A movie that depicts scantily clad women vying for men’s attention in beer commercials, women “catfighting” on a reality TV show, and cable news commentators criticizing the physical appearance of women in public office. So…. How is this day’s media diet different from all other days? For starters, these images are part of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s provocative documentary Miss Representation, and Tuesday the film was the jumping off point for conversations in all of Wildwood’s Division Three Humanities classes. Just after the screening, I joined a group of twenty-eight young men and their teacher, Jason David. We sat in a circle to share our thoughts.
The 2011 film is age-appropriate, yet disturbing, showing many of the thousands of vivid images of demeaning, misogynist messages that bombard each of us through the media.
Owen L. is an aspiring writer and videogame designer. “The movie really made me consider what messages I’ll be putting out into the world someday.” His classmate, another 10th grader, Julian C., adds his thoughts. “It’s not just the messages about women,” he argues, “the media’s messages to men are also extremely limiting. If you don’t embrace the hyper-masculine James Bond-type, the media make you feel as if you’re not a man.”
The film’s thesis: media representations of women hinder their abilities to reach positions of power and authority in American society. Because of the subject matter, the Division Three Humanities teachers divided their students into gender-specific discussion groups to facilitate more open dialogue. Jason and I sit in with the boys while Jason’s colleagues, Ariane White, Annie Barnes, and Katy Green, hold a parallel discussion with the girls in a different room.
As the discussion continues, 9th grader David O. offers this perspective: “The movie talks about the media as if it’s some monolithic thing that’s entirely responsible for all of these negative messages,” he begins. “But we’re the ones who consume what the media makes. If anyone’s to blame, it’s us.” Others in the group concur, then raise the deeper question of what role each of us plays in perpetuating the conditions the film depicts. “It’s a vicious cycle,” 9th grader Max C. responds. “The media say that they portray women like this because it’s what the public wants, but the public consumes it because it’s all that they see in the media.” The conversation veers from idea to idea, then to insight, as the boys consider the layers of meaning.
The screening and discussion of Miss Representation this week is part of Wildwood’s comprehensive multicultural curriculum. In Division Three, the focus is on gender issues. Jason David asks the boys to consider a final question before the class period ends: based on what you’ve seen and discussed here today, what thoughts would you like to share with the girls in Division Three? Tomorrow, they’ll have a chance to address this question and their female peers during a division-wide discussion.
Deep dialogue leads to deep meaning.
To see the trailer for Miss Representation click HERE (please note: the trailer contains images and language that are not appropriate for younger children).
~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning