Represent: inside a timely film about the tough road women in politics face

A new film follows three women as they run for office, and the ‘unglamorous bits of democracy’ that make for a political movement

The decision to run for office arrived for Myya Jones in the winter of 2016. She was 22, a campus leader for the Black Student Union at Michigan State University, and determined to change her home town of Detroit for the better. For months, she researched the process of gentrification, which pushed black people out of the neighborhoods where she grew up and went to high school; for months, she waited for a name to support. Eventually, she thought, “You know what? I’m going to run for office myself because everybody else is scared,” she told the Guardian.

For Julie Cho, a 47-year-old married mother of two living in suburban Evanston, Illinois, a majority Democratic district, the decision was fueled by frustration with her state house speaker and the Republican party’s lackluster efforts to campaign in her district. “If no one’s going to do it, then I’m going to do it,” she told the Guardian of her decision to run for state representative. In rural Granville, Ohio, 33-year-old Bryn Bird had long wondered: “If you weren’t afraid, what’s the one thing you would do?” The answer was run for county trustee, but it never seemed like the right time until 2017, when her mother’s cancer turned terminal. “I wanted her to see me run for office,” she told the Guardian. “I wasn’t afraid of anything any more.”

Represent, a documentary on the tedium of running for local office as a woman in Trump-era America, follows the three women as they launch their nascent political careers in the midwest. The film begins with a clear invocation to opportunities won and lost: in 1974, second-wave feminist activism and the movement to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment launched the so-called Year of the Woman, in which an unprecedented number of women were elected for national office. Forty-four years later, enough had not changed – women still comprised only one in five congressional seats – for another round of “year of the woman” sloganeering. The midterms of 2018 were, indeed, a banner year for women on the national level: 476 House candidates and 53 Senate candidates, more than double the number of women who ran in 2016, largely Democrats spurred to action by the election of a president who once bragged that men should “grab ’em by the pussy”.

But while much attention and several stellar documentaries – Netflix’s Knock Down the House on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive rookies in Congress, Hulu’s Hillary on the presidential candidate herself – beamed on the national races, Represent seeks to explore the same phenomenon in less storied, pared-down quarters. “These are everyday women,” director Hillary Bachelder told the Guardian, “the yous and mes of the world who are like, ‘I can do this small thing for my community at this level.’”

The local and state house races “should be the most accessible for women”, Bachelder said. But the barriers for entry – the mental tax of microaggressions and snap judgments, especially for Jones as a black women and Cho as a Korean immigrant, and the lack of funding for new candidates from the party organizations – demonstrate “a lot of the same thing that’s at the national level”.

Bachelder embedded with each candidate, following the distinctly unglamorous work of campaigning in their specific districts – the trips to knock on doors, shake hands at the town parade, to show up to sparsely attended municipal meetings, to flag people down in cars and explain your platform or, more often, who you are.

While the three races present starkly different contexts, the touch-and-go, bespoke work of each campaign confront frustratingly similar doubts and dismissals. For Bird, running as the “new by, like, decades” trustee, as she says in the film, it was confronting an old boy’s club that did not take her seriously, the “continual cycle of not being told about certain things, or being reminded that I can’t go to certain events, or not invited to the men’s drinking nights because I need to get home to my kids”.

Julie Cho, one of the candidates followed in the film.
Julie Cho, one of the candidates followed in the film. Photograph: Music Box Films

Bachelder’s camera captures the compounding toll of unnecessary discomfort – another candidate, for example, saying he’d make a joke but it wouldn’t be “politically correct” enough for Bird’s presence. At a Democratic meet-and-greet, one white woman touches Jones’s hair without permission.

For Cho, whose family escaped North Korea during the war in the 1950s, her allegiance to the Republican party is more complicated than the label would seem. She distrusts all governments, she says, but wants to do her part to help. She’s attached to the Republican name under the Trump administration, which has worked to systematically curb voting rights, but her main platform is ending gerrymandered district lines in her corner of Illinois. Her campaign manager is a black man who has never worked for a Republican before. Occasionally, people in Evanston hear her out; more often, she’s dismissed outright.

She’s frequently had people – all white liberals, she told the Guardian, demanding to know why she’d run as a Republican as an Asian immigrant. “It’s white people telling me how I should think,” she said. “What they should be asking is what is it about the Republican platform and policies that you support?”

Jones, in particular, faces the most interlocking and insidious friction as a young black female candidate. In news interviews, she’s asked why she thinks she has enough experience; canvassing the street, one constituent demands: “what are you going to do about the blight?!” In one scene, Jones attends a conference for aspiring candidates, but is only given 15 seconds to introduce herself publicly. Black women “do a lot of the groundwork, a lot of the legwork, we have a lot of ideas, but it’s not until we’re like 30+ that we are actually recognized as leaders,” said Jones. “People don’t perceive us as being just as knowledgable or as capable as them.”

Bryn Bird: ‘I wasn’t afraid of anything any more.’
Bryn Bird: ‘I wasn’t afraid of anything any more.’ Photograph: Music Box Films

“You’re asking people to have to suit up, to have the thick skin and enter a space that you know wasn’t built for you,” said Bachelder of the challenges faced by all three women. “The added level of being reminded that you’re an other in some kind of way is just going chip away.” By film’s end, after defeats in both the mayoral bid and a Democratic primary for state House, Jones, now 25 and studying for her MBA, was “tired of having to prove myself over and over again” and conflicted over the potential of running for office, especially without financial backing from the party.

“Just as much as you want black folks to vote for you, specifically black women,” she said, “you have to be able to financially back our campaigns, too.”

Cho, who lost her race for state house, also remains on the fence about seeking elected office; she’s spending time at home with her young children. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Bird informs her mother that she’s won the race, initiating a separate round of challenges: working 20 hours or more a week as a trustee for $10,000 a year with three little kids, a husband working full-time, and a family farm business whose customers she can’t afford to alienate.

The structural and cultural challenges remain, Bachelder said, but there’s hope to be found in number and tenacity, especially on politics’ bluntest and most specific level. After two years on the local campaign trail, the film “shines the light on the need for all of us to get engaged and involved”, she said – a call to action for involvement in “the unglamorous bits of democracy that are still really necessary to bring the pieces together”.

  • Represent is available to rent digitally in the US on 14 August and in the UK at a later date


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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