By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Feb. 11, 2012.
Like drawing back a curtain to let bright light stream in, Miss Representation challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.
It’s written, directed and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker, actress, and advocate for women, girls, and their families. Newsom is also the founder and CEO of Girls Club Entertainment, LLC, which develops and produces independent films that empower women.
In an interview, she talks about her motivation for making Miss Representation, the most shocking thing she learned while making it, and her plans for the future.
What inspired you to make Miss Representation?
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 women’s value and power lie in their youth, beauty, and sexuality and not in their capacity as leaders.
Second, finding out I was pregnant with my first child, a girl, compelled me to make this documentary.
I was horrified by the thought of raising a daughter in a culture that demeans, degrades and disrespects women on a regular basis. Miss Representation is my attempt to right this wrong.
Last, I realized that despite the assumption in America that men and women are equal (well, Hillary Clinton ran for President after all…), women’s leadership seems to peak at 17 percent representation – only 17 percent of Congress are women, three percent of media clout (or decision-making) positions are women, and three percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
These numbers are abysmal, women still make around 75 cents on the man’s dollar, and there are very few corporations in America that actually provide flex time or paid family leave so that women can continue on their career paths while raising young families.
How did the project come together ?
Miss Representation started as a conversation between various friends and myself around the injustices towards women in the media and therefore in our culture.
The eventual film was the result of many more conversations and a lot of hard work, passion and collaboration between women. And I hope that it stands as a testament to what a small group of committed individuals can accomplish together. A testament to the power of women.
Early on I approached my friend Regina Kulik Scully with the concept for the film and she really encouraged me to move forward with the production of Miss Representation.
She came on as executive producer and helped me find the support I needed to get it done. She believed in me. The film is filled with the stories of inspiring females who prove, over and over again, that our potential is really unlimited – especially when we support each other and work together.
Tell us about the interview process. Specifically, how did you get access to such influential women and leaders in their respective fields?
Thanks to a lot of hustle, persistency and people opening up their rolodex for me we got family and friends to tell each other about the project and convince potential interviewees to partake in the film.
I was very clear that I wasn’t going to play gotcha but that we just wanted to hear their stories and make this really important film for the world, and that they needed to be a part of it.
What was the most shocking thing you learned while researching the film?
One of the most shocking things I learned while making Miss Representation is that 15 percent of rape survivors are girls under the age of 12. Now, if this isn’t despicable and horrifying, I am not sure what else is.
What was the most inspiring?
One of the most inspiring things I learned while making this film is that people do care and that they do want to see change.
Thanks to all of our partner organizations and academics and their incredible advocacy, activism and research, we now have the tools to question the media that perpetrates violence and degradation towards women. This gives me tremendous hope and confidence that we will have an impact.
Do you have a favorite interview or a particular subject that stands out in your mind when you look back at the film?
All of the women and men struck a chord with me and with the members of our crew. And the youth were particularly moving. If I had to pick just one, perhaps it would be Rachel Maddow, who deals with sexism on a regular basis with humor and grace. We can all learn something from that.
With this being your first feature, tell us about your filmmaking process ?
Let’s just say I asked a lot of questions, learned to trust my gut, and surrounded myself with people who were not only talented but also very supportive. I have to admit though, I had NO IDEA making a documentary film would be this hard. I am a rather impatient person and am proud I stuck it out, as I had to overcome many obstacles and hurdles in the making of the film.
Fundraising was by no means easy initially; I was picked apart as director/narrator; I felt very alone throughout much of the process – until I found my editor Jessica Congdon- who is a total collaborator, so smart and such a rock star. I had to deal with ugly energy every day in our research; and, being a sensitive person, it was at times too much for me.
Were there any obstacles or challenges you had to overcome during production?
Many! In addition to the challenges of the filmmaking process, my editor Jess and I both had daughters about the same time soon after she started working with me.
Being that this was my first child and I didn’t take maternity leave, I was exhausted and overwhelmed. However, with such an amazing team of women behind Miss Representation, our triumphs far outnumbered our obstacles and I believe I learned from all of the challenges.
What do you want the audience to walk away with after a screening?
I want our audience to be educated, inspired, motivated and entertained. I want them to feel compelled to talk about it, tell others to go see it, and share information from the documentary with their loved ones and colleagues.
I want them to feel empowered that they can do something about media injustices and that they can affect change. Then, I want viewers to think more critically about the subtleties of sexism that we’ve come to accept in our culture. And, ultimately, I want our audience to leave motivated to join our social action campaign to affect change for women and girls.
What do you believe is the most important thing individuals can do to change the portrayal of women in the media?
It is extremely important that we champion good media and challenge bad media. Women hold more than 86 percent of America’s purchasing power so we have to use that power if we want to see change. We must stop consuming that which degrades, devalues and demeans our gender.
We have the power to organize (especially with social media) and stop purchasing sexist media. On Twitter we launched the #NotBuyingIt campaign where individuals are monitoring and calling out offensive advertisements and products every day.
(Editor’s Note: Miss Representation will be shown at Eagle Eye Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 6:15 p.m.)