Wednesday, May 4, 2011

SFIFF: "Miss Representation" Has The Potential To Inspire

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom has gotten a bit of a bad rap. In case you've forgotten (and I am sure she hopes everyone has), she ran into an Internet smackdown when she came to the defense of her (then) boyfriend, Mayor Gavin Newsom, in the comments of a post on SFist. The original post accused her of being "not a girl's kind of girl" and Siebel maintained that she was. This all branched out even further than one local blog, and before we knew it, Siebel was known as the Bumblebee. (I actually can't even fully remember how that one came about, so if anyone wants to enlighten us, please do!)*

Well, Jennifer Siebel is now Jennifer Siebel Newsom, wife of current California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the mother of a young daughter, with a son on the way. And it looks like she's really taken past accusations of not being "a girl's girl" to heart, directing the documentary "Miss Representation," which takes a critical look at how the media depicts and represents women and girls.

Newsom throws herself into the movie right off the bat, perhaps trying to deflect any criticism that by being a Beautiful White Woman of Privilege, she can't possibly have been negatively affected by any of this stuff. So, we see images of her looking forlornly at trees, while accounting the heartbreaks of her life, which include the death of a sister, sexual molestation, and anorexia. These are all horrible things, of course, and I suppose they do provide us with some insight into why she's taken on this subject. I just could have done without the soft focus glamour shots...

The rest of the film is pretty standard documentary filmmaking: Lots of media clips, talking heads, and statistics. There are a lot statistics thrown across the screen, and unless all the statistics come from the same source, and this source is attributed in the credits, I'd have to say these stats are basically uncited, which seems questionable to me. Not because I doubt the stats in any way, but just because it's an easy way for someone who does disagree with the film's premise to shoot down the picture as a whole. (For the record, some of the stats that stuck with me: Teens these days consume over 31 hours of television every week; John Boehner appeared on the cover of at least three national magazine covers during his first week as Speaker of the House, while Nancy Pelosi appeared on none during her entire time as Speaker; women are 51% of the population, and yet comprise only 17% of Congress.)

Where the movie shines the most is with the "talking heads," an impressive gathering of people who are almost universally enlightening, funny, and inspiring. These include Gloria Steinam, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleeza Rica, Rachel Maddow, Geena Davis, Jennifer L. Pozner, Margaret Cho, Katie Couric, Pat Mitchell, and, yes, Gavin Newsom and his piercing green eyes.

Perhaps even more inspiring, and at times, heartbreaking, are the Bay Area high schoolers who are interviewed, all of whom are incredibly bright, articulate, and much more insightful than the youth normally presented in the media. And it is in their words and experiences that we have proof of the negative effects of sexist media and culture.

You really only need to randomly turn the channel on your TV a few times before you'll probably be presented with a scantily clad woman speaking cattily about another woman. And that's most likely just Fox News! And I'm not going to feign innocence about my consumption of the junk television that is disseminating horrible representations of women. And really, I wouldn't feel any sense of loss if every one of the "Real Housewives" franchises was yanked from the screens tomorrow.

Yes, the power to change lies partly in our hands, and in the choices we make when it comes to entertainment. But even more important is forcing change at the top, where this media is created, and correcting the disparity of female representation in TV networks, advertisers, and movie studios.

"Miss Representation" is not a perfect film, but it does manage to raise some important issues in an entertaining way, and I think it has the potential to inspire. Especially now that it's gotten the blessing of perhaps the most powerful woman in media, Oprah Winfrey, on whose network the movie will premiere in October.

* I can! In a comment that followed the comment Siebel Newsom left on that SFist post you reference, "one of Jennifer Siebel's closest and oldest friends" said she "spent a childhood with (Siebel Newsom) saving bees from swimming pools." This turned into a running joke on the lengthy comment thread. I know this, yet can't remember how old my husband is. True story. -- EB

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