PARK CITY — The only people who need to care about Jennifer Siebel Newsom's Sundance documentary, "Miss Representation," are women and the men who care about wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and female friends. Everybody else can stop reading.
The film explores the messages females receive from television, movies, news organizations and digital media and how it informs males and females about who they are and what they can and can't become. The film's tagline sums it up: You can't be what you can't see.
Media in the film isn't pretty, but it is pretty clear as it presents a strong indictment with data and shaming examples of what many of us see but fail to really notice. It is also headed to 20,000 school children of an appropriate age this year in an effort to educate high school students about the media.
After its world premiere Saturday, the director and media power brokers — actress Geena Davis; Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media; journalist, author and activist Gloria Stienem; groundbreaking journalist Pat Mitchell; and author Barbara Berg — gathered at a media panel to further spread the word through a packed room of journalists. The director mostly let her film speak for itself and let her guests take most of the time.
They had a warning with their message: Many people are not going to listen.
"If you talk about women's issues, it can't be serious," said Steinem. "Women in the media? It's really not serious."
But the data, the numbers, are shocking.
Davis credits some of the strong women she has portrayed on film with helping her examine carefully what messages were reaching her own daughter in the form of "G" rated entertainment. She formed a foundation to study "family friendly" media and found that in "G," "PG," and "PG-13," films in the last 20 years, men outnumbered women three to one. And almost always, the females were merely background characters.
Davis said in "G" movies it's "Where the girls aren't."
Even in crowd shots with extras, statistics say that women are far less common than men. Central females are almost exclusively shown pursing a romantic connection and the most common female occupation shown to children is — wait for it — royalty.
"Which is good work if you can get it," Davis said. "The vast majority of females are eye candy." She also pointed out that the average waist size in cartoons corresponds with the size of a character's upper arm. And, there is the same amount of sexually revealing clothing in "family" "G" films as in "R" films. At the current rate of improvement from decades ago, the numbers of female and male characters will eventually reach a balance. "In about 700 years," she said.
But does any of this imprint on viewers?
According to Davis' data, more television for girls means they believe they have fewer options in life and the more television for boys equates to more sexist behaviors.
Steyer believes the change will come first from educating boys and girls. He hopes the movie will be shown to children, including those in Utah and suggested, with careful consideration, middle-school grades as well.
"When women understand the messages they are getting, they will go after it," he said. "But not everybody of course."
But his battle plan doesn't end there. He believes shaming those in power in the media, the same way they were shamed decades ago about the portrayal of characters smoking, will also have an effect. Just as in "Miss Representation," he wants to publicly name names and send them a clear message: "You are a media executive but you are also a father."
He also favors getting the FCC and the government involved where legally possible but believes consumers will have the greatest power.15 comments on this story
"We are all consumers and the whole issue is about money. We as consumers can change that."
"Buy, don't buy. Turn on, turn off," said moderator Mitchell.
"We want to change the media message which is, 'women and girls are less important than boys,' " Davis said. "And we want to empower women and girls to reach their full potential."