Miss Representation: An Interview with Writer/Producer Jennifer Siebel Newsom

Women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media. What’s wrong with this picture?

Women and media are a common topic of discussion in my close circles, as it’s something that we all care strongly about. Be it the role of female filmmakers in a male dominated industry or the portrayal of women in television and film, when it comes to my gender and the media there’s never a lack of things to talk about.

Here at EcoSalon, where we are steeped in both worlds, things are no different. So when a good friend in the film industry posted a link to a trailer for Miss Representation – a documentary that explores the misrepresentation of women in culture and media and how that influences the under representation of women in other realms, like politics and business – it got my attention immediately.

Constantly inundated with all forms of media on a practically 24/7 basis, it is rare that something truly moves me. Call it desensitized, but in the era of short audio and video clips it’s easy to scan, fast forward and move on. But this trailer was different. It gave me chills. It left me staring at the screen frustrated. Some statistics that I couldn’t get over:

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 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors.

And yet there was a sense of empowerment to be garnered; the sense that rallying together we can make serious change.

That’s the idea that the film’s writer and producer, Jennifer Siebel Newsom wants to get across. In between dealing with her daughter’s bout of pink eye and breast feeding her 4-month old son, she took time to talk about the inspiration behind the film and why she is driven to work on this question of women and their portrayal in the media.

In the entertainment industry since the age of 28, Siebel Newsom knows what she’s talking about, having seen the portrayal of women and its effects early on. “I was [already] very very concerned about what it would be like raising a child in our modern culture… I had a daughter and my concern increased,” says Siebel Newsom.

That concern was fueled even more during the 2008 presidential campaign. “[I] witnessed all the campaigns directed against Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin and couldn’t help but recognize what was happening to them and what was happening to women aspiring towards leadership,” says Siebel Newsom, adding that those types of negative campaigns “would discourage anyone from aspiring to be a leader.”

Ultimately she saw the difficult cultural obstacles that women were up against, and tied them back to media. Why aren’t there more women in leadership roles? “It’s sort of a chicken and the egg, both the media and our culture don’t value women enough,” she says. That leads to an image that, as Siebel Newsom puts it, is “disparaging and hyper-sexualized and ultimately relays to the culture that that’s what women are.”

Which means women are up against some very difficult obstacles when it comes to changing these embedded values. “97% of what you see and hear comes from the male perspective, I’m not saying that it’s wrong but it’s a limited perspective,” Siebel Newsom says.

Women’s portrayal in media, as well as their role in guiding it, is a multi-faceted issue, influenced by numerous factors. From education to commercialization of gender roles, women’s identities are shaped from a young age. As a mother, Siebel Newsom knows this all too well, “Disney is now selling to kids as early as newborns.” She adds, “your pink little onesie… reinforces gender.”

Start girls off with that role early, exacerbate it with an over sexualized image in the media, and the effects later in life aren’t pretty. Women end up “willingly thinking that it’s their role to please and satisfy,” says Siebel Newsom. With that idea drilled into our subconscious, it’s no surprise that we invest millions of dollars into making ourselves look better, going under the knife to attain a media defined ideal.

As the film highlights, the number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed on youths 18 or younger more than tripled from 1997 to 2007. Those are valuable dollars, and if we’re going to make change we need to rethink where our priorities lie. “Instead of investing that money in their own beauty and investing it in changing our cultural landscape, that would be huge,” says Siebel Newsom.

In the midst of a slew of disheartening statistics, it is easy to get overwhelmed, but if there’s one thing about Siebel Newsom, it’s that her energy and passion for this issue comes across loud and clear and it was hard to leave the call uninspired.

In the end, the answer may be as simple as joining forces. As Siebel Newsom points out, “We need a village of women supporting each other… to change the cultural landscape.”

I asked her if she were to give advice to three different generations of women, what it would be.

For younger girls, those like her daughter:

“[That] they’re each unique. Whatever is unique about us makes us special.”

For women in their 20s-40s:

“Figure out what you’re passionate about and go for it and don’t let anything stop you. Surround yourself with women that are like minded and supportive.”

For women in their 50s and 60s:

“Embrace your wisdom… empower younger women that need support.”

Siebel Newsom encourages people to take the Miss Representation pledge or host a screening of the film, as well as follow these five action steps:

1. Tell five people about the film and share one thing you learned from watching it.

2. Parents- watch TV and films with your children. Raise questions like “What if that character had been a girl instead?”

3. Remember your actions influence others. Mothers, aunts and loved ones- don’t downgrade or judge yourself by your looks. Fathers, uncles and loved ones—treat women around you with respect. Remember children in your life are watching and learning from you.

4. Use your consumer power. Stop buying tabloid magazines and watching shows that degrade women. Go see movies that are written and directed by women (especially on opening weekend to boost the box office ratings). Avoid products that resort to sexism in their advertising.

5. Mentor others! It’s as easy as taking a young woman to lunch. Start by having open and honest conversations with young people in your life.

Having already made the festival circuit, Miss Representation has its broadcast premiere this week. You can catch it on Thursday, October 20 at 9 p.m. on OWN.

Images: Miss Representation

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.