As a true 16-year-old theater dork, I was thrilled to learn that I was cast in my high school's fall play. Come our first rehearsal, I was horrified to see that I was type-cast into a what-a-white-man-thought-it-meant-to-be-Latina role. Dressed in a costume as tight and as revealing as possible, my lines (grammatically incorrect Spanish, of course) echoed the hateful language that I saw being tossed around in mainstream media. My director and cast thought it was a funny joke. But from my vantage point, I was the joke, along with my family, community, and heritage. Still, if my goal was to act, I had to take the part. I wanted to perform, and even though I was embarrassed for myself and for family, I felt that there was no other role, and no other option on the table.
With a limited vocabulary to articulate why I felt so uncomfortable, how was I supposed to offer a case against the problematic casting?
(I feel you, Santana.)
Though this micro-example perhaps is seemingly innocuous in the larger scope of "things that are messed up," it helped me recognize that the media continues to produce distorted representations of women, particularly women of color. When those who control high-level decisions about media production (hint: old rich white dudes) are so detached from the lived experiences of the rest of us (not old rich white dudes), women are left with bizarre, distorted, and deformed roles and role models. Especially after the recent Miley Cyrus VMA brouhaha, offering more and better roles for women beyond the vapid, racist, and nonsensical seems more difficult than ever. Can the public really demand better choices from those far-away white dudes?
According to a growing vocal public and increasing evidence of successful media activism, the answer may be yes. Yes, we can.
Empowered by media technologies that are easier to access than ever before, formerly passive consumers have asserted their independence from traditional media conglomerates through media awareness campaigns, interactive PR relationships, and direct fund-raising. Not only are these new, more inclusive projects strikingly innovative, they're exceedingly entertaining.
For instance, the 2011 documentary film Miss Representation, newly released to Netflix, tackles media portrayals of women and their effects in politics and the business world. A 90-minutes-or-less Feminist Media Critique 101, the film does an effective job in orienting unfamiliar audiences to key concepts behind feminist analysis, like how most media seems to fit the tastes of an adolescent boy (what some people might call the "male gaze"), how treating women's bodies as stand-ins for objects denies them agency (objectification), and how women are valued by their appearance first and their ideas maybe sometimes if the viewer can get around to it (um, "misogyny-at-large" works).
Miss Representation features the testimony of high school girls and media makers like Katie Couric, Geena Davis, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Jane Fonda, and Lisa Ling to show the negative effects that hypersexualization has on women in the public sphere. The film also touches on how boys and men are harmed by misogyny and masculinity, a topic to be studied further in writer and director Jennifer Siebel Newsom's next project, The Mask You Live In.
While it offers a useful primer for feminist media critique, unfortunately Miss Representation wastes the opportunity to address the systematic alienation of women of color by disproportionally featuring white media experts, creators, and actors. The dichotomy between the film's "experts" (overwhelmingly white women) and its "media subjects" (more women of color) sets up a perhaps unintentional premise that "good and empowered" women don't like rap or hip-hop or tight clothing. While watching Miss Representation, I couldn't help but think that it still didn't relate much to my perspective as a Latina woman who has faced down American racist attitudes related to my gender, racist attitudes that have also impacted other communities of color.
But when I turned to the Miss Representation website, I discovered much more than a movie. Miss Representation is a burgeoning organization which has helped to flip the switch on PR strategy. Empowered by social media, consumers can directly tell producers what they want and how they want it.
I checked with in Miss Represention's Imran Siddiquee, who told me that the group wants tohelp transform those in their network from passive viewers to informed consumers. "If women and their allies use their enormous buying power for things that represent women better than other products, we can create real change in the economy," he said. According to Siddiquee, Miss Representation's use of the hashtag #NotBuyingIt on Twitter has placed pressure on companies who create sexist products, bringing friends, followers, and communities in on the conversation.
This method of using purchasing power to produce grassroots change, while certainly not too new, continues to revolutionize which types of media projects are being made in addition to who makes and funds them. Last summer, Dear White People had us ready to buy our tickets, grab our popcorn, and wait in line like it's Harry Potter 8. Now it's funded and is filming and we're more than excited to see how Sam White takes on her universe.
"Dear White People," YouTube.com
Similarly, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" has become a huge fan-favorite thanks to the power of Issa Rae's hilarious writing, directing, and acting. Funded in large part of fan donations, the show's community has a direct opportunity to continue supporting this great show. Please, do yourself a favor and watch.
The next time your brain is exhausted from too much Bravo reality TV, or if you steamrolled your way through House of Cards and now "nothing good is on," take a break and see how you can become your own Hollywood investor. Pop over to Kickstarter or Indiegogo where you can lend a hand to a feminist comic anthology, a staged production of the stories of Juarez's women, or a public art series entitled "Stop Telling Women to Smile." Scroll through the pages. Actually, better yet, write your own.