies in our supposed meritocracy – more important than whatever harm the states does to poor people, Native communities, and Orientalized Others. (All of these categories, of course, include women.)

The film would have benefited from immensely from the inclusion of Native feminists (Andrea Smith comes immediately to mind), radical lesbian feminists, anarchist feminists, and others who critique capitalism, straight supremacy, settler colonialism, and imperialism alongside the patriarchy. Miss Representation’s model of liberal inclusion into the existing power structure and paternalistic desire to protect the young (from themselves?) unquestioningly replicates many of the horrors of the status quo. While laudable on its own terms in the sense that inclusion is always preferable to exclusion, there’s little reason to believe merely assimilating more women into the nightmarish machine of modernity will fundamentally transform its inner workings. Figures like Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Jean Quan attest to this thesis. As Smith argues in “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” the challenge lies in finding strategies for fighting inequality that avoid bolstering other forms of oppression.

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