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'Miss Representation': Jennifer Siebel Newsom's Documentary About The Media's Distortion Of Women And How It Impacts Our Society

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Last night at the Paley Center For Media in Beverly Hills, California, an intimate group gathered to screen a documentary that is garnering lots of attention.

“Miss Representation” lit up the screens at the Sundance Film Festival this past January and found a home just hours later when Oprah’s OWN team bought it the same evening. Written, directed and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom (actor, Stanford MBA, married to California Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom), the documentary takes an aggressive and frankly convincing approach to connect the dots between the way women are constructed in the media and the ways in which it ripples through our lives.

Newsom’s approach is simple. Through news clips, YouTube videos, shocking student stories and compelling interviews with the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Rachel Maddow, Geena Davis, Katie Couric and Gloria Steinem, “Miss Representation” breaks apart our media’s distortion of women and how it has led directly to an underrepresentation of women with power in “the real world.”

The Huffington Post sat down with Jennifer Siebel Newsom a few hours before the film screened to learn more about what sparked the film, why she was told to lie about her MBA and the ways in which she is optimistic about a future for women on this planet.

“Miss Representation” premieres Thursday, October 20th at 9:00pm EST on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. An hour-long special with Rosie O’Donnell will follow.

Huffington Post: How did this film come to be made? What’s the once-upon-a-time here?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: I started in Hollywood in the age of 28 and I was interestingly enough told by my agent at the time to lie about my age and take my MBA off my resume.

HP: Did you?

JSN: No! But I had an audition where I was supposed to play a Reese Witherspoon-like character from “Legally Blonde” and when I walked out and my manager called me and said, “Well, the casting director didn’t think you were smart enough for the role.” I went in there wearing this red Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress and my boobs were maybe pushed out a little bit – I mean, I’m petite – I’m not some voluptuous lady, but it was just so interesting that they completely put me in a box the minute I walked in the room. I went in there kind of looking like a dumb blonde; light and fluffy and sweet and in this culture, we’re so quick to judge. We are so fixated on what we all look like.

I was watching the 2008 election and the sexism directed at Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin was…it’s almost like we are all connected and when a woman in front of you who is in a powerful position is being demeaned or objectified or held to a double standard you can’t help but feel it. That is what’s going on in our culture, so to me, it’s no wonder so many women are discouraged for pursuing leadership positions.

And really what our culture is communicating to us is vis-a-vis the media, which is this pedagogical force of communication in our culture, is that a woman’s value lies in her youth, her beauty, and her sexuality and not in her capacity to lead. So it makes it difficult for the individual to feel powerful and whole. Just as it makes it difficult for us to not only aspire towards leadership positions, but for men and women to elect women to leadership positions.

HP: You premiered "Miss Representation" at Sundance in January. What was that experience like?

JSN: It was exciting. We sold it right away to Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN.

HP: Did you have OWN in mind for the film?

JSN: I did. I went in knowing that that would be an interesting home for the film. I’d read an article where Oprah Winfrey herself talked about how she doesn’t really want to look at media herself anymore because it didn’t make her feel very good afterwards. And she wanted to create a network that she could control that was more empowering and that valued women and helped people to realize their dreams and fulfill their potential. I knew that that was going to be a really good home for the film.

Some of her executives saw the film at Sundance, loved it, brought it to her, and she screened it that night with Forrest Whittaker and Rosie O’Donnell. Oprah supposedly said, “If this isn’t an OWN film, then I don’t know what is! Buy it.” [Laughs]

HP: Your husband, Gavin Newsom, is in the film. What was that like?

JSN: It was fascinating making the film after giving birth, and then juggling the work thing, and then juggling the fact that my husband has such a busy career – all of that really informed the making of the film.

I think he’s learned a lot in the process too. He had already done a lot of work to champion women as Mayor of San Francisco. There are times even recently where I joke with him, “Hey babe, look, this is why it's so hard for women to achieve leadership. You’re going to bed or you’re watching the news and I’m cooking dinner or breastfeeding or changing the kids’ diapers. When am I supposed to actually think?” [Laughs]

HP: Some of our gender roles and the ways we manage our families seem so engrained in us – it’s just what we do, it’s a part of how were raised.

JSN: That is why we have to unlearn what we’ve learned. I really think it’s going to take our kids getting media literacy, training and education.

We want this film to be in schools across the country and even across the globe. We have age-appropriate modules for the curriculum so K-3rdgrade students can see clips from the film and start learning about gender and for the boys and girls in our culture to see what the media selling to them on a daily basis.

It is going to take a lot of time and it is going to take each of us doing our part in changing the cultural landscape. It really requires, first and foremost, that we value women. We are the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have paid paternity leave and we are one of three countries that doesn’t have legal maternity leave – Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the US are the three that doesn’t have legal maternity leave.

HP: Do you think it is a conscious effort not to do it or instead something that has fallen between the cracks because people don’t care enough about the issue?

JSN: I think it is a combination. Sexism has been institutionalized in this country. I think so many women who have achieved success are so tired by the time they are in positions of power, that they don’t always know they need to champion policies related to helping other women along. Oftentimes it’s like, “Well I got here, so…figure it out.”

But I think we are seeing these wonderful moments right now where there women who have not only made cracks in the glass ceiling but have broken through and they are starting to recognize that they need to champion policies that empower women.

It also requires fathers playing a larger role in parenting, which I think fathers want. But that needs to be accepted in our culture and in the media in particular. I personally am a big proponent of seeing media that champions stay-at-home dads and that champions dads juggling that ‘second shift.’ Men really need to have some of that struggle too. Otherwise women aren’t going to be able to achieve the leadership that’s required to change our culture in a big way. And I think our culture needs changing in a big way.

I mean a baby is born, and the baby is literally given a blue onesie or a pink one. Here’s a story for you. At the time my husband was Mayor and when our daughter was born, we were given flowers and beautiful gifts from Tiffany’s. We were totally spoiled. My son was born and The White House (both the President and First Lady and the Vice President and Second Lady) gifted letters individually to Hunter welcoming him into the world and then we received a t-shirt that said “Future President” for Hunter. My daughter didn’t receive a “Future White House” t-shirt. I remember when I was pregnant with a boy everyone was saying “Future President.” No one said that about our girl Montana.

HP: Did your husband notice? Did you guys talk about it?

JSN: He thought it was really interesting. We associate more male attributes with leadership. What’s interesting though is there’s this new transformative leadership, right, that’s embracing empathy, collaboration, empowerment…those are more feminine qualities and those are now more associated with success in the global landscape than the traditional sort of command-and-control male leadership traits. So I think we’re going to start to see a shift.

I think once people at the top start accepting that and then figuring out how to empower the next generation of female leaders and how to empower the men that are in leadership positions to value women, then you’re gonna start to see a cultural shift. I believe that our film at least sparks the conversation to initiate the action. And that’s what we are championing through misrepresentation.org – here are activities that individuals, communities, organizations, and government leaders can initiate to improve the landscape for women.

HP: I read that at the Sundance premiere, Gloria Steinem (who is in the film) said, “It’s as if women can’t be serious.” We want to be taken seriously but still be seen as feminine. And then there’s the stereotype that you have to be a bitch in order to succeed as a woman.

JSN: I think that there are a lot of layers to all of this. One of the things Gloria says that I love is We women need to not be so nice. And it’s not meaning be a bitch. It’s more that we need to say This is not right, this is unjust, we deserve better. And just plant that stake in the ground. And not go anywhere until the gender gap is reduced.

It’s complex but it’s also sort of obvious to see what the media does – it’s like let’s trivialize women, let’s sexualize them. And therefore, let’s not take them seriously. And I think we women need to not buy into that. We have tremendous powers as consumers; we are 86% of consumers, so if we say we aren’t going to buy into that we really don’t have to.

I think all of these things are missing from our historic male leadership. And I’m not talking about The White House; I’m talking about big business. I’m talking about all forms of government where women aren’t represented. I think it requires courage to find a better way. When youth are engaging in cutting and other forms of self-injury, when 65% of American women have eating disorders, when depression rates have doubled in the past ten years, when plastic surgery has tripled in the past decade amongst youth in particular; when you look at that you think Something is wrong. This is not healthy.

It’s about valuing women first and foremost and looking at multiple bottom lines. It can’t just all be about capitalism and an economic bottom line. There needs to be a social bottom line, there needs to be health bottom line, and on and on.

Studies have shown that if the US increased the numbers of women in leadership in business and government, and even attempted to reduce the wage gap, we could increase our GDP by 9%. I’m hopeful. I am optimistic. But I think it takes us recognizing that there’s a problem and taking individual actions to change it.

HP: Some of the students who speak in the film, and the boys in particular, are really something. How did you find them?

JSN: They are very special. The youth in the Bay Area is just incredible and it’s such a diverse community. We hosted a Young Women’s summit when I was First Lady and we were introduced to all these young women of just different walks of life. One student, Devanshi Patel, who is now in the documentary, actually approached me to intern for us. And I just fell in love with her and her story. Some of the boys were interns with us, or friends of girls who were interning with us.

I hope that this film will give people an opportunity to talk about the subject matter in a way that maybe an article here and there won’t allow. And especially when you can get people to watch the film together in a room whether it’s on OWN or in a Town Hall in a local community or at a school-wide screening. Having those opportunities to view the film and then have a discussion afterwards is what I think will ultimately help to transform the culture.

HP: You definitely bring a lot of your own story and history into this film – was that always your intention, to have it personal? Was it hard for you sharing some of that?

JSN: It was very hard for me. Oh my gosh. I can’t tell you. Brutal. I wanted to throw the towel in so many times because…it’s painful. And very personal. But it was important from the get-go. Look, people told me not to tell my story.

HP: Why?

JSN: Because I am a white woman who looks privileged. And I went to Stanford bluh, bluh, bluh, bluh. I was judged. I was told I was not empathetic enough. And that pissed me off. I thought Wait a second. Every woman’s story counts. Every man’s story counts. Every voice needs to be heard.

It was necessary for me to make it personal because story is what makes people pay attention. I just knew that I was going to say what I needed to say and speak my truth in a way that made sense for the film. I also felt that because this film is about the future and future generations for me, the fact that I made this film as sort of a reflection of what it’s like to raise a child in our culture and how I was going to create a world that was healthy enough to support her and embrace her in all of her potential. It felt like the right framing.

Rachel Maddow was actually the person who asked me. She said, “You need to tell your story about why you’re making this film.” And so she gave me the confidence despite certain people saying not to. And I was happy even at Sundance, Gloria Steinem was so grateful that I told my story. Because I don’t think people knew. And I think some people probably assumed I had an easy path. And so I think telling that story created an “Okay, she gets it” moment.

HP: How has the process of making this film changed how you see yourself? Or has it just solidified more the things you already felt about the problems in our society with media and women?

JSN: I feel like I found my voice in making the film. I found my strength and my sisterhood and I just want to keep working with this incredible, strong, kick-ass group of women. I do struggle though. I struggle at times with Am I capable enough? Am I smart enough? How do I juggle this? I am still my own worst critic. I think we women are harder on ourselves than men are on themselves.

What I want the film to be is something that inspires other women to find their voice and their inner strength. And we want to remind everyone that women matter; that women’s voices count. I think if we can do that, there are enough men and women and young people out there that are like Amen. Let’s do it. Let’s go for it. And let’s all be the change we want to see in the world.

This interview has been shortened for editorial purposes.

All photos courtesy of Kevin Parry for Paley Center.