Our neighbours mentioned Miss Representation, so we watched it the other night. Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 documentary thoroughly depressed me.
It wasn’t just the sinking, sick feeling in my gut as I viewed a parade of images of women and girls being trivialized, mocked, and degraded in mainstream media. It wasn’t just the stats the film presented about girls and body image: 78% of 17-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies; 65% of women and girls have an eating disorder; 17% of teenage girls cut themselves. It was not just being reminded that even though women are 51% of the population, we are still only 17% of the US Congress. (The numbers in Canada aren’t much better: 26% of MPs are women. Not only that, women in politics in both countries are scrutinized, demonized, and judged by an entirely different standard than men.)
What depresses me is that none of this is news. Watching Miss Representation, I felt like I was reliving a 1982 women’s studies class—but without the fire and determination I felt at 24.
Natalie Hill’s intelligent critical review on The F Word sums up Newsom’s documentary as “80 minutes of depressing facts (including dozens of statistics with no identified source whatsoever) followed by 10 minutes of ‘we-can-do-it!’ Rosie the Riveter fist pumping designed to inspire the audience to go out and change things.”
As someone who has spent 40 years now trying to change these very things and who sees not just no progress but the situation getting ever worse, I was already feeling heartbroken and disappointed when Lauren Besser’s “If Bernie Had Been Bernadette” came across my Facebook newsfeed yesterday. As a Canadian, I’m aware that even though I don’t get a vote in the US election, the civic discourse it generates and its outcome affect me profoundly.
I’ve been discussing Besser’s article with my friend in Pennsylvania who, like me, is a lifelong feminist. I’ve done a poor job of explaining my thoughts. It’s not that I prefer Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate. I don’t. If I were an American, I’d be campaigning for Sanders right now, but I’d be doing it with a broken heart. And Lauren Besser has put my feelings into words:
My heart [is] broken because even if we play by all the rules the boys set up, the boys demonize us for playing by the rules. Even if we fight for decades to have a spot, ultimately everybody decides, “Nah, thanks anyway, we’re going with the old white guy again.” Nice (lifelong) try.
I feel conflicted. I don’t want to give up the fight for women’s equality, but I’m tired of fighting. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointing it is to swim against the current all my life just to realize I’m further back than I was when I jumped in the water.
And I think about David Whyte’s writing about disappointment, noting as I read it that, as much as I love Whyte’s poetry and find wisdom in his words, he too is “the old white guy again.” He writes:
The measure of our courage is the measure of our willingness to embrace disappointment, to turn towards it rather than away, the understanding that every real conversation of life involves having our hearts broken somewhere along the way and that there is no sincere path we can follow where we will not be fully and immeasurably let down and brought to earth, and where what initially looks like a betrayal eventually puts real ground under our feet.
The great question in disappointment is whether we allow it to bring us to ground, to a firmer sense of our self, a surer sense of our world, and what is good and possible for us in that world, or whether we experience it only as a wound that makes us retreat from further participation.
Something else I couldn’t help noticing this week: On Monday night, LW and I watched Miss Representation and then the first episode of River—a fascinating British crime series featuring “manifestations” (never mind that man pops out of that word; its etymology is Latin and it comes from manus, meaning hand). Both shows, which are wildly different, used the same Alice Walker quote:
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
I’ve learned that when I hear or see the same thing in wildly different contexts in close succession, I should pay attention, and I’m definitely paying attention to Walker’s words. I know she’s right. But how do I reconcile decades, centuries of struggle for women’s equality with the obvious reality that we are losing, not gaining, ground?
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Natalie Hill, and Lauren Besser all use the R word—revolution—and it certainly feels at this moment like we are ready for one. But Michael Brown, another old white guy who has taught me a lot, says it’s not revolution we need, but evolution:
Another thing I have (finally) learned in my life is that we can’t change anyone else; we can only change ourselves. Returning to Alice Walker’s thoughts on giving up power, I can’t help but ponder how much power we give up by holding on so tightly to mainstream media and their misrepresentations when we know how inaccurate and destructive they are.
Sure, we rail against them, we complain, we rage, we analyze, struggle, fight. Yet we don’t do the obvious thing: simply chuck our TVs and laptops and refuse to buy the message. Why?
Why are we giving up our power?