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Challenging media misrepresentation

May 31 2012

Men and women of all ages packed into Stanford’s Cubberly Auditorium for a documentary film and panel discussion.  This was no ordinary documentary.  The audience did not passively view the film; instead, they were engaged in learning more and taking action. Written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Miss Representation examines the discrepancies in gender roles as portrayed in the media – in other words, the blatant misrepresentation of women in the media. Featuring provocative interviews with high-ranking women, and illustrative media clips from popular franchises, Miss Representation opens eyes to what can seem like the “normal” backdrop of American culture.


From advertisements targeting the male demographics to stereotyped female roles in television shows, the media has served to propagate and reinforce the message that a woman’s value lies in her appearance and sexuality.  Newsom shared a poignant personal memory: while her daughter Montana received compliments on her looks,  her son’s birth was heralded with gifts and even a letter from the president.  Newsom then challenged each audience member to tell stories in turn, asking, “Why do we teach our girls that they don’t have the same limitless opportunities that boys do?”

Looking in the mirror

To hear from more student voices about the impact of media on their lives, the Clayman Institute sponsored an essay contest inviting students to submit a 150-word essay commenting on a media image. Each of the three Essay Contest Winners responded to the challenge of taking action against this one-dimensional portrayal of women.  Leslie Georgatos of the Graduate School of Business described real-world effects of stereotypical media portrayals of successful businesswomen.  Powerful women are frequently depicted as harsh and unsympathetic, like Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, or they are portrayed as manipulative and devious.  Fellow essay winner Thanh D. Nguyen ’13 approached the myth of female sexualization and submissiveness through the lens of multiculturalism. 

Buying in to the objectification and idealization of the female body prevalent in advertising and magazines has created dangerous societal expectations, as Amanda Rost ’14 addressed.  The media’s obsession with appearances is not restricted to advertising or fictional characters.  Female role models such as Hillary Clinton face explicitly gendered criticism: Secretary Clinton’s audacity to appear make-up free in public was breaking news.  In light of the growing body disorder and self-esteem statistics, Siebel Newsom spoke of how “the world really needs us, and we need to fix our problems rather than focusing on [our bodies and appearances].”

Panelist Carolyn Becker, creator of the TriDelta Reflections Programs and a fellow at CASBS, invited sororities “join us to fight the status quo.”  Becker spoke about the positive impact that sororities and the empowered community they foster can have on promoting positive body image.  She cited Kappa Kappa Gamma’s organization and co-sponsorship of this event for Stanford’s V-Week as just one example of this positive influence.   

Though women comprise of a majority of the world’s population, the United States is ranked 90th in the world in female legislative representation and in mainstream media, only 3% of the high-ranking positions are filled by women.  The audience was audibly shocked by statistics such as these as they ran throughout the documentary.  Following the film, each panelist reminded the audience that knowledge without action is not enough to create a better society and asked for active participation in fighting the status quo. 

The bottom line for women

 “I think we forget how powerful we are as women,” stated Executive Producer Regina Kulik Scully.  As women control 85% of all consumer purchases, wielding this power would dramatically affect the bottom line.   Though many ads are targeted to the male demographic, the majority of consumers are women.  Women comprised of the vast majority of the Twilight Saga’s record-breaking audience, and have fueled the astonishing success of the franchise to the surprise of the industry.   Each panelist spoke of the potential that harnessing this significant consumer power could have on changing the media landscape.  Newsom echoed the other speakers, urging the audience to “vote with your dollar!”

A call to action

“The law can be a powerful tool...especially when it’s used in conjunction with publicity,” explained panelist Deborah Rhode, author of the Beauty Bias.  The campaign against the media’s damaging portrayals begins with representation.  One speaker shared the story of how she convinced New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office to take down an inappropriate ad after she called in to voice her complaints.  On the event Facebook post, one commenter wrote that following the event she was inspired to purge her guilty pleasure, “Real Housewives,” because though it was mindless, it was not benign.  Another example: eighth grader Julia Bluhm’s inspirational petition asking Seventeen Magazine to commit to printing unaltered photos has garnered over 75,000 signatures to date.

Newsom asked that we use our voices, through telling our stories, taking the pledge, or participating in the April 25th Day of Action.  Form letters to send to congressional representatives and other influential leaders were available online and outside the auditorium following the event.   Rhode articulated an expectation that the audience would join in the Miss Representation movement and “take the steps from [this night] to make our voices heard about the important social issues.”


A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.