Miss Representation: A Study in Self-Objectification and Human Empowerment

Though many good reviews have already been written about Miss Representation since its debut a couple years ago, I chose to watch this film as a follow-up to watching Killing Us Softly 4. Jean Kilbourne is the common thread here, as I interviewed her for The 3% Conference blog, and she is featured in both films. After talking with her over Skype, I felt empowered, that I could really make a difference in the world through writing on topics that matter.  

That’s my common theme: whatever I do—no matter what practice or area of expertise—it comes down to mattering. If it doesn’t matter, both in the short-term and long-term, then why pursue a path. Is the path going to be easy? Of course not. Do I have some hurdles in the way? Yes, I do.


As a writer, there are themes I explore in every piece of storytelling I consume. Miss Representation is no exception and marks a start to my exploration of writing about what matters.


Power and Sex. Watching documentaries like these, in tandem with TV shows like House of Cards, allows me to further analyze how the media portrays powerful women and wants us to perceive powerful women. Claire Underwood is a prime example and one that was not addressed in Miss Representation because the film was produced prior to its airing. Claire is gorgeous, almost impossibly thin, demure, appears to defer to her husband, but still manages to get her way in the end by becoming both the First Lady and struggling to earn her seat as the UN ambassador. We all know that if she looked like the Secretary of State, Kathy, fewer viewers would even care about Claire’s struggle. Because she looks like Robin Wright, we watch and obsess. She appears to have it all, and it’s an ideal I feel myself subconsciously and consciously aiming for in my own life. I want to be beautiful. I want to be powerful. I want to look 10-15 years younger than my true age. I want to be heterosexual. I want to be influential. I want to be cool, calm and collected. I can’t be childless, like Claire, as my IUD ended up not working, but I want to be as focused on my goals as she is on hers—no matter what the cost. Even though this film is supposed to make women feel empowered, Claire is still objectified as a woman who can age gracefully, still be sexy and yank the chain of the most powerful man in the world. This TV show is one of the most popular on Netflix, and I fall prey to the messaging and programming in this film, as entertaining and stimulating as it may be.


Self-Objectification. That’s one word that sticks with me after watching Miss Representation. I had heard of objectification of women, but I had not considered that we women may self-objectify, that is, view ourselves as objects of desire. Growing up in a religious cult, self-objectification was a core theme of all our women’s meetings. As females in the group, we had little power to gain from intellectualism or accomplishments, but we could gain power over the men and women through becoming the most alluring, yet outwardly spiritual, woman in the group.


Harmful Messages. There are many parallels between American culture and my religious group. Thin was in. If you didn’t get your body back immediately after pregnancy, than there was something wrong with you. You were letting yourself go, and it was no wonder that your spiritual husband was tempted to look at pornography or lust after teenage girls when their skirts were just above the knee. It wasn’t really their fault, but yours. But, if you took the initiative to self-objectify, you could change all that. He would desire you above all else. I am a Type A, which means I took this to the extreme. I made it my mission in life to become the most beautiful girl in the school, maintain a 4.0 GPA, volunteer all my weekends doing God’s work, while also becoming the “help meet” to my future husband in all my spare time. After being immersed in the cult for 20 years, I left the group only to find that feminism still had not made enough strides towards equality. I thought this message only permeated extremist groups, but I was wrong.


Empowering Men. In the film, this topic was addressed near the conclusion of the film, almost as an afterthought or a topic that required more exploration. Because the United States was established in a patriarchal society, men also encounter messaging about what it means to be a man. Violence and macho personas are glorified. Caring and intuitive men are portrayed as soft, as too metrosexual or as borderline gay. According to the media, a real American male looks like this: strong and muscular, a bit hot-headed, married to a good woman but has a wandering eye, high sex drive, makes more money than women, keeps his family in order, puts food on the table, never shows emotion and is almost a sci-fi robot in nature. Imagine how the men must feel—if they allowed themselves to—about this inaccurate and incomplete picture of who they are. This is dehumanizing to them, just as objectification is to women.


What can we do about these issues? This was the question every viewer consciously asked themselves by the end of the film. We sometimes feel that we cannot shift a culture by ourselves, that we cannot effect change as a single human being. There are many examples of people in history and in our culture who have chosen to dedicate their lives to effecting change, and many of these are interviewed in Miss Representation. But, we don’t need to dedicate our lives to a cause like this unless it’s our calling.

What we can do is to raise awareness in our immediate circles, to talk with our children about the media, to ask thought-provoking questions of ourselves when we are consuming media and to be vigilant about what we allow ourselves to read, to watch and to consume. If each one of us became more aware, we’d effect change through our behaviors, and the media would be forced to adapt.