Miss Representation

Miss Representation, a documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, explores the limiting portrayal of women in the mass media and its consequences. The documentary begins with the significant fact that young people use the media for over ten hours a day, which is more time than they spend performing any other activity, including sleeping. The media has the power to shape our identities and, as a consequence, the way we represent gender matters.

“Girls get the message from very early on that what’s most important is how they look, that their value, their worth, depends on that,” says feminist writer Jean Kilbourne at the beginning of the documentary. “And boys get the message that this is what’s important about girls. We get it from advertising. We get it from films. We get it from television shows, video games, everywhere we look. So, no matter what else a woman does, now matter what else her achievements, their value still depends on how they look.”

“The media treats women like shit,” adds comedian Margaret Cho.

The media’s representation of women as flawless and perfect is more extreme than ever, computers are used to remove every blemish from every image and give models unnaturally perfect bodies.

“You never see the photograph of a woman considered beautiful that hasn’t been digitally altered to make her absolutely, inhumanly perfect,” Kilbourne explains. “Girls are being encouraged to achieve that ideal at younger and younger ages all the time.”

Miss Representation also explores the notion that advertising is designed to make people feel inadequate and that this inadequacy is used to sell products. Advertising, and the media in general, is saturated with images of impossibly thin and beautiful models because this encourages the purchase of beauty products.

According to Caroline Heldman, women who self-objectify are far less likely to believe that their voice matters in politics and therefore less likely to run for office. The documentary also looks at how important it is to see empowering representations of women in the media. ”Having this opportunity to see women, to see women leadership, to see woman’s leadership in reality and on the screen and in the television is huge for women… huge,” says Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project. Of course, many of the representations we see in the mainstream media are extremely limiting. Most mainstream films are about the lives of men. Even romantic comedies – which sell themselves as movies about women – revolve around the lives of a man.

“The hypersexualization that occurs in Hollywood, it’s toxic. There’s no question. It affects all of us, including young girls who are seeking an identity, ” says Academy Award-winning actor and activist Jane Fonda. As the documentary reveals, this type of representation also extends to female news anchors and politicians who are routinely scrutinised for their appearance. In the media, women are more likely to be represented as emotional and irrational than men.

Miss Representation suggests that one of the reasons there are so few empowering representations of women in the media is because media organisations are largely run by men. ”It’s extremely important for women to be writing their own stories, truly crafting those stories, writing them down directing them, and giving them to people to really emotionally become impacted by,” said Rosario Dawson.


1. “You can’t be what you can’t see.” What does this quote suggest about how representations of powerful women are, largely, absent from the mass media?

2. What does Miss Representation suggest about the way women are represented in the media?

3. What is a stereotype? Which gender stereotypes are being repeated again and again in the media?

4. In terms of representation of women, what is the problem with mainstream Hollywood films?

5. What sort of stereotypes are used to represent female leaders?

6. What does Caroline Heldman argue about representations of women like Lara Croft which, on the surface, may appear empowering?

7. What, according to Gloria Steinem, is the side effect of representations created in a patriarchal system?

8. During prime time television, what age group do the majority of female characters belong to?

9. What does Jennifer Pozner claim about the representation of women on reality television?

10. Explain how the following factors may influence the representation of gender in the mass media:  cultural attitudes, media ownership, advertising, media regulation.