Last night, I went to the benefit screening of "America the Beautiful," which originally came out in spring 2007. For someone who is very aware of media-messages to women about beauty and sexuality and how we as a culture respond, very little of the movie was surprising or new information. However, women (and men) receive hundreds and thousands of these negative messages every day, so I am always in favor of someone new trying to counter or break down these messages.
People always say, "Oh this has been said before!" Yes, but has it been said ENOUGH? How many headlines in a week screech, "Major Celebrity Gains 10 Pounds and Is Totally Fat Now." Oh, that's been said before. Does not stop them from saying it again.
Here is what made this film interesting to me:
* It comes from the point of view of a man, Chicago TV and radio personality Darryl Roberts, who himself had been obsessed with finding beauty and physical perfection in woman. And for him, it starts when he wakes up, like he just shook a deep hypnosis. He said it dawned on him he had a problem when the woman he ended a five-year relationship with married someone else. She was wonderful (and looking at the picture of her, lovely), everything he could ask for in a companion. But he, being friends with Michael Jordan, felt like he could have all that wonderfulness, in a hotter, more perfect package. He says, "What good is this obsession with beauty doing us? It certainly didn't make me happy."
* He talks to some dudes who are just cretins. Guys that you never ever want to see procreate. Guys who suggest that if Pamela Anderson and her ilk could be cloned, all other women could be disposed of. But interestingly, Roberts feels sympathy toward them - they, too, are "victims" of brain-washing.
* He asks several magazine editors, including Seventeen's Atoosa Rubenstein, if they feel socially responsible for women and girls feeling bad about themselves. They say the are not social workers and are in a business to make money. He is shocked by this. I am not.
* Roberts discovers a 12-year-old girl, called Gerren, who was becoming a sensation in the modeling world, and he follows her through three years of her life. Gerren, at first, seems to be playing in a world she doesn't entirely understand, prancing around in skimpy clothes. By age 13, she's a has-been. By age 15, her more womanly size 4 body is considered "obese" in France where she is trying to get a contract.
* He calls out "Dr. 90210's" Dr. Rey (You remember my friend, Dr. Rey?) for not being a board-certified plastic surgeon. In fact, no one of that show is board-certified. Roberts gives a very gruesome picture of the ugly, life-threatening side of plastic surgery.
* He has a very poignant segment about a girl who died of bulemia, talking to her parents. And they sadly explain how they subtly played a part in her demise, with the mom admitting she was critical of her own body in front of her daughter. She said, "Children think Mom is perfect and beautiful. And if you tell them you're not. They look at themselves and say, 'I have her body.'"
* Roberts calls out American cosmetic companies, too, for loading up their products with carcinogens. He buys a bunch of random products at Target, and has a Chicago lab test for their toxicity. The results are frightening. After the film, he explained that a major cosmetics company offered to sponsor his film for $1 million, if he just took out that "one little segment." After he said no, they secretly hired away his publicist, who called all 17 publications in NYC that had interviewed him about the opening and told them to pull their stories. Fortunately for him, one of the six people who saw his movie, happened to be the daughter of Meredith Vieira on "The Today Show."
It was inspiring to see how many people came out to this movie to support the cause, and to support About-Face and Beyond Hunger. I have been a huge fan of About-Face and its Gallery of Offenders since the mid-'90s, as decoding and picking apart these media messages has been my life's mission.
I am SUPER excited that I have applied to become one of About-Face's workshop leaders. If I get picked, I will get to go to middle schools, high schools and colleges and teach young women and men media literacy tools, how to understand and "jam" these messages coming at them all the time.
It warms my heart to see how many people are passion about fighting this problem. Afterward, we met up at Bittersweet chocolate cafe (milk-free hot chocolate + homemade marshmallows = pure bliss). I didn't have much of a chance to talk to Roberts, but instead I met a mom and her daughter, a delightful high school senior and About-Face volunteer who is doing her private-school thesis on the sexualization of little girls in our culture.
Interestingly, a woman - who is very pretty in all the stereotypical ways - asked Roberts the most insightful questions about his filmmaking process and whether he was sued. I kept asking myself, "Is that Vanessa Getty? She looks SO familiar!" (I only know who Vanessa Getty is because of all the years I spent editing the SF Chron's society column.) Finally, I introduced myself and she said, "Hi, I'm Jennifer" and explained that, yes, she is making a film about women in politics and power and how they are misrepresented.
I looked at her card at home and realized why she was so familiar: It was none other than Jennifer Siebel Newsom, "Mad Men" actress and pregnant wife to dreamboat Major Gavin Newsom. She was with fellow SF socialite and filmmaker Hilary Armstrong. (I am not the only person with Vanessa/Jen confusion.)
I need to come to these things with Don't Call It Cute cards. Because you never know when I could meet Ladies Who Lunch who can offer me financial backing.