Sex, lies and media: New wave of activists challenge notions of beauty

Story highlights

  • Films like Miss Representation, America the Beautiful challenge media portrayals of women
  • Miss Representation is now a call-to-arms campaign with 50,000 Facebook followers
  • Blogs and viral videos are vehicles for raising awareness of digital image alteration
Here's the fantasy: A half-naked woman lies across a couch, lips pouty and cleavage prominent as her sultry gaze implores you to buy this bottle of perfume.
The reality: Women make up 51% of the United States yet only 17% of seats in the House of Representatives. They're 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 7% of directors in the top 250 grossing films.
What's the connection? We live in a sexualized society where the gap between fantasy and reality is vast and harmful.
"Women are aspiring to do great things in leadership, yet the glass ceiling is still there because of the way media depict women," director and activist Jennifer Siebel-Newsom said. "It influences our culture and dictates our gender norms and values."
Siebel-Newsom's documentary, Miss Representation, is the latest cinematic foray in the movement to challenge portrayals of beauty in "the media," a term used to describe all forms of mass communication, from the internet, TV, film, magazines, radio and advertising.
It may sound like a tired feminist rant to anyone who grew up with a smartphone. In fact, women are objectified more than ever, experts say, thanks to a constant barrage of images from all forms of media, many of them connecting products to a pair of breasts and a coy smile.
"The number of images out there means advertisers have a much more difficult time breaking through the clutter, causing the content to be much more violent and sexualized to get consumers' attention," said Occidental University associate professor Caroline Heldman, who specializes in media, gender and race.
Jennifer Siebel-Newsom and high school senior Devanshi Patel in Miss Representation
"Meanwhile, the research to come out in the last 10 years shows just how damaging this idea of self-objectification is, the idea that your value of self-worth is dependent on the amount of sexual attractiveness you have to the outside world."
Amid the noise, modern-day watchdogs are emerging online and behind the camera to create their own brand of fast-tracked social activism. Documentaries like Miss Representation and the America the Beautiful series start discussions on the big screen and drive audiences to social media to keep it going.
"We're part of a larger movement that's been ebbing and flowing over time. But what I think is propelling us is the fact that people are fed up," Siebel-Newsom said. "They know media is everywhere, and it's communicating hyper-sexualized, pornified images at an unprecedented rate, and they're fed up with the status quo."
It's not just a woman's issue, she said. It's a topic that resonates with fathers and brothers of little girls, with boys and young men who don't want to conform to macho standards on the other side of the coin.
Since airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network in November, MIss Representation has evolved into a call-to-arms with more than 50,000 Facebook fans and 2,268 "social action representatives" as far away as Israel and Pakistan. Followers receive weekly action alerts on how to spread the message, from calling out sexist Super Bowl ads on social media under the hashtag #notbuyingit or talking to men in their lives about the social impact of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
The catalyst is the film itself, which has been screened more than 700 times since November in 46 states and 25 countries. In March alone, as the United States celebrates Women's History Month, the film will be shown more than 130 times worldwide, which includes 25 screenings that were held on International Women's Day on March 12.
The screenings are hosted in a diverse array of venues, from schools, homes and bakeries to the World Bank headquarters and Britain's House of Parliament. More than 2,000 schools have purchased curricula based on the film for classroom discussions.
Even corporate America is getting behind the film. Consulting firm Deloitte has committed to screening the film across the country for clients, employees and the public.
"We are collaborating with and rolling out screening events across the U.S. because we share their concern about the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence," Jim Moffatt, chairman and chief executive officer of Deloitte Consulting said in a statement.
"Not only is advancing women the "right thing to do" but it's smart from a talent perspective. If we can help challenge stereotypes and limiting labels, and create environments where all leaders thrive, we can have a stronger workforce and be more competitive on the global stage."
The short-term goal is to create media literacy so that even if ideals of beauty don't change, we change how we react to them. The bigger goal is policy reform on several fronts, from stricter regulation of images in mainstream media to labor policies that allow parents to work and care for their families simultaneously.