Case Study 1
Feature Length Documentary – “Miss Representation”.
The first case study of my research into media representation is American documentary, “Miss Representation”, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom (2011). The following review looks particularly at how the film links media representation to social attitudes, as well as the filmmaking techniques and forms helping to express these points.
“Miss Representation” encompasses the key theme associated with my own research, that being the role of mainstream media in influencing public opinion towards particular social groups. The documentary’s focus is on the under-representation of women in the media, and the prevalence of limited and often disparaging portrayals of women. The argument presented in the film is that these broadly negative representations contribute to the maintenance of existing, masculine-biased gender relations.
Academic theorists of cultural representation have often pointed to its importance in influencing audience attitudes and behaviours. In Godall et al’s (2007) “Crash Cinema: Representations in Film”, this argument is particularly striking:
“In shaping cultural discourses cinematic representations influence our attitudes and ideologies towards issues of race, gender, age, identity, wealth and power.” (2007; xv)
My previous research into representations of the benefits system has primarily been focused on written representations found in newspapers and magazines. Interestingly, Godall et al broaden this into the realm of the cinema and illustrate a similar effect. In terms of “Miss Representation”, a film concerned with addressing media representations of women, the key aim is to highlight the prevalence of already existent negative representations. This was largely done through the inclusion of a broad variety of media in which such negative representations are overtly clear. These included animations, live action footage, archive footage, music videos, audio snippets of radio shows, and footage of live news reports. The scale of the representations being shown within the film helps to emphasise how widespread an issue the misrepresentation of women in the media has become.
Mehring’s (1990) “The Screenplay” helps to further outline this interplay between a film’s message or content and the form or language it uses to express it:
“Film form is the expression of film content. It’s the vehicle that delivers film content. It is impossible for the screenwriter with a knowledge of uniqueness and power of the motion picture medium to separate form and content.” (1990; 5)
With “Miss Representation” the interplay between form and content helped to solidify the film’s arguments without the use of dialogue, but instead through the visual suggestion of a broad, persistent issue. In delivering the key message of widespread misrepresentation of women in the media, cutting together a range of cultural evidence taken from music videos, celebrity magazines, news reports and written articles was an effective strategy. Also important was the use of editing within interviews to underline the points being made. This was deployed on various occasions where interviewees would make a statement about general maltreatment of women in culture before it being reinforced by cuts to various forms of negative media representation of women.
These elements of form inspired me with my own practical experiment. For this I chose to interview a young woman who aspires to a career in the creative industries about how she regards the representation of women in the media. As part of this interview, she expressed the point that women are more positively portrayed in the music industry now than they have been in the past. While considerable ground has been made in recent times, I believe that the representation of women remains overly sexualized in the music industry and wanted to deliver this message within my experiment. In order to do this, I decided to edit in clips of modern music videos in which women are overtly objectified.
I feel that this experiment was interesting and successful as a response to the documentary. While utilizing the same techniques in “Miss Representation”, my own practical experiment looked to contradict rather than solidify the arguments of the interviewee. In doing so, the aim was to suggest that overly positive views of progress in the representation of women are naïve to the lived reality of women in the music industry. The inclusion of additional footage from the subject matter being discussed, as well as quick edits of this footage, helped to succinctly deliver the intended message.
Mark Goodall, Jill Good, Will Godfrey (2007). Crash Cinema: Representation in Film. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. xv.
Margaret Mehring (1990). The Screenplay. A blend of Film Form and Content. USA: Focal Press. p3-5.
CASE STUDY 2
Secret Lives – Walt Disney (1995) Directed by Joseph Bullman
The second case study I chose to examine was “Secret Lives – Walt Disney”, directed by Joseph Bullman (1995). The documentary gives a background to the Walt Disney studios and details the inequalities facing women who were employed there. These included never being given the opportunity to progress into top animation roles, instead being restricted to work such as inking and tracing, and always in a separate part of the studio to other men.
When looking at the interplay between form and content, the documentary uses interview and archive footage to show the lived realities of gender difference and inequality for women working for Walt Disney. The documentary develops this point further, however, by making the suggestion that the conformity with traditional gender roles of female subservience is evidenced in the films produced by the studio. To demonstrate this, animated footage of Disney films are utilized showing various examples of weaker female roles.
This led me to further explore such representations of women in other Disney works. One such example is “The Little Mermaid” (1989) directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. The female lead, Ariel, is a mermaid who is promised she will meet a man provided that she changes her physical appearance to a human and sacrifices her own voice. The narrative continues along these lines with Ariel’s actions being rewarded by her finding her man. The overriding message is one of subtle subservience of women being a trait that will ultimately lead to the reward of finding a man. The condescending tone of this is masked somewhat by its cartoon form, sound design, coloring and the childlike design, all of which are suggestive of innocence and harmlessness. Nevertheless, the scale with which these subtle gender-stereotyped messages predominate in the popular culture for children continues to be worrying for many feminist critics. One such example is Peggy Orenstein, who writes:
“I’ve spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girls’ well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughters’ mental and physical health…if trafficking in stereotypes doesn’t matter at three, when does it matter? At Six? Eight? Thirteen?” Orestein (2006)
As Orenstein notes, there is a prevalence of cultural products that encourage stereotypical gender roles. Her specific mentioning of films led me to consider the genre of ‘chick flicks’, aimed at an older female audience and using live action but, arguably, containing many similar patriarchal messages. A good example from this genre is that of “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (2001) directed by Sharon Maguire. The lead title character in this is heavily reliant on relationships with men to generate her happiness and this is demonstrated through carefully edited scenes utilizing the tropes of female sadness such as close-ups on boxes of tissues, crying eyes and so on.
Numerous theorists have highlighted the persistence of these representations, as well as their effect on female self-perception. Lazard (2009) states:
“From a feminist psychological perspective, I would argue that such depictions of femininity in fiction are important because fictional representations are sites within which audiences negotiate understandings of gendered subjectivities.” Lazard (2009; 134-135)
The representation of old-fashioned, female subservient gender roles in culture is deeply embedded and, arguably, more normalized than any other representation. Its presence in Disney films shows it to be introduced during childhood, while its presence in adult popular culture, such as the ever-popular romantic comedies and ‘chick flicks’, suggests the message does not fade over time.
I decided to explore this idea through my practical experiment. The Disney footage of female leads in “Secret Lives – Walt Disney” documentary was utilized by the film-makers to deliver the message of traditional gender roles being prevalent in the workplace and the product of Disney. My experiment looked to use similar Disney footage of female leads, alongside footage from ‘chick flicks’ such as Bridget Jones’ Diary, as cutaways during an interview. In contrast to the experiment associated with case study 1, I was not using the additional footage to subvert the message of the interviewee. Instead, I was keen for the experiment to reinforce the message being imparted, the prevalence and potential dangers of providing one-dimensional female role models in terms of the attitudes held by women in later life.
 PEGGY ORENSTEIN. (2006). What’s Wrong With Cinderella?. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. Last accessed 07/11/14.
 Lisa Lazard. (2009). ‘You’ll Like This – It’s Feminist!’ Representations of Strong Women in Horror Fiction. Feminism & Psychology. 1 (1), p134-135.
Mark Goodall, Jill Good, Will Godfrey (2007). Crash Cinema:Representation in Film. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. xv.
Margaret Mehring (1990). The Screenplay. A blend of Film Form and Content. USA: Focal Press. p3-5.
PEGGY ORENSTEIN. (2006). What’s Wrong With Cinderella?. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. Last accessed 07/11/14.
Lisa Lazard. (2009). ‘You’ll Like This – It’s Feminist!’ Representations of Strong Women in Horror Fiction. Feminism & Psychology. 1 (1), p134-135.
Miss Representation. (2011) Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom [Documentary] USA Girls’ Club Entertainment.
Secret Life of Walt Disney. (1995) Directed by Joseph Bullman [Documentary]. UK Twenty Twenty Television.
The Little Mermaid. (1989) Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker [Film]. USA Walt Disney Studios.
Bridget Jones’ Diary. (2001) Directed by Sharon Maguire [Film]. USA Universal Pictures.