“You can’t be what you can’t see.” —Dr. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president, Children’s Defense Fund
This Marian Wright Edelman quote from “Miss Representation” expresses one of the film’s main themes. This award-winning documentary film exposes how mainstream media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence. As I watched this film, I thought of similar ways that the church limits the gifts of women and girls.
The film “Miss Representation” challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions. In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader. While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and women earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn.
This film includes many more disturbing statistics. Women make up 51% of the population and only 17% of Congress. When they’re seven years old, an equal number of boys and girls want to be President of the United States, but by the time they’re fifteen, the number of girls who say they would like to be President drops off dramatically as compared to the boys. Women are only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 37% of lower-level and middle managers, and 26% of vice presidents and other senior managers. Men occupy 80 to 95% of the top decision-making positions in American politics, business, the military, religion, media, culture, and entertainment.
Media contribute to this under-representation of women. Only 20% of news stories are about women, and many of these stories are of violence and victimhood. Only 16% of movies feature female protagonists. Although men are the main characters in most commercials, only 2% show men cooking, caring for children, or doing other domestic chores; men are most often in business settings, while women are doing household tasks and/or selling household products.
Also alarming, “Miss Representation” shows how the increasing objectification and sexualization of women and girls in the media lead to low self-esteem and violence against women and girls. Over the years the media have become more obsessed with appearance. In magazines and advertisements pictures of women are often airbrushed or digitally altered. Women in television shows and movies are often under the average weight or anorexic. Thus 65% of women and girls report eating disorders, the number of girls who are unhappy with their bodies increases from 53% when they’re thirteen to 78% when they’re seventeen, 80% of ten-year-old girls say they’ve been on a diet, and rates of depression among girls and women have doubled between 2000 and 2010. About 25% of girls will experience teen dating violence, 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime, and 15% of rape survivors are under the age of 12.
“Miss Representation” also reveals the damaging effects of media images on men and boys. Mainstream media often portray boys and men as violent, in control, and unemotional. Images of men are hyper-masculine and dominant. Increasing exposure to sexually explicit video games and music videos is linked to men’s acceptance of sexual harassment and violence against women.
So you may be asking, “What does this film have to do with changing church?” For me, it raises questions about the gender messages we’re also sending through our church worship services and educational programs. Do the visual images in churches reflect the equal value of women and girls? How are females and males portrayed in Sunday school curricula? Do sermons demonstrate gender equality? Is there gender balance in the biblical characters presented, and how are these characters portrayed? Do church services, programs, and literature represent diversity in gender, race, and sexual orientation? Do images and names for Deity include female and male?
A tour through the children’s and youth’s Sunday school rooms in churches of various denominations reveals the dominance of male images. On the walls and in the church school literature, pictures of the patriarchs and other men in the Bible greatly outnumber pictures of women in the Bible. And women, people of color, and LGBTQ people are under-represented in the images of even contemporary people of faith. Biblical and contemporary women are likewise under-represented in the stories in Sunday School curricula, and Deity is almost always named as “He” and imaged as a white male.
A walk through church sanctuaries also reveals a lack of gender and racial diversity in the imagery. Stained glass windows, even in “progressive” churches, overwhelmingly depict male disciples and other male biblical characters as well as male images of Deity. The majority of other visual images in most sanctuaries are of white males. Icons and statues in Catholic churches usually include Mary, but the majority of images in most churches are male.
Just as women are under-represented in Congress and business leadership, women are under-represented in church leadership. The two largest Christian denominations in the US, Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist, as well as other denominations, still refuse to ordain women, and others that ordain women continue to exclude women from the pastorate. In mainline Protestant denominations, only about 12% of the pastors are women. Fewer than 17% of leaders in theological education are women.
Also, the sermons and liturgy in the majority of churches lack gender equality. Sadly, some preachers still use sexist jokes, and condemn or ridicule homosexual persons. Sermons are filled with illustrations from male sports, and when women are included, they are often portrayed only in relationship to men or in domestic roles. Biblical women, especially the good and powerful ones, are ignored or discounted. Some preachers dismiss Deborah, the judge and prophet in the book of Judges, saying that it was a shame God had to choose a woman leader because all the men in Israel were disobedient! And some pastors and priests still demean Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, even though the Bible presents her as the apostle to the apostles and the Second Vatican Council in 1969 finally declared that the church for centuries had been wrong in its disparaging depictions of her. Rarely do sermons include Huldah, the prophet who was the first person to declare written words as Scripture, or Junia, the apostle. And whatever happened to Wisdom? In all my years growing up in church I never heard of God as Wisdom. I never heard God referred to as “She,” even though the Bible uses Wisdom (“Sophia”) as a female personification of God and refers to Wisdom as “She.
It is also disturbing that most of the songs our young people sing in church lack gender diversity. These songs are especially powerful to shape belief and action because the music embeds words in the memory of singers. In the catalog of Choristers Guild, one of the largest ecumenical publishers of music for children and youth, about 75% of the musicals feature male biblical characters like Moses, Elijah, Jonah, and Noah, and only one features a female character, a contemporary girl named Jane. The only musical that includes Wisdom and other biblical female divine images is Imagine God! A Children’s Musical Exploring and Expressing Images of God, that I wrote with composer Larry E. Schultz. Although some recent hymnals use inclusive language for humanity, few use inclusive language for divinity. Even though the Bible includes female images of the Divine, very few hymnals do.
In the religious education literature and in worship services of most churches of all denominations, names and images for Deity are male. The message we are sending is that males have more sacred value and can thus represent the Divine more fully than females. Biblical female images of the Divine are not even included in the children’s curriculum of Progressive Christianity, a contemporary ecumenical organization dedicated to inclusivity and social justice. Although this curriculum includes a wonderful emphasis on ecology, women of faith like Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson, and pictures of children diverse in gender and race, the names for Deity are male or gender-neutral but never female. Neutral names generally evoke male images because of the predominance of male references to Deity in our culture. Thus it is vital to use female names and images for Deity to affirm women and girls as created equally in the divine image.
Marian Wright Edelman is right that we can’t be what we can’t see. If girls and women can’t see ourselves in the media as respected leaders and if we can’t see ourselves in church as in the divine image and as capable leaders, then we can’t become all we’re created to be in the divine image. What can we do to bring change?
We can work to bring change in the media by joining groups like MissRepresentation.org, the social action campaign of the documentary film. On the MissRepresentation.org website (http://www.missrepresentation.org/ ) there are practical actions we can take to empower women and girls to challenge limiting labels in order to realize our potential and to encourage men and boys to challenge sexism. The mission of this social action campaign is to shift people’s consciousness, inspire individual and community action, and ultimately, transform culture so all people, regardless of gender, can fulfill our potential.
There are also many ways we can work to change the church so that people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, and cultures can fulfill our potential in the divine image. The national ecumenical, multicultural Equity for Women in the Church Community, sponsored by the Alliance of Baptists, is one organization working to open doors for clergywomen in order to transform church and society. This group addresses the interlocking injustices of sexism and racism that impede women’s equality as leaders in the church. We can also work with Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today, an international organization of women and men who believe that the Bible supports the equality of the sexes (http://www.eewc.com/), inclusive in race and sexual orientation as well as gender. We can work with these groups and/or with many other organizations that have the mission of changing the church so that all have equal opportunities. Through the biblical and contemporary models we feature in our religious education literature and in our worship services, we can encourage all children and adults to be all we can be. And through a diversity of images of the Divine, including female images, we can send the message that all are created equally in the divine image.