Jennifer Siebel Newsom is writer, director, and producer of Miss Representation, an award-winning documentary about the role of gender in the media. As part of Marin Academy’s Conference on Democracy, Jennifer and Caroline Heldman, Associate Professor of Political Science at Occidental College, will deliver the keynote address to the MA community on Thursday, October 20. We will screen the film that evening; more information and ticket reservations can be found online.
1. Which events/experiences in your own life inspired you to make this film?
I was inspired to make Miss Representation for several reasons. First, I witnessed an injustice towards women in the media that has worsened over time with the 24-7 news cycle and the advent of infotainment and reality television. Today’s media is sending a very dangerous message to young people, in particular, that a woman’s value lies in her youth, beauty, and sexuality and not in her capacity as a leader. This discourages women from aspiring towards the highest leadership levels while it simultaneously encourages boys to objectify women and treat them as things, or second-class citizens. Knowing that I wanted to have children someday, I was concerned about the culture I would be raising my kids in. I became pregnant with a girl shortly after I started shooting the documentary, and I recently gave birth to a son.
Second, I witnessed the horrific sexism directed towards both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign, and when I looked at women in the highest echelons of business and government, I started to make a connection between the misrepresentations and under-representations of women in the media and positions of power and influence in our country.
Miss Representation is my attempt to right this wrong and put our culture on a path that recognizes and empowers women and girls. Women can no longer be portrayed as second-class citizens but rather as equals to men with equal opportunities to succeed in life.
2. Who are your greatest influences as you’ve been thinking about these topics?
In terms of documentary filmmaking, Michael Moore has continued to influence me with his commitment to making films that point out major problems in our society. Geena Davis’s research in children’s programming initiated my understanding of the complexity of the media’s misrepresentations and under-representations of women. All of our experts in the film from Jackson Katz to Jeanne Kilbourne to Caroline Heldman continue to inspire me with their thought-leadership and findings. Gloria Steinem’s work, sisterhood, and generosity of spirit energizes me. And, my friend Darryl Robert’s film America the Beautiful made me re-think the media’s negative impact on women in our culture.
3. What was the most surprising interview you did for the film?
All of the interviews surprised me in one way or another. I particularly appreciate Rachel Maddow’s ability to deal with sexism on a regular basis through grace and humor.
4. How do you get boys and young men to listen? What do you want them to take away from the film?
I believe one gets boys and men to listen by pointing out that this is not their fault and that they are probably not even aware that this is going on. Culture is learned and therefore can be unlearned. After almost every screening we have men and boys telling us how shocked they were to learn of the statistics and connections between the under-representation and misrepresentations of women in leadership in our culture. We have them telling us how they want to be better colleagues and fathers after seeing Miss Representation. I’ve always desired that women AND men be compelled to talk about the subject matter long after seeing the film, to help educate their colleagues and loved ones of the inequities that exist in our culture—despite their subtlety—and to tell others to go see it. The ultimate goal is to empower individuals as consumers and citizens to do something about the disparaging and limited portrayals of women and hyper-masculine notions of men that exist in the media. Ultimately, I want women AND men to leave the screening motivated to join our social action campaign at missrepresentation.org and take the pledge to help to affect change for all of us.
5. What is the most important piece of advice you want to give to your daughter, and everyone’s daughters?
I’m a big fan of Alice Walker’ s quote: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” So, I would say it’s most important for my daughter Montana and every girl out there to recognize their self-worth and that their voice matters.