Miss Representation, directed and written by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is less a documentary and more a collective moan of frustration. The marginalization of women, both by a patriarchal society and by women themselves through societal pressure or plain old apathy, gets to many of the participants on a level that, underneath well-spoken arguments, feels like a basic, reflexive "gahh!" at perplexingly backwards politics, obnoxiously outdated ideals, and the unflagging void of so much modern pop culture.
After a pre-title sequence, Newsom frames her documentary as a personal journey. Pregnant and having just discovered that her child will be a girl, Newsom begins to worry about the society she'll have to raise her daughter in, stemming from her own experiences as a young adult. With that jumping-off point, she segues to the world of politics, through to television journalism, around to the kinds of programming highlighted in the intro, and finally closes by jumping back through politics and activism to the conclusion of her personal journey. Along the way, Newsom touches on smaller topics ranging from the education of today's youth to date rape, discussed in interviews from figures like Condolezza Rice, Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric, and Geena Davis.
The resulting film is unsurprisingly uneven: there are so many ways that sexism influences modern society that Newsom and editor Jessica Congdon have trouble gathering it all under a concise umbrella of "media." All documentaries will change based on the footage the filmmakers end up with, but the movie has a slight Frankenstein-monster feel, made up from pieces of an original goal and the faraway lands the filmmakers ended up in once the dust had settled. The way the film jumps from a very specific intro, to a personal story, and then deep into politics is awkward, and almost plays like a bait-and-switch where the doc morphs from a pop culture study to an overall look at sexual politics. Then again, it's not so much that one angle is better than another, it's just that the film works best when it's got something specific to tell the audience. The best segment of the film by far is a history lesson charting the way conservative politicians and the deregulation of advertising helped to subdue the women's rights movement of the 1970s, which is engaging, well-delivered, and probably more valuable information for viewers than "Paris Hilton is a bad role model for young women."
Miss Representation also feels like it's missing a little bit of anger. Sure, they say you don't get anywhere with hate in your heart, but at the same time, "Paris Hilton is a bad role model for young women" is the basic gist of many of the doc's clips and archival footage. The material that works best is the most outrageous, button-pushing stuff: a female Fox News anchor visibly and openly frustrated by her guest's sexist comments, two male CNN reporters actually forcing footage of Hilton on the air as the top story over a female anchor's vocal complaints, and some jackass on Fox News complaining about men's rights with exhausting standbys like worrying about PMS when electing women to power. These kinds of clips are too few and far between, and any moments where the interview subjects are fired up are almost non-existent. (On a personal level, I also don't like the way Newsom leaps from video games reinforcing cultural stereotypes to video games actually making people violent, but that's an argument for another day.)
In some respects, Miss Representation might've worked better as a series of short films, each one devoted to a different topic. It would circumvent the issue of cohesion, while still delivering the same core material. Then again, the fact that there's a film like Miss Representation at all is probably cause for celebration. The film opens with a quote by Alice Walker: "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." Although Newsom's point is direct (too many women don't raise their voices because they feel they're powerless to affect change), there's also a sense that many of the people absorbing the world's sexist imagery don't fight for equality because they don't even realize things could be different.
The DVD, Video, Audio, and Extras
I was sent a DVD-R screener of Miss Representation, which contained compressed, non-anamorphic picture and sound, and no extras (not even a menu). Looking at the official website, I can't see any evidence that the final copy offers any additional content, nor can I be sure of the technical specs of the final copy.
Miss Representation could use some fine-tuning and a clearer story to tell, but as long as we live in a world where there aren't a wide range of documentaries about the portrayal of women in media, any intelligent film on such a pervasive issue is an important one. Recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.