Miss Representation: Girls are Pretty, Boys Are Powerful

Powerful Man                                              Pretty Woman

Girls get the message that what’s important is how they look. And boys get the message that what’s important about girls is how they look. That’s one of the observations made in the film, Miss Representation.

Girls and boys both buy into this belief system. And then boys become men, step into power, and perpetuate a social order that favors them. Most CEOs are male, most of Congress is male, most publishers and editors are male, and we’ve never had a female President of the United States. Girls become women and go with the flow, too. Yes, there are many exceptions. But these large patterns remain.

Our world incessantly whispers – or shouts: women are more body than brain. Women are emotion, not rationality and action. Women are sex.


And sex sells, they say. Sex sells products. Sex sells the message that women are all about sex.


Now add demeaning and violent images.

The message: men are powerful, and better than women.

And when women try to move out of the box to gain power?

Well look what happens on conservative networks like Fox, where men dress conservatively while female anchors wear plunging necklines, short skirts, and say things like, “Hillary Clinton looked so haggard and, like what? 92 years old?!” Or Greta Van Susteren asks VP candidate, Sara Palin, whether she has gotten breast implants. When women aren’t co-conspiring, Rush Limbaugh complains that no one wants to see a woman age in office.

Even when women do become powerful a headline runs, “Condi Rice, Dominatrix.”

Condi Rice, dominatrix

Condi Rice, dominatrix

Perhaps alongside an ad for a nutcracker shaped as Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton nutcracker

Hillary Clinton nutcracker

Any wonder 51% of Americans are women, but only 17% of Congress members are?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Miss Representation’s writer-director says this is unfortunate since research shows that:

The more diversity and more women you have in leadership, both in government and business, the greater the productivity, the creativity and the bottom line.


There’s this new transformative leadership that’s embracing empathy, collaboration, empowerment… those are more feminine qualities and those are now more associated with success in the global landscape than the traditional sort of command-and-control male leadership traits. So I think we’re going to start to see a shift.

Let’s stop misrepresenting women and their potential. We all lose out when the talents and vision of half our population are stifled. Women and girls are not less important than men and boys.

Newsom urges us to empower both young women and young men to create an equitable society together, making sure that girls are mentored and have a plenty of good role models.

And as Miss Representation points out:

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

—   Alice Walker

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on November 21, 2011, in body image, feminism, gender, objectification, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. From my perspective, if women can look pretty enough and yet do the same things that men are doing, is like seeing the strong aspect of a women because it shows that women are more prepared, very confident in what they’re doing and there’s no better gender when it comes it to, for example, running for president. As long as both genders have equal amount of education, the gender should not play a role.

  2. Priscillla medina

    Sometimes women do use there bodys to sell products or to advertises things but men use this same technique all the time too. They’ll use there bodys to sell deordarents, shaving creams, razors, boxers, etc. How is it that men still think that we only care about appearances? Hey some girls do and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why do they assume this when their actions aren’t any different than ours ? Today this is just another form of advertising, using the body. Men tend to usually have the “powerful” role and I think that has to do with the fact that some men define women as “weak”. Some men define us this way and start thinking were not capable of doing the jobs that are important such as congress and CEO’s. They create these beliefs and assumptions creating a world where it’s hard for a women to get these type of “powerful” jobs. As women we shouldn’t be discouraged by these ideas that they have of us and continue to pursue any rolee despite what other think of women.

  3. It is unfair that we don’t have as much power as men just because we are women. We were not born just to work for men and give them sex. Women are not sex. Yet we see that women are so often treated as a sexual object through media including television, computers and magazines no matter where we are. Women are often depicted as sexually attractive while men are depicted as powerful and dominant on the media, and these images indicate gender rules. Advertisements like the Dole & Gabbana ads (in the middle of the article) clearly show us what our society expects us to be as a man or woman. We are negatively influenced by the gender rules society creates and it seems that we are not allowed to be whatever we want. In other words, women are forced to be beautiful and attractive instead of being strong and tough because our society defines that is how women are supposed to be. If they do not follow the rules and act like a man, they are seen as strange.

  4. We all live in a world that men and women are put into certain roles, and most people see this as a normal phenomenon. The society and culture affect girls and deliver them the message that the appearance is very important for a girl. Boys also care that how girls look. No matter girls or boys, they all think that there is nothing wrong with this belief because they all live in this belief system. However, this is wrong and can lower women’s ability. Women can do the same things that men do and women do as well as men or maybe even better. Therefore, the society should show the right understanding to women, and educate girls and boys that men and women are equal, and they all can make a lot of contribution to the society. We should offer them equal opportunity and respect.

  5. When I watched this film I was shocked about how many believed that women are just for show and have no intelligence. In our society, it is hard for women to come to power because of the stereotypical view of women. Sex does sell because obviously things are being sold, but I wish there was another way to sell things rather than sexualizing women. Men do feel empowered and want to be in charge and that is why men have higher ranking jobs. Others see women as too emotional to carry a job that is too stressful or high in rank. Women have had some progress on making them seem powerful and able to carry a job like men.

  6. I agree that sex sells and this unfortunately perpetuates the objectification of women. I also agree that men are taught to be powerful, however it is important to note that external power does not always equate to feeling empowered. I feel men also deal with a lot of society pressure of being successful and being strong. As a woman, I feel so lucky to be able to express my sensitivity and my emotions. I can not imagine what many men face in having to stuff so much of their emotion in side in fear they would be called a homosexual or a wuss. It seems as though so many focus on the objectification of woman and being a woman myself, it can be quite overwhelmingly exhausting being fed messages via media, peers, etc that teach us how we should look and how a woman should act. However, I also think it is important to explore ways in which men are disempowered as well with these suffocating gender roles. So, though it looks as though men are in power, are they really? I think not. As a woman of color, I experience my share of sexism, discrimination, though I believe that both genders have their struggles and both struggles are equally important. Yes, it is more common for us to explore topics of how women are discriminated against because it is more common, but in the process I believe it covers up the struggle of many men who feel the pressure to fit in to even more rigid gender roles of masculinity. Sure, women in power can get more negative attention but at the same time, men get more negative attention in general day to day when they possess more feminine qualities like being more sensitive, qualtities that are natural for every human. I think as women we have come very far and need to acknowledge the progress we have made, as well as celebrate much freedom we have that men do not.

  7. I think that this imbalance in power comes from the biological differences between men and women that may have mattered in the past, but now are meaningless. Biologically, men tend to be bigger and stronger than women. Back when societies were not so advance, this difference was drastic. Men were stronger, so in primitive cultures, they were able to use this as leverage to gain dominance. Nowadays, the size and strength difference no longer matters. However, we have a history of male dominance. The entire system was setup with that in mind. That is why there is still such an imbalance between the sexes. However, this is all starting to changed for the better. the further we distance ourselves from our primitive history, the more equal the two sexes will become. Although we are nowhere close to where we need to be as a society, given enough time, I have no doubt that the sexes will be balanced.

  8. I think women are too focused on replicating male values of power. Being sexy can be powerful. Being sexy is not a contradiction to being powerful, being pretty is not a contradiction to being smart and ambitious. Being sexy as one of the earlier comments has said if much much more than just being standard good looking. In fact many men do find power in women to be sexy or attractive. This can be even noticed in the recent trends in advertisement. It is not longer a sexy housewife or a trophy wife material. I am pretty sure that the percentage of female images that imply power is increasing (Hugo Boss campaign is the one that stands out in my mind now.)

    I am all for female empowerment, but not for genderless society. I do not want to be more like a man to be powerful. I want to be a woman and as much of a woman as I can and still be powerful, smart and successful.

    Lastly I think girls will be trapped and will not be realizing their full potential as long as we keep saying that they are programmed to be pretty and these are signs of them being powerless or unambitious.

    It is not a zero sum game. If man has power it doesn’t mean a woman is powerless.
    It is not a competition.

    Let women accept who they are. Let them choose. Let them be comfortable with being sexy and being pretty. Then you will see real change.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      But I never said that women can’t be both sexy and powerful. The problem comes when only one side of that equation is emphasized, as happens to girls today.

      And while beauty has been a traditional source of power for women, it hasn’t actually left them very powerful over the ages.

      I am curious to know how you feel beauty brings power. To turn a head? To get favors? To persuade. None of this is actually very powerful: always needing to latch onto another’s power.

      Certainly a lot of men feel powerless in the face of women’s beauty. I’ve got a post on that coming out soon. (Not all men react as negatively to their perceived powerlessness as the men I discuss in that post.)

      And power of this sort does not last for very long in a strong form. Maybe 15 or 20 years. And what of women (very many women!) who are not thought beautiful? Or who don’t see themselves as beautiful. Do they have the sort of power you describe? Perhaps they can use sexuality as you note, but it’s more limited.

      I do have a blog post which notes your comment, “Being sexy as one of the earlier comments has said is much much more than just being standard good looking” see “Being Sexual vs Looking Sexual” https://broadblogs.com/2011/11/18/being-sexual-vs-looking-sexual/ but women need to recognize their beauty for it to work. And there will continue to be limitations among many men.

      On this comment: “I think girls will be trapped and will not be realizing their full potential as long as we keep saying that they are programmed to be pretty”

      Really it’s just the opposite. We’re trapped when we think beauty is the most important thing and THE source of power. That limits us to only one power source. And when people act unconsciously, working on auto-pilot — never questioning what society teaches us (e.g., that women’s power is beauty) — we are left both blind and lacking all of our power sources. And simply by acting unconsciously we are not powerful, for we cannot choose. In order to overcome unconscious thinking/acting only on auto-pilot, we must be made aware. Only then can we make choices.

  9. Aw darn you already wrote an article about it! I just discovered the Miss Represenation trailer a couple days ago and was going to send it in to you. I see that I’m too late!!
    I’m really excited for to watch this film and I’m so glad they’re getting a documentary out there for all the girls and women out there who’s voices haven’t been heard. I would hope that for the women out there who do give into the ‘social norm’ of having to be a sex object or being emotional, that they’ll be able to see that it doesn’t have to be that way at all. We’re coming into a new age where women are finally going to step up and say “No, I’M in charge here.” I’ve come to see this behavior amongst my women peers today. I hope they’ll watch the movie to learn something that could open their eyes to something bigger. I can’t wait to see the day we finally elect a woman president for our country.

  10. Dorinda Mununura

    The more I study women’s issues the more I see the Gender role trap that women are pushed into. Despite efforts in my cuture to push girls into the traditional roles, those failed terribly with me. So I am kind of an oddity who does not believe whatsoever on the Men are powerful and Girls are pretty binary. What happens to those of us ( I am a Black Woman) who this society has determined that we are not pretty (Not that I lose sleep over that). What is our role then? Since I never subscribed to traditional gender roles to begin with, I have never had trouble not following society’s rules though people in society have trouble figuring me out. There is that crack that Black Women fall through as regards this dichotomy, aren’t we women? Or do people want to just pretend that we don’t exist?
    So that, Boys are powerful girls are pretty, standard is pretty flawed and may I say exclusive of whole groups of women. It hardly registers with me because I grew up believing that there is not much a man can do outside of the functions of a penis that I can’t do, yet I see how it affects women in all other cultures. What is even more troubling to me is that majority of women are comfortable with the designation. I guess it serves their purposes and they find it fulfilling so it is bound to stay that way for the entirety of humanity. For those of us who don’t have a place in it, we will have to figure out a way to work around it.

  11. Thabie Shabalala

    Miss Representation: Girls are Pretty, Guys are Powerful

    I am speechless as I write this, because some part of me is tired of fighting for no cause, and then at the same time, I think it is essential for both girls and boys to hear the reality of things. Or rather, hear anything outside what the media, society or traditional gender roles says is so. I say this because I had a conversation with my grandmother on Thanksgiving, and she was telling about all the hardship she had to go through as a woman born in the 1920s-30s. Mind you, she is a well educated Caucasian woman who I think is smarter that some of the congressmen, and yet she could not work in certain jobs, she was not allowed to wear pants and so forth. Then she said something really simply like: “you know with all that oppression against women, we still had hope that thinks would some day change. And this all comes with the inspiration of women like the first lady Abigail Adams, Mary Wollstonecraft and Florence Nightingale,” who rebelled against her family for the expectations they had on her as a women. These words broke my heart, because women have come so far and have fought so hard for us to have a better life than what they had. But is life really better? “because this is not what we fought for,” my grandmother said.

    It’s really easy for me to judge that the girls are the one’s that are exploiting themselves. However, with the knowledge that both a girl and a boy are born into a society that ALREADY HAS socially constructed gender roles, it’s really hard to point fingers. On the other hand, especially the models and video girls, they themselves need to draw the line irregardless of what’s expected of them, because if they don’t then they create this circle of women having to look like models, act like models and so forth. In fact, I took my boyfriend out to go watch Miss Representation because I wanted him to know that yes society want’s you act this way, but I wanted him to know that I am not that kind of girl. And I also wanted him to learn that such ill-treatment is not okay.

  12. I completely agree that both sexes have a part in demeaning women and their potential. Women have pressure to always look attractive and aspire to be every man’s desire. I really enjoyed the documentary “Miss Representation” it really shed light on what society in pushing on women. Some ads take it too far with showing women as only a sex object; the Dolce and Gabbana ad was disturbing to me. Whenever women do take the initiative to branch out of what is expected they are seen as too masculine and trying to be something, they are not. I hate that women are just as eager to tear down other women. Rather, if we helped one another to succeed than I’m sure that what men thought of us wouldn’t matter because we had the support of each other. Woman have a great deal of power if only we used it.

  13. Why are we missing the obvious here? Women are 51% of the population. The people that have to change the way society views women are women. So what if society gives us stereotypes that say women should be attractive and submissive; our job if we want to change things is to rise above these stereotypes and to achieve great things despite the challenges society provides. African Americans did this in the civil rights movement; women already did this in 1920 when they earned the right to vote. Someone made a nutcracker out of Hilary Clinton, so what? She should be proud that she is so intimidating that whoever did that felt so threatened by her that they had to take a cheap pot shot. As one of my favorite powerful women, Eleanor Roosevelt, said ” No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. “

  14. I think the message is more general, more all-encompassing than “Men are powerful, women are sex.” I think the message is: “Men control; women submit.”

  15. Alshemah Mohamed

    I think woman and men should be powerful. Why does it come down to men having power and not women? Women in the media are as powerful as men are. Hilary Clinton ran for president and did a great job but did not win people votes. She opened doors for other female politician to have strength and the will to want to run this country. Women have the same mentality as men do and more. Now and days you see women in the media, playing sports, presidents of CEOS and run big companies. I do not agree that woman are all body or have to sell sex. There are ads and magazines were women could look sexy and classy without the negative image that they are sex objects or just all bodies.

  16. I completely agree, yes men should be powerful but then so should women be. Why does a woman have to be treated as object of desire and are treated different than men. Media today plays an important part. Why is that it’s always the women advertising kitchen products and cleaning products, why not men? My point is today everywhere we look there is GENDER INEQUALITY!!!

  17. First off, I feel compelled to comment that I found the Hillary Clinton nutcracker really funny. Of course, I also find dead baby humor hilarious, so I’m probably not the best judge of what qualifies as “appropriate humor.” Still, it made me chuckle. Hillary *is* taking on a traditionally male role in leadership, and she earned that position by (ideally, not going into the vagaries of our election system now) being a better candidate for the job than any of the other (presumably male) options. So, in that sense, she *is* a “nutcracker,” but I don’t see that as a bad thing. We could use more people doing demonstrating that there’s no innate advantage to either gender when it comes to leadership roles.

    I suppose when seeing that nutcracker goes from “Haha, that’s terrible” to “I don’t get it” then we’ll have done our jobs.

    I’m also not really sure why people find weakness sexy. I would vastly prefer to spend my time with someone that thinks about what I say and offers dissenting or assenting opinions based on an analysis of facts rather than someone that meekly does what I want. One’s a good grounding for building understanding and a long-term relationship, the other is mildly useful for manual labor.

  18. We are taught gender roles from the moment we are born. Girls should be sweet, pretty, kind, and dainty. We are expected to grow into caring, gentle, beautiful wives and mothers. No one expects a girl to grow up to be powerful, aggressive, or exceptionally intelligent. No one expects women to be leaders.
    There are few women in Congress because our patriarchal society is constantly creating barriers to keep women off the platform that once only allowed men to stand upon. Our society bashes women who have made it into politics. From what I have observed, there are two kinds of women in politics: intelligent women who have earned our respect as a leader and have made progress to our society (such as Hilary Clinton and Sandra O’Connor), and attractive airheads who maybe easy on the eye but their message is unintelligent and irrelevant and frankly make women look like bimbos (i.e. Sarah Palin & Michele Bachmann). We live in a society that values women for their youth. Women like Clinton & O’Connor may have earned respect but are no longer youthful, which does not attract the public visually. However, politicians like Palin & Bachmann DO look attractive in the media but their messages and values discourages people from wanting a women to hold office.

  19. Because I am a man my perspective may be a little different than most. I believe men should be powerful. Men are known to be the head of households, the providers, even the masters of certain situations. Women on the other hand are naturally sexy to men. They posses curves and body parts that are looked at and appreciated for being sexy. Not that all a women has to offer is sexiness, but it is a natural part of human thinking to combine women and sexy. I actually respect a women more for being powerful and sexy at the same time. Now sexy in my mind is not “model type”, or gorgeous face and long hair, sexy can come in all types and shapes. It is up to the man to determine the type of sexy he appreciates. Some men like bigger frames, some like smaller frames, short hair or long hair, etc. Society has many stigmatisms for what people should look like. That doesn’t mean we as society have to fall into that and strive to be perfect in other peoples eyes. We should except who we are and love ourselves not worry about what other people think is right or wrong. When i look at a women I see many things that i think are sexy. The way she walks, talks, or maybe even stares into deep thought. To me its not about how big her breasts or butt are, or what kind of clothes she wears. Yes automatically women are sexy to me, but that doesn’t mean i look at them as sex objects. I respect women for the human beings they are. I respect them as well for the accomplishments and goals they want to achieve. As a man I want to be powerful in order to provide for my family, and accomplish goals in my life that i have. Nothing i do is based on what society says about me, if i did I would be a thug, in a gang or in jail, being that i am a young black male.

  20. Sex is obviously the center if picture. It sells and it magnifies the diversity in gender roles. Men seem to be the dominant and are suppose to have the control. Just like in Pretty Woman, the concept is from societal norms and how those roles are portrayed. If you notice Women are seen to sell their sexuality. Every picture and every movies portrays the obvious of women identity. Their body parts or their body image as a whole. Men on the other hand is shown to show how powerful they are. So if they are seen in a photo of featured in an article it usually talks about how powerful they are , their money , wealth, women and most of their strength (muscular strength)

  21. FirstBlackLaddieBrett1953

    OOPS!!!!Obviously,I meant “opprobrium.”

  22. FirstBlackLaddieBrett1953

    SO WHAT?(Incidentally,imagine the opprbrrium a life-size Brett doll such as Yours Truly gets!!!!(I’m a boyishly handsome,muscular,a bit girthy-5’8″,210-220 lb.,sporting 181/4″ biceps,
    black Windsor,Ont.,Can. lad who gets flak from all sides because I don’t sound,speak,recreate
    and dress “black,”i.e.,I’m into Country music,dancing-EXCEPT LINE DANCING!!!!-rodeo,donning
    Western garb,and I’m said by a lot of the ladies to resemble a handsome black cowboy in my duds AND LAY IT DOWN BUT GOOD OUT OF THEM!!!! Add that I’m into long-haired,buxom blondes and Latinas between 24 and 42 {and vice versa!!!!} and you can see why I’m hated by the no-life crew.Oh,and one other thing:YOU CAN’T SPELL “Crap” without “rap!!!!”

    • So what?

      The no-life crew?

      Quite the opposite.

      If all women are is pretty, that very much limits what they can do with their lives.

      Pretty is fine. But it shouldn’t be the only thing.

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