Jennifer Siebel Newsom wasn’t even planning to direct her documentary, Miss Representation. She first approached some established female directors to take on her film about how women are portrayed in the mainstream media, but every one declined to do it, saying nobody would hire them afterwards – a stark illustration of who runs the entertainment industry even before you get to the hardhitting statistics and appalling examples of sexism in her film.
We meet in a restaurant in central London ahead of the showing of her film in London on Monday night. Siebel Newsom decided to make the film when she was working as an actor, and pregnant with the first of her three children, a daughter. "I was in the entertainment industry at the time that Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were all tabloid fodder and I couldn’t imagine raising a daughter in a climate that so demeaned, ridiculed and objectified women and girls." (As an actor, she had been told to lie about her age and remove her Stanford MBA from her CV because it looked “threatening”.)
Her film was originally shown at Sundance and broadcast in the US in 2011. It features an impressive line-up of powerful women, including Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, and Gloria Steinem, as well as academics and activists who all flesh out the idea that the demeaning and stereotypical representation of women in the media is a significant contributor in holding women back from positions of power. This, in turn, affects the lives of all women, from the gender pay gap and career opportunities after motherhood, to mental health issues and the rise of cosmetic surgery.
Siebel Newsom exposes not only the overt ways in which women are represented in the media – the sexualised images in advertising and films, the way so much attention is focused on how women such as Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin look – but the numerous, insidious ways powerful women are undermined. The news reports where female politicians are reported as “complaining” about a policy, whereas men are simply reported as “stating” their view. "The media is the largest communicator of culture, and we know that if US culture continues to limit and undervalue women, then that message is being communicated around the world," says Siebel Newsom.
If the overall cause can be put down to the “patriarchy”, as she puts it, “the media perpetuates it”, and “it is made worse when we continue to place value on women’s youth, beauty and sexuality at the expense of their talents or intelligence.” When the media doesn’t portray positive, or even accurate, female role models, “you get this whole notion of ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’”.
In the US, women own 5.8% of TV stations and 6% of radio stations, and only 5% of “clout” positions in the mainstream media are held by women. The UK hardly fares better. A Fawcett Society report released last month, which looked at women’s positions of power, found that 78% of newspaper articles are written by men while women make up a quarter of TV company directors. Against this backdrop, is it surprising that women are fed a particular image of themselves?
However, the majority of media consumers are women. Women do have a responsibility to tell studios and news channels what we think, says Siebel Newsom, but it’s wrong to suggest the media companies are just giving us what we want. “Women are 50% of movie goers. We want to see movies, but we have no options so of course we’re going to go and see whatever’s out there. There is a disconnect between supply and demand: 15% of protagonists [in films] are women, yet women are 51% of the population. If you look at writers and directors [of 250 top-grossing films], women were 6% of directors and 10% of writers. The only way we’re going to shake things up is if there’s a quota system, or a system that really demands you greenlight scripts written and directed by women, for women. And then you make it normal – that they’re not just niche, they’re mainstream.”
The idea that men wouldn’t be interested in those stories is nonsense: “The box office has proved with films such as Gravity and The Hunger Games that women can hold their own. It’s really about putting the marketing dollars behind them.”
As part of Siebel Newsom’s ongoing campaign, she created the Not Buying It movement, “where people are able to call out sexist media and use their consumer power to challenge it”. Using a Twitter hashtag and an app, people can publicise and share sexist advertising when they see it, and encourage others to contact the company or boycott the brand. She thinks this has already had an impact on the advertising industry and cites changes around the Superbowl, the sporting event notorious for showing sexist commercials historically. “Clearly it’s not perfect, but it’s got so much better. But more needs to be done.”
Is she optimistic things will change? “If we keep fighting for it.We have to work inside the system, and also hold the system accountable. ” The entertainment industry is extremely sensitive to accusations of racism, she says; the same needs to happen now with sexism. “Just awaken them to the type of leaders they could be. Do they want to be on the right or wrong side of history?”