Last Wednesday I spent a full working day to buy one and a half hours of film and another half of panel discussion. All but those two of these eight hours were spent on being transported – I don’t mean ecstatically – but it was worth it. I’d do it again.
Re-wind: Sometime in January our founder and Chief Executive Amy “The Road” Thompson was invited to a screening in the Houses of Parliamet. Of course, being The Road as she is, Amy was unable to attend; she was suffering from an unavoidable bout of “being in Australia”. Of course being a good Chief, she passed the opportuity along to someone who’d jump at the chance: me.
Have you heard of Miss Representation? Have you seen the hashtags #Missrepresentation, #missrep, #notbuyingit? Miss Representation is an American film by an American actress and filmmaker about how women are represented – in film, in politics, in advertising – in motion picture culture. It explores how professional women have been treated by their industries and their audiences. It asks American youths about the messages they’ve understood regarding “what women can be”, what they can do, and how this impacts upon girls, boys, men and women.
Re-wind redux: I spent the train journey down to London from Warwickshire reading; consequently I spent most of the train journey down sending my boyfriend text messages about the increasingly annoying descriptions of the hero’s wife and ex-girlfriend. A hot woman who eats eagerly with big mouthfuls? How perfectly imperfect-feminine can you get?
So you can see, I am a person already receptive to a documentary about the representation of The Female. Perhaps you’re unconvinced – here is a trailer.
Public transport made a mockery of me and I arrived half an hour late. Sitting on a underground train that was both above ground and stationary I wondered (worried) if they let you into Parliament buildings if you haven’t polished your shoes. As it turns out they do; but you have to leave your hipflask with Security. There had been wine, pre-screening, but I arrived to empty glasses. This is fair enough.
With an absence of greeters and its twin of free chairs I settled myself on what may have been an umbrella stand if it wasn’t a bin – and I watched and listened with a hungry head.
What I keep thinking about is how.. nice? Condoleezza Rice seemed. What it took me a double-take to realise was that the lady behind the film was the blonde in the white flared trouser suit.
Miss Representation borrows the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see” – it also refutes it, because exceptional people will always exist and one single-minded woman will always find her way into a man’s world. The documentary (and the panel afterwards – more later) address this and how it doesn’t make the state of things acceptable – it doesn’t hold the words as black and white objectivity. It’s the spirit, not the letter. But what surprised me a little was that the film reminded me that it’s not only about seeing yourself or the you that you want to be: diversity and wide reflection (“representation”) are needed because seeing other people is important.
If I look at a woman and not even consciously think “Republican Beauty Queen, probably pro-business and anti-abortion” when I have never met a Republican or a Beauty Queen – and I can be surprised that this image is the surface of a woman bold and “liberal” enough to produce an egalitarian feminist documentary that assigns responsibility to both beauty and political industries – there needs to be greater depth of representation. I appreciate that this is anecdata and this is my own failing, but it’s a failing that’s taken from the world of “American blondes” that I’ve been offered.
I have seen Rice stand next to George Bush and behind microphones, and I have seen her represent various political agendas. I am aware that she bears some responsibility for war. I have heard people talk about her and call her Condi, and talk about her race and her gender and her politics. I had never seen her represent herself.
I felt strange and guilty as I sketched the room. I was reducing this crowd of aware, clever mostly-women to pictures of the backs of their heads – just images of hairstyles. But then, this is a film about representation and images of women only harm if they’re reductivist. When so many drawn girls are made to offer you their drawn bodies, perhaps making lines form their sisters taking notes and demonstrably thinking.. is perfectly in line with the evening.
The film ended and I got my not-tearful stoic face back on. I sat there on my bin for a bit, unsure if things were over or if there might be more refreshments (it is expensive to buy water on the move). What luck! There was about to be a short panel discussion – with drinks to follow! I moved to sit on a table now that people were moving around and looking at me. A snap decision that led to a decent view of the panel; lucky because excuse my capslock MALORIE BLACKMAN WAS ON IT.
Now it’s clear that the other panel members (Susie Orbach, Colleen Harris, Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson (of whom this is a poor likeness, but I could not have been further away from her and she kept moving!)), have done work and formed sentences that make me want to shake their hands for repeated hours – as an adult. But Malorie Blackman taught wee-me about racism and organ transplants and girls being good at maths, as well as how to set a decent password. Once I formed a romantic attachment to a boy because he had a superficial identifier that was the same as one of her characters’. I sort of wanted to go and tell her about that.
All four panel members had good, intelligent, encouraging and thoughtful things to say. They went into intersectionality and race, which the film didn’t take too much time on; a criticism I’d heard from Meggan and Maddy, two women who work to increase the visibility of ladies and further minorities in the comic book fandom that I share with them.
Susie Orbach’s words impressed me the most when she said that the definition of success isn’t something we should take for granted. Being kept out of apparent power or away from the spotlight doesn’t mean that women aren’t living influential lives. I don’t remember her exact words – no dictaphone – but the impression left was a reminder that being subject to sexism or any other form of institutionalised oppression doesn’t take your dimension from you. Don’t believe that you are, less of a person, less rounded, with less ability or sentience or emotion. Don’t believe that others are, just because you don’t see them represented as field leaders or protagonists.
Of course, this cuts both ways – don’t believe that a well-written woman character can’t be subject to a sexist plot, for example. Who? Elementary.
I’d like to have spoken more with Orbach about that point – I think that there’s something enormous in what she’s saying like it was the key to all empathy and justice amongst humans. But after the panel had finished everyone was talking in twos and threes, and I was thinking about ridig the underground alone at night, and no drinks were happening to me after all. I gave in to my human weakness. I left. I ticked the “yes I would attend an annual conference on female representation” option on a paper I foud on someone else’s chair, but I left.
On the way home, I thought about who everyone else might have been, and what they were wearing.
Fashion wasn’t approached by the documentary narrative at all. Which is funny, or maybe not – within the world of style blogging, there is representation of Miss/Ms/Mrs galore. I’m a lady, Amy’s a lady, the majority of our readership (that means you) are ladies or girls or not-yet-a-woman-s.. There are a lot of us, in general. But even within our own virtual Themiscyra there are struggles and imbalances – there’s not a fat acceptance movement for nothig, racism isn’t over and it’s easier to become “successful” if you adhere (or don’t obviously divert from) a handful of basic modes of femininity. We struggle to give everyone a fair chance on our own turf – is that because of how we’re trained to think by outside influences, or do we put up with those because we want to be able to police be-a-girl amongst ourselves? Is it possible to change our scene without attempting to change the mainstream, or do we have to look to the bigger picture before we can dare to hope for a fashiony idyll?
With arguments about who “requires” models to have thirty-five inch hips being passed back and forth before court and with the waning thinner of the blogger/magazine divide, I think #missrep’s on the money with it’s final advice –
Demand help. And as far as you are able, be the change.
Jo Swinson interview: http://www.parliamentaryradio.co.uk/newsrelease.html
One critique on lack of intersectionality within the film: http://acidforblood.net/2011/12/miss-representation-thoughts/
Further ciriticism and discussion: http://www.feminisms.org/3922/miss-representation-a-critical-review/
Screening details in Edinburgh: http://www.missrepresentation.org/screenings/filmhouse-edinburgh/
Find out about hosting a screening: http://www.missrepresentation.org/screenings/#host
Miss Representation at IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1784538/