By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood October 19, 2011 at 4:08AM
Readers of this blog know that there are gender biases in media. The documentary film Miss Representation which premiered last year at Sundance (and also played the Athena Film Festival) is the film that illustrates these biases and how they effect our culture.
It is an eye-opening film for all of us who go through the day and don't think about how this one thing effects this other thing. Miss Representation strings together all the indignities and the blatant discrimination and makes it clear that this is not OK. And the great thing about Miss Representation is that it's not just a film. It's a movement for change.
Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom has taken up the cause and has created a campaign that will make change of this very important issue. The film premieres tomorrow evening, October 20 at 9pm EST on OWN. The director has been criss-crossing the country talking about the film and ways people can get involved. She took some time during her travels to answer some questions (by email).
Women and Hollywood: How did you become interested in telling this story?
Jennifer Siebel Newsom: I was inspired to make Miss Representation for several reasons. 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 women’s value lies in their youth, their beauty, and their sexuality and not in their capacity as leaders.
Then, when I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I couldn’t imagine raising a daughter in a culture that demeans, degrades and disrespects women on a regular basis. So, I had to do something about it – for my daughter and her generation.
After much research, I learned that despite the assumption in America that men and women are equal (well, Hilary Clinton ran for President after all...), women’s leadership has peaked at 17 percent representation in Congress and about 18 percent in all other leadership positions.
That's when I started to make a connection: the misrepresentations of women in the media were directly influencing the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in our country and making it difficult for the average woman and girl to feel powerful herself.
WaH: This has become a passion for you and you are really trying to raise awareness beyond making a documentary. Why has this topic pushed you towards this activism?
JSN: The gender gap still exists in this country and there has been a backlash to women’s progress that the media has wittingly or unwittingly been a part of. Women can no longer be treated as second-class citizens but rather as equals to men with equal opportunities to succeed in life.
Miss Representation is my attempt to right this wrong and put our culture on a path that values women and recognizes and empowers women and girls. But a social justice film is only impactful if you create a social action campaign. That is why we launched Missrepresentation.org - to carry out the message and mission of the film and be a catalyst for changing our cultural landscape for the better.
In the coming weeks we will be launching multiple campaigns giving individuals various ways of partaking in the movement. The ultimate goal is to shift the cultural mindset to value women and help women find their voice. I’m passionate about this not only because I believe it will help women, but because I think it will transform our society for the benefit of all.
WaH: How did your background as an athlete and an actress play into making this film?
JSN: Athletics taught me discipline and how to be a team player. It also taught me to never give up. This film is all about being part of a team. It took a village to make this film and it will take many villages to effect social change and change the cultural mindset.
A coach in college and some men in positions of power in Hollywood were inappropriate and crossed lines with me. All of these experiences contributed to me feeling very bad about myself and ultimately wanting to do something about it. No one has the right to take your self-worth or power away from you. And, sometimes we have to dig really deep and rediscover our inner strength and power to recover and find our voice. Miss Representation helped me to find my voice. Hopefully it will support more women and men in finding their voices.
WaH: Many people believe that women have achieved equality because they see women everywhere, how do we make people understand how much work there is to go?
JSN: There is so much work to be done- all you have to do is look at the top. While women have far more choices than we once had, we have stalled in rising up the leadership ladder. In fact, women are only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and only 3% of decision-making roles in the media. This means that 97% of what we see and hear in the media is coming from a particular male perspective which is not reflective of 51 percent of the population.
A recent White House Project report found that 82% of American leadership positions, across all sectors are held by men. This includes everything from journalism to religious institutions. So while women are out of the house working and graduating from college and graduate school in record numbers, we are not in positions of power and influence in this country. And the people in those positions are the ones dictating our culture and therefore the direction of our country. It’s frightening! Especially when you look at where we are today in America with regards to the economy, health care, the environment, education, crime, violence, poverty, and warfare. We’re a mess.
WaH: What does it mean that this film will be airing on OWN?
JSN: I am really excited about OWN and working with Oprah Winfrey’s team because Oprah has been a champion of empowering women and because she is now in the business of wanting to make media that makes you feel better about yourself and be your best self. What is exciting to see with OWN is that they have so many women behind the scenes and men who support women behind the scenes. I expect good things to come from their network, so I’m excited to be a part of it.
WaH: If people could only walk away with one idea or concept from your film what would you want it to be?
JSN: The movie opens with Alice Walker’s quote “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” And that’s really the point. Together we have the ability to change things for the better. If you’re feeling really inspired after seeing the film (which I hope you are!!), I encourage you to join our campaign at www.missrepresentation.org and start taking action with us.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
JSN: There were so many! In addition to the challenges that come with filmmaking in general, my editor Jessica and I both had daughters about the same time soon after we started working together. Being that this was my first child, I didn’t have time to take maternity leave, and my daughter also had some health problems so I was exhausted and overwhelmed. However, with such an amazing team of women and men behind Miss Representation, our triumphs far outnumbered our obstacles and I learned so much about what is possible when women and men support one another.
WaH: What did you learn about yourself that was unexpected in the process?
JSN: This movie has taught me to stand in my own power and it has given me a voice. I know some people may not be happy with the truth that has been spoken, but the truth is important if we are ever going to change our culture. We all nod our heads when it comes to speaking the truth and yet sometimes we are afraid to use our voices and speak out, especially women. Standing in our power and speaking our truth is the only way we are ever going to change our communities for the better and leave behind a healthier, more prosperous and peaceful world for future generations.
WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?
JSN: If you have an idea, start writing, grab a camera and some friends, and go out there and shoot. The only thing holding you back is you.
Miss Representation started as a conversation between various friends and myself around the injustices towards women in the media and in our culture. And, it ultimately grew into a cause oriented film and movement.
At the end of the day, filmmaking requires being a part of a team. We where fortunate enough to have support from really smart individuals and aligned organizations but it often took time to build that community and in some cases, people didn’t come on board until others validated us.
A few simple suggestions that worked for me:
• Find a team you admire and trust.
• Make sure they have similar values and passion as you.
• Collaborate, leave the ego at the door, and listen to people far wiser than you.
• There is a lesson to be learned in everything, even if it ends up in the trash.
• Sometimes you just have to trust your gut and go for it.
• Never take no for an answer. Just ask a better question.
• Persistence is key. There is a light at the end of every tunnel and you just have to stick it out until you discover it.
WaH: Have you been bitten by the directing bug? Will you make other films?
JSN: Yes! And, yes! I am passionate about social justice films and making a difference in our culture. And my partner Regina Kulik Scully and I are just getting started. There are so many stories we women need to tell!!