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A recent study found that countries led by women have handled the current pandemic “systematically and significantly better” than those run by men. States where women are governor also had fewer COVID deaths. As such, Hillary Bachelder’s documentary, Represent, is likely to be a thoroughly upsetting documentary for anyone who is a big supporter of, you know, being alive.
The film follows three women running for office for the first time as they face aggressions too macro to be micro and voters whose attitudes may make you question the feasibility of this whole democracy thing.
Bryn Bird is a young mother running as a Democrat in small town Ohio, looking to become township trustee. Julie Cho is a Korean American and Republican, looking to unseat an incumbent Democrat in the Illinois House of Representatives. Myya Jones takes a shot at becoming mayor of Detroit before entering the Democratic primary for the Michigan House of Representatives.
All of the women have faced some measure of personal hardship, from Cho’s battle with cancer to Jones’s soul-crushingly heartbreaking abuse as a child. Shoveling adversity like coal into a locomotive’s engine, all three women chug enthusiastically ahead along a track laid by men who absolutely want them to derail. No spoilers, but even winning doesn’t guarantee anything approaching a happy ending.
Represent’s truest, most revealing moment is a quiet one. Jones is discussing strategy with her campaign manager, an enthusiastic man who tells her she needs to run on having a tragic backstory. As Jones tries to explain that is not the narrative she wants, campaign dude just verbally trucks her, leaving her to whimper into her hands her desire to at least finish what she was saying. Welcome to politics, ladies! Even the men you pay to work for you believe they know you better than you know you.
Both Jones and Cho also experience varying forms of race-based awfulness, including a Republican donor informing Cho that her children’s educational experience is not meaningful because her family is Asian. Only that donor didn’t say Asian. Also, that donor looked exactly like an artist’s drawing of Cruella de Vil’s soul.
Represent fairly shows that sexism is one of the few remaining bipartisan practices. From an opening that skews the rampant buffoonery of the phrase “The Year of the Woman” to an ending that absolutely won’t fill you with warm fuzzies, it isn’t a film filled with solutions so much as reminders of how terrible things still are for women in politics. The result is a bit of “preaching to the choir” for some and “falling on deaf ears” for others, leaving the documentary somewhere in the gray abyss in terms of who will actually take something meaningful and new from this.
This week, President Trump posthumously pardoned Susan B. Anthony, which is a weird way to find out ghosts aren’t real. It’s also further proof that despite eleventy billion “years of the woman,” American politics still hasn’t meaningfully made space for them. It’s too late this time, but maybe by the next pandemic we’ll have figured things out.
Oh, speaking of figuring things out, on Tuesday, August 25 at 7 pm, Film Streams is hosting an interactive discussion about the film with local women candidates, including Kara Eastman, Tanya Cook, Jennifer Hernandez, and Deborah Neary. You can sign up here to participate. If you get a chance to participate in the Q&A, I highly recommend a strategy often foreign to us fellas: listening to their answers.
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
This one hasn’t had a ton of reviews yet, but Lovia Gyarkye at the New York Times accurately points how that the film shows how “the system will continue celebrating cliches, like Year of the Woman, instead of permanently changing.”
Monica Castillo at RogerEbert.com found it more comforting, saying “heading into the homestretch of this year’s election, Represent feels like a balm.”