Jennifer Siebel Newsom on women in power & the media
At the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College last week, I was thrilled to watch the compelling new documentary called "Miss Representation," which addresses the many problems of our media's portrayals of women, including women in leadership. I had the chance to speak with Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who wrote and directed the film. The trailer below will give you a taste of the powerful message of "Miss Representation."
EL: For our EMILY’s List members who have not yet had the pleasure of seeing “Miss Representation,” could you explain what your film is about and why you wanted to make it?
JSN: The film explores the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence in America, and it challenges the media’s limited portrayal of what it means to be a powerful woman. I was compelled to make this film for a few reasons. One was personal: what I went through and what I witnessed in Hollywood, and thinking that some day I wanted to have children. Our news and celebrity culture spoke to the lowest common denominator of what it is to be an American. Women are disparaged, disrespected, and treated like objects. How could I raise a daughter in this culture? How could I raise her in a healthy way, with self-confidence, so she could recognize her ability to be a leader? Then I became pregnant with a girl, so I was more concerned about raising a daughter in this world.
As I watched the 2008 election, I saw the way Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and some of the wives of candidates were treated. It upset me, it disgusted me -- I felt like not enough people were challenging the sexism in the media and its double standards. I saw we needed to do something about it if we were ever going to make sure there were women in leadership down the line.
EL: One thing I was so impressed with about the film, which I saw for the first time at this festival, was just how broad it was in scope and how you touched on so many issues and thread them together. Could you explain the relationship between media portrayal, the effect on all women’s lives in this country, and then also women in power?
JSN: I think what’s going on in our media is that you’re seeing this objectification of women in advertising all of the way to the news, and you’re holding women to a double-standard, so they can’t just be intelligent. We need to ask ourselves as a culture: what is it that we most value about women? The media focuses on their looks instead of their intelligence and their policies, which is going to make it more challenging for them to be seen as powerful figures, as leaders. And that’s going to make it more difficult for them to be elected or appointed to higher office.
So in essence, women running for the highest offices and positions of authority in our country are being held back by limiting and objectifying media images. To me, a woman’s value should not lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality alone, but in her talents, her capacity to be a leader, to be a good person, and to give back to society and make a difference.
EL: It was really touching to see so many EMILY’s List candidates featured prominently in the film, including Sen. Klobuchar, Sen. Mikulski, who has made such history, and Sen. Feinstein. We saw so much sexism on the campaign trail in ’08, and we saw it last cycle in 2010. The film also included important statistics about the underrepresentation of women in Congress. Could you talk about how you see the media affecting women politicians?
JSN: When you sexualize women, or focus on their appearance or their youth, you’re taking away from their assets, their talents, their policies. Women are trivialized throughout the media. Just today I was watching the news on a supposedly progressive outlet and saw a repeated assumption that the next Republican presidential candidate would be a man – and I was upset by this. Why is this? There was this unapologetic assumption that there’s only one type of leadership, and that it’s male leadership. We continue to perpetuate this norm that the highest leadership sphere is reserved for men, and the media perpetuates that. Women end up having so many more obstacles to overcome when they’re running for higher offices.
EL: In the Q&A following the screening of “Miss Representation,” you referred to the pipeline of women, which is a concept that’s very important to the mission of EMILY’s List. What does that pipeline mean to you?
JSN: Without the work of your organization, and many others, to empower women, we aren’t going to make a difference. So, it’s really up to you! And I’m so grateful. We need to continue to motivate, inspire, empower, and give these women the resources and tools to climb that ladder. We must both support them and their families. I’m looking forward to this movement – we’re going to mobilize and support all of you who have been doing the work for a while, so that we can see more women in leadership.
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