Women, the Media, and ‘Miss Representation’

As I was packing up my childhood room back in New Jersey to move up to Boston, I came across old diaries and journals I had kept growing up. I decided to take them with me and crack them open as I was settling into the uncertainties of adulthood as a way to remind me of the girl I once was, and how she became the woman I am today. What I found when I read the pages of these notebooks surprised me—my 16-year-old self talking about all the ways she felt inadequate and questioning whether being intelligent was more important than being attractive. I read phrases like, “afraid I’ll never be loved” and “I don’t feel even remotely beautiful,” and I cringed at how difficult it was being a teenage girl trying to live up to unrealistic expectations. I graduated valedictorian of my class and received a scholarship to a top university, and yet, peppering the pages of my journals were exhaustive paragraphs about not feeling good enough—not being thin or attractive, wondering why my intelligence seemed to be more of social hinderance, and generally just wanting to be left alone instead of teased for my appearance.

When I stumbled across the documentary MissRepresentation on Twitter this month, I was immediately drawn to the message it is trying to spread. One of the things the film does is encourage a change in how women are portrayed in media and viewed by consumers. The solution to this issue is laid out by a change that must occur, not only in how women view themselves, but how men view them as well. It made me think about all the things I found in my journal entries and how, despite many of the unavoidable social influences we are bombarded by every day, young girls can grow up to be strong women.

I realized that growing up, I was surrounded by strong women—women who were not ashamed of their intelligence and thrived under scrutiny. They encouraged me to embrace who I was and to constantly push to be better. But I also found that it was the men who loved these women—my father, my uncles and family friends who we called uncles—that significantly shaped the view I had of myself as a woman in the 21st century. The men that influenced me respected the women in their lives, not simply for the way they looked, but the way they thought and the unique talents they had to offer the world. These men offered encouragement for success and support when it was needed. Their ambitions were not above those of the women they loved, but alongside them, believing that it was important for both of them to achieve their goals. They did not patronize or degrade, they found beauty in the class of a woman, not the amount of skin they could see showing or the sexiness of an outfit.

I also noticed how these men treated their daughters. My father threw baseballs with me in the backyard for hours because at one point I believed I could be the first female to play professional baseball. And when I verbalized my dream to be the first female President of the United States, he never told me it was a man’s job—he and my mother took me to Washington DC instead. Friends of our family encouraged their daughters to take leadership roles in school and at church, and I always found it refreshing when I saw another father tell his daughter she could not “go out of the house wearing that.” They encouraged us to find beauty in a person as a whole, not just by the clothes we had on our backs. Beauty, for these men, represented strength, and it was a lesson I was fortunate to be consistently reminded of amidst the constant bombardment of unrealistic social expectations.

As MissRepresentation reminds us, the images we see in ads and through entertainment are meant to sell. They are meant to be provocative and alluring to entice the buying of a product. But what is important for men and women to remember is that they are not a product, and beauty cannot be bought or sold. Beauty, often misconstrued and under-appreciated, comes from something more than appearance. And while it is important for women to value their beauty, it is equally vital that men see it in them as well, and remember that it does not come from a sexy bikini or push-up bra, but the whole person.

More on Women’s Obsession with Beauty

Chasing Beauty: An Addict’s Memoir

Are Women Addicted to Beauty?

Her Looks, Your Status: Why His Claims Not to Care About Beauty Ring Hollow

The Ugly Duckling as a Gender-Neutral Beauty Ideal

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Kristyn Ulanday

Kristyn Ulanday is a freelance photographer and producer based in Boston, MA. She specializes in documentary photography and multimedia and can be contacted at [email protected]

Comments

  1. I think most people, men and women, get that we are all more than skin. And, the media is hard on women, I agree.

    But, the media is no friend to men either. For example, there have been few if any sitcoms in the last 10 years where the male lead (or one of them) was/is not a clownish buffoon.

    Likewise, commercial after commercial portrays men as idiots and the wife or girlfriend as the intelligent, responsible one.

    • meant to say “skin deep.”

    • Yeah, there are those commercials that portray men as un-knowledgeable about something about which their wives are experts, but the vast majority of the time, that something relates to domesticity or childcare or some other traditional “women’s sphere,” and it’s supposedly humorous that the man is even expected to know anything about the thing he’s struggling with.

      • I am sorry but I can’t agree with your assertion here. Most commercials where there is a battle of the sexes, the woman is smart, whitty and generally is able to fix whatever problem that has occurred. The man is a simpleton who is just lucky he has his wife/girlfriend to help him out.

        Bill Maher said it best “We as a society is now simply setup to make women clap”.

    • In general, I think that there are pretty horrible problems with our advertising and media today. Women are over-sexualized and men tend to be portrayed as big dumb animals that muddle through life for the sole purpose of getting laid. I finally just got rid of my TV.

      I think it would be great if people would be more aware of the influence that our media has on society. If people were more aware of these problems and more passionate about how insulting and harmful the messages are, maybe there would be positive change. I can’t wait to watch Miss Representation.

      And, if you want to make misrepreMANtation, I would watch that, too.

  2. No, they portray men as clueless about everything, not just childcare. 

    I don’t watch much TV, but off the top of my head, here are some major sitcoms where the male lead is dumb and clueless (about everything, not just childcare) and the female lead is smarter, the “adult in the room”, and usually has to be the fixer for the problems the dumb guy constantly creates:

    According to Jim, King of Queens, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Home Improvement, Married with Children, 2 ½ Men, Everybody Loves Raymond, George Lopez, House of Payne, Meet the Browns.  And virtually all the kids’ sitcoms I know of feature the girl(s) as the smarter one(s) and the boys as dumb and goofy (e.g. iCarly, Josh & Drake).

    This is obviously not an exhaustive list but it provides clear evidence that any negative media portrayal affects men just as well.

  3. Well said Eric, you are very correct in that.

    here is something to think about how the media protrays men.

    “The TALK”, recently had a segment about the man who had his penis cut off by his wife, the hosts were laughing , joking and were quite disgusting.

    Now what would happen to these hosts if they were 5 men who were doing the same thing about a woman who had her breasts cutt of by ther husband. I can tell you what would happen, they would have been fired.

  4. The difficulty with commercialisation is that in a society where we pretty much have all the basics we need to survive – and legally backed equality is included in this – the nature of the media is twofold at the very least. First, it basically tells us what we are not, by telling us what is good. People underestimate the written word and how it can be manipulated and how easily we (as a general rule) accept it. Secondly, it then markets to us the very thing that it has shown us we have lacking. That is sadly the business of the media when it comes down to generating business. And women are big business. As are men.

    Gender is a huge arena, but there are naturally accepted differences between individuals and genders (which can’t really, truly be split into two if we consider modern science advancements in genetic research). What drives a male or a female or whoever a person may be can be as basic or as complicated as we like. But there are differences, and it’s that basic. The media just finds a way to get around us all. And as social groupds we market an idea to each other and impose a set of aspirations, some of them maybe in someones eyes, seen as superficial.

    I really enjoyed reading this article and the following comments.

  5. J.G. te Molder says:

    Ugh.

    There we go again: “It’s the men that hurt women, it’s the men that don’t portray them right; those evil, evil men!”

    No, you idiots, it’s COMPANIES that portray women that women. Female CEOs of pharmaceutical and other companies do it just as much as male ones. Destroy a person’s self-esteem, then hand them the solution, which they’ll be all to happy to give, if you pay them. It’s greed that’s driving it, and greed is universal.

    And it isn’t just women; just look at men in shows and commercials. If you find one where men aren’t reduced to emotionallly-stunted, violent, moronic children; it borders on miraculous. Of course, women in the same shows are depicted as the eternally suffering under men’s idiocy wise saint.

  6. DavidByron says:

    Yes at some point if you can back off for a second from all damage that this sort of thing has caused, it strikes you as just amazingly naive. It’s like a five year old rushing to tell you about this great discovery they just made, called the internet and insisting on telling you how it works.

    Yes ladies, life sucks. You just figured that out huh? That’s wonderful. Guess what? It doesn’t just suck for you. It sucks for men too. Isn’t that amazing? You never noticed that, huh? You never noticed anyone else’s pain because you were so busy cataloging how bad yours supposedly is. Never noticed how much better off you have it than so many other people.

    That’s cute behaviour for a five year old but when grown adults behave that way it isn’t cute. It’s narcissism. And we don’t live in a world where this sort of video is just naive and not dangerous. It is dangerous.

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