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Where are all the powerful women?

In 2011, Miss Representation explored the problematic representation of women in media, revealing its limited portrayal of women with power and influence in the United States. In the documentary, Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro focus on how media limits the women to their looks. It is not that the influential women does not exist in real life, but they occupy a minimal portrayal on the big and small screen.

As it is projected on media, young girls get the message of what is important is how they look, no matter what their achievement is. Revealed in studies; children until five years old have similar projection towards their future regardless of their gender. They have similar dreams and goals for the future. However, the studies show that the percentage of girls who dream of being the president falls significantly as they begin high school, whereas it is not the case with the boys. This drastic change is believed to stem from the lack of representation of women in significant political or business roles on the media. As young girls don’t see these influential figures to look up to as they grow older, they distance themselves from their initial dreams.

Miss Representation points out that the content in television and media were initially used as a propaganda to place women back home after the war. The concerns of women were directed to their appearance and housework, as desired by men who fear of feeling useless after women saw they are indeed capable of all of the positions and works men used to monopolize. This was more than half a century ago; today we don’t live in a world where half of the population is not included. But how come the media representation is not moving any forward?

When you think of all the women dancing in bikinis in music videos, half-naked princesses waiting to be rescued in cartoons, and pretty but foolish women in romantic comedies, there is not much advancement ragerding the female representation on screen. This results in the lack of personalities on visual media for young girls to draw goals upon. They are bombarded with images that imply their existence is all about the body, and never the brains. So they believe their worth depends on the approval in the eyes of men. Girls learn to see themselves as objects, and that all of their value lies in their bodies.

This is revealed to be a purely economic marketing choice; because, what is profitable for media and advertising is to make sure men do not have enough status and power; and women are never beautiful enough. Nevertheless, as women spend all resources on getting “prettier,” digitally perfected imagery of women are all over media. So not only do they not achieve what they desire to look like, men see these photoshopped images and judge women harshly on their looks. As a result, Americans spend more on beauty products than on education, in the aim of some unachievable desire. 

It would be untrue to state there is no portrayal of powerful women in media, but it is noteworthy to take a closer look at the contexts in which they are shown. One example to these usual portrayals is the bitchy boss who sacrificed family and love to be powerful. They are fierce, successful businesswomen, but have no love in their lives. This kind of representation which implies there is a trade-off and that women can’t have it all, would confuse a young girl who wants a family and dreams of becoming an ambitious businesswoman. It is likely that these girls would distance themselves from these positions.

The second problematic representation is of the politician women. The news in relation to their campaigns either highlight their sexuality and appearance through the male gaze; or they are shown as highly emotional, unstable women who thus will be incapable of the position they are running for. As a result, young women surrounded by these ill representation of women grow up to be less likely to vote, as they have less belief in their capability to change politics. This becomes an unfavorable cycle as women are discouraged to pursue ambitious positions. However, the documentary strongly reveals that when young girls see powerful women on media, they believe more in themselves. They believe they can be the change.

So where are all these powerful women?

Here they are!

In terms of bringing women with more layers than the looks on the media spotlight, Knock Down the House has a great approach. This is a film by women, about women, and not only for women. It has four main female characters, and non of them stand out as mothers, beautiful pigeons, or objects of sexual desire. They simply are powerful women who are out there working hard to create the change they wish to see in the world. As it is pointed out in Miss Representation, such productions play key role in leading young girls to believe in themselves in being efficacious in the society in which they live in.

Knock Down the House is a 2019 American documentary film directed by the independent documentary filmmaker Rachel Lears. The film revolves around four progressive female Democrats who run for Congress in the 2018 United States elections: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia. The challenges they face during their campaigns only strengthen their dedication on their path. Even though Vilela, Bush, and Swearengin lost in the primary round, they stated they will run again. Ocasio-Cortez won the election, and is inspiring every young woman who hesitates herself.

American politics for so long have been the playground of wealthy white males, but this pattern seems to be changing thanks to the citizens who don’t let any challenge drive them away from their passion. Knock Down the House not only encourages women to step up in politics, but also anyone who believes running a campaign requires an immense wealth or corporate funding. It is important to note that these four women don’t come from privileged backgrounds. As noted in the website of the documentary:

When tragedy struck her family in the midst of the financial crisis, Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to work double shifts in a restaurant to save her home from foreclosure. After losing a loved one to a preventable medical condition, Amy Vilela didn’t know what to do with the anger she felt about America’s broken health care system. Cori Bush was drawn into the streets when the police shooting of an unarmed black man brought protests and tanks into her neighborhood. Paula Jean Swearengin was fed up with watching her friends and family suffer and die from the environmental effects of the coal industry.

They first handedly experienced these issues in the American society: income inequality, inefficient health care system, police violence, environmental damage. id they accept corporate money: they all worked hard, accepted help to get where they are, and did not take no for an answer.

As Tisch students, we were lucky to have Lears attending the post screening discussion at our school. She came from a climate change march that she was filming for her next project. Holding a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, Lears is making political films which she aims will have impacts in the society. She shared some information on how Knock Down the House was filmed and how it is aimed to affect the viewers.

“Extraordinary ordinary people,” she calls the candidates in Knock Down the House. Speaking of media coverage of women, she covers how everyday people have the potential and desire to overcome any challenge. This film is aimed to work as an impact campaign, and a guide to train new generations of organizers. The film’s rights were sold to Netflix as an easy access was desired in line with the educational purpose. Airing the documentary on Netflix enables it to be seen easily in groups and in communities.

Initially, the candidates were supposed to have same amount of emphasis. But, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had more footage as both her and the filmmakers are based in New York, and her story became the central one as eventually she won. Lears tells “her story is more powerful because the others lost.” This made me think of all the “defeat” women have against men in their fields, and how their success shines brighter because the world is in need of hearing their untold stories.

“To me, it was always hopeful just being around these four candidates, and seeing how hard they were fighting, and how much they were sacrificing to forward this vision. It almost didn’t matter if they won or lost, because we could see the conversation was getting changed, and the communities were getting organized in the process. I hope the film can fight cynicism, and that it can help everyone who sees it know there is a place for their voice in the democratic process.” – Rachel Lears

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