What Are You Representing?

July 01, 2011

You can’t be what you can’t see.

This is the tagline for Miss Representation, a documentary that connects women in the media with women in leadership. At the 2011 AAUW National Convention, women leaders from every state gathered in Washington, D.C., and nodded their heads in agreement while watching the film.

Our country is far from reaching equality in women’s leadership roles: Women make up 17 percent of Congress and are merely 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. This fact was not lost on AAUW members, but this documentary skillfully pieces together interviews from several different perspectives — political candidates, high school students, comediennes, actors, journalists, historians, and mothers — to show how this media bias is harmful to both men and women. The movie makes excellent points as it exposes patterns in portrayals of women in movies, advertisements, and news programs.

Movies: The protagonist in movies is rarely a woman. When the protagonist in a movie is a man, the plot usually revolves around a man. When the protagonist is a woman, the plot still usually revolves around a man (trying to date a man and falling in or out of love with a man). This sends a general message to viewers that women are not important. Their actions and minds should not be the center of attention, only their bodies and the men with whom they associate. This message does not encourage the idea that women can be the leaders who make decisions and move the plot along.

Advertisements: Photoshopped and objectifying ads perpetuate the focus on one type of women’s bodies rather than their minds. With so many dehumanizing ads, many young women begin to see themselves as objects and put their focus and efforts into making their bodies fit into that mold rather than concentrating on academics or professional development. The goals for women become “lose 20 pounds” rather than “get that promotion.”

News programs: The topic of women in the news is especially timely considering the candidates involved in the 2012 election. The film discusses the man-eater/ditz dichotomy and argues that no matter how a woman political candidate chooses to present herself, she is forced into a delegitimizing stereotype. Not only does the film focus on women covered in the news but also on women reporting the news. Women news anchors often cover superficial topics and must always present themselves in an extremely feminine fashion, again reinforcing the idea that it’s the body that counts, not the abilities.

How are these portrayals limiting women’s access to leadership positions? If there aren’t positive women leaders as role models in the media, it’s more difficult for girls to aspire to be one. You can’t be what you can’t see.

AAUW is doing our part to fight these patterns. The Elect Her initiative, the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders, and $tart $mart salary negotiation workshops all focus on empowering women during college and give them the skills and encouragement to succeed professionally.

To continue this discussion in your community, look for a Miss Representation screening near you.

This post was written by College and University Relationships Intern Vanessa Wolbrink.

AAUWguest By:   |   July 01, 2011


  1. Laura Webb says:

    This sounds like an incredibly important documentary, and I look forward to seeing it. In the meantime, I’m just proud to be part of an organization working so hard to change these things. Thank you Vanessa!

  2. Robin Last says:

    I am a chapter president. How can I get access to this film? I watched the trailer and loved it! I also posted it to my Facebook for all my friends that continue to debate whether or not feminism is a usefull construct. Right.

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