According to the eye-opening documentary "Miss Representation," premiering Oct. 20 on OWN, images in the media that degrade, demean and objectify women have had damaging effects on women, girls and the culture at large.
"The media is out of control. It's this great pedagogical force of communication and no one's regulating it, especially when it comes to the messages our kids are receiving — messages that women's value lies in their sexuality or their beauty, not their intelligence or ability to lead," says filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, citing studies that indicate "the more TV that young boys watch, the more sexist they are in their attitudes and behavior towards women. And the more TV girls watch, the lower their self-esteem, and the more insecure they are, the less hopeful they are. Unless we start to re-train our culture, we're going to have a really unhealthy environment in which our next generation of kids is going to grow up," predicts Siebel, who experienced victimization and diminished self-esteem firsthand as a result of traumatic childhood events, the death of her sister and abuse by a coach that precipitated an eating disorder.
Siebel gathered statistics on everything from the increase in rapes and eating disorders to the decline in the number of women in the ranks of government and corporations, and lined up insightful interviews with politicians (Diane Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi), newswomen (Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Lisa Ling) and actors (Jane Fonda, Geena Davis, Rosario Dawson, Margaret Cho) beginning in 2008. "I learned not to take 'no' for an answer," laughs the actress-turned-documentarian, who's married to California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom but didn't need to rely on his political connections. "I did it on my own," she emphasizes.
Since winning praise and raves at the Sundance Film Festival, the film has gotten people talking, and Siebel aims to extend that dialogue via weekly podcasts, blogs and educational curricula that teachers of kindergarten through college can use, all posted at Missrepresentation.org. Her hope is "to impact the culture one person at a time so that it embraces and values women. It's going to take a village to change this culture," she believes. "I think we need more 'transformational leadership' in politics right now, leadership that respects feminine attributes like empathy, and collaboration, and empowerment. The more women you have in the pipeline to leadership, the more you'll see a country that values education, the environment, healthcare, and women," she says.
"We are decades behind the rest of the world in terms of paid family leave. We're the only industrialized country in the world that does not have it. We need to support working mothers. We need more women in leadership, and more women's voices heard on issues that affect our culture. But there's also a lot that we need to do as individuals. Women need to remember that we're 86 percent of consumers. We need to support good media, and female writers and directors on the opening weekend when their films premiere. And at the same time, we need to remind ourselves that people are watching us all of the time, especially young people, whether we're on TV, or in the media, or not."
Siebel kept the film's carbon footprint small by not using plastic water bottles and recycling on set, and not wasting paper. "You should see my notes, like ten days' worth on one piece of paper," she points out. "When my husband was mayor of San Francisco he championed the composting and the recycling and made it a big issue. It's such a luxury to work in that city because you don't even think about it anymore. It's just the way you do business — you do it as green as you possibly can."
The mother of a two-year-old daughter and four-month-old son and a former spokesperson for the organic skincare line Juice Beauty, Siebel is "a big proponent of pure, local and organic products, especially for the kids, including the creams that go on their skin." She recycles, composts, opens windows rather than running the air conditioning, and shops for local, organic food. "There are some great farmers markets in our area," she reports, adding that although her family is renting now, she'd love to have solar panels on their next home.
While she's planning to make two more films about women and media in a projected trilogy, Siebel is not averse to returning to her first career as an actor, "if there was a fantastic, strong, female doctor, or lawyer, or businesswoman on a TV series that I could portray." For now, she's focusing on spreading the "Miss Representation" message, and hopes that it "inspires girls, and boys, to recognize their voice and their value, and give them the opportunity to speak out and tell their story and say this is the way they want to be represented in our media, and therefore, our culture. I hope people will see the film, and join us at missrepresentation.org and follow up on Facebook and Twitter."
"Miss Representation" premieres Oct. 20 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, followed by an hour-long special hosted by Rosie O'Donnell. Watch the trailer here:
Photo courtesy Girls Club Entertainment