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Media literacy and Miss Representation

by Eric Ginsburg

For a moment we thought we’d miss the film screening altogether as we attempted to decipher the New York subway system, and when we finally arrived at the Paley Center for Media I had a split second panic when they couldn’t find our names on the guest list.

We were 20 minutes late and the auditorium was overflowing, but there were chairs set up in a nearby room. My friend’s mom, well-known feminist media critic Jean Kilbourne, is featured in Miss Representation, and pulled some strings so my girlfriend and I could attend the screening with them. The film focuses on a variety of ways that our patriar- chal society disadvantages and oppresses women, spend- ing most of the time illuminating ways advertising and content about women in mainstream media are horribly skewed and destructive to all of us.

While I was watching, I kept reflecting on how relevant it was for my work as a journalist and the lessons I could take from the film to improve this paper. How does my privilege affect the way I write, and how can I avoid per- petuating the problems director Jennifer Siebel Newsom and the other people in the movie out- lined?

There is no such thing as unbiased or impartial media. Everyone has a back-ground and a worldview, and they contribute to which stories we pick to cover in the first place.

My goal is to write articles that are inter esting, informative and important, and that don’t just further legitimize relationships of oppression or the stereotypes connected to them. Parts of the film argue that you cannot be what you cannot see. While there are plenty of trailblazers who had no example to draw upon, knowing our history and highlighting contemporary examples is part of the solution. That’s part of the reason I seek out articles like the ones I wrote about the Queer People of Color Collective or a Salem College panel about women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

When I write the “busted” section of the paper, I always omit the race of the suspects (though the police always provide it). I ask people what we aren’t covering that they’d like to see in the paper. Often, though, I still feel like I come up short. Friends and sometimes unknown readers will point out ways in which I messed up, and I attempt learn from them.

It’s really easy to ignore our privilege, but it is imperative we grapple with and confront it, especially those of us with a media platform amplifying our voices. It is also essential that we learn media literacy so that we understand what we are consuming and how it is created.

The film screening was followed by a discussion including the director, Christiane Amanpour and others, and much of it focused on the importance of education; the website for Miss Representation includes a curriculum teachers can use to discuss the issues in the film with their students targeted at different age groups.

Afterwards at dinner with Kilbourne and her daughter, my girlfriend Allie told us more about her work at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center doing rape prevention education and media literacy work with area middle school students.

Why isn’t teaching kids about healthy relationships — between themselves and others, their bodies and the media — inherently part of our educational system?

Most students who watched Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly at school probably saw it in women and gender studies classes, though Newsom saw it in business school and I was one of the few who saw it in my high school health class.

Watching films like Kilbourne’s and Newsom’s, I am reminded of Malcolm X’s cautionary words: “If you are not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The same could be said for much of our education system, movies and mainstream culture. Hopefully Miss Representation will be a harbinger for viewers to seize their agency and challenge privilege and reevaluate perceptions. I hope our readers don’t uncritically accept what we put forward, and invite them to engage me about how I can improve.

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