“It limits women…from aspiring to be great things.”

As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as advanced and sophisticated as a society. Yet, when it comes to issues of gender equality the numbers don’t lie — there’s no escaping the fact that we’re pretty damn backwards.

Women make up 51% of the US population, yet hold just 16.6% of the seats in Congress and 17% of those in the Senate. Indeed, we rank 90th in the world in terms of the proportion of women in national parliaments, below Afghanistan, Cuba, China, Ethiopia, Iraq, and the Sudan.

Furthermore, in America, just 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Similarly only 3% of positions of clout in the telecommunications, entertainment, publishing, and advertising industries are held by the fairer sex (which is distinctly unfair). And this may be part of the problem, since those that are ultimately responsible for the aspirational messages we receive on a daily basis are predominantly male.

That’s not to say that the innate sexism that’s partly responsible for this power imbalance is necessarily malevolent or even intentional; the root of much of it is simply a lack of consciousness on all our parts. And to an extent, the state of play appears to be self-perpetuating, since a mere 16% of those responsible for Hollywood’s mass market dream machine (writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, and editors) are women, which in turn perhaps explains a similar lack of female protagonists/role models in feature films.

A much talked about new documentary, Miss Representation, which recently debuted on the OWN Network, does a very comprehensive job of exploring the underlying reasons for this vast leadership gender gap. The film features many prominent leading ladies, including Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Dianne Feinstein, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Geena Davis, Rachel Maddow, Lisa Ling, and Katie Couric, whose powerful voices add strength to the message, which is that a woman’s true value lies beyond mere youth and beauty.

SuicideGirls spoke with the driving force behind Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who wrote, directed, and produced the exceptional cinematic gender essay. As a Stanford graduate, environmental and gender activist, actress, and mother — who also happens to be the wife of the former Mayor of San Francisco, and current Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newsom — she’s had a front row seat watching what happens to women in power and how the media treats them, so perhaps has a greater understanding of the issues they face than most.

Nicole Powers: What inspired you to make Miss Representation?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: I knew I wanted to have children some day and I was in the entertainment industry when the tabloid/celebrity culture was taking off, and the lowest common denominator of what it is to be an American really persisted, especially through reality TV. I was concerned about what it would be like to raise a child in this culture, and a girl in particular. As it turns out, we started shooting and I become pregnant with a girl. Now I have a son and I’m equally concerned about what the culture is communicating to our boys. Not just about women, but about what it is to be a man. So really the heart and core was just that the media really is the most persuasive and pervasive form of communication in our culture and it’s dictating our cultural values and our gender norms, telling us who we can and cannot be. And our children, as the most vulnerable class of citizens, are receiving these messages that are telling them that a woman’s value lies in her youth, her beauty, and her sexuality, and not in her capacity to lead. What it does, obviously, is it limits women from dreaming big and from aspiring to be great things. And it continues to encourage boys to objectify women and see them as second class citizens. That was the initial heart reason for making the film — and knowing that I didn’t want my child to go through some of the things I went through.

Then I obviously witnessed the 2008 campaign with Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin running for the Presidency and the Vice Presidency. I was just so upset at how they were treated in the media. And while one or two news anchors may have had their wrist slapped for sexist remarks here and there, most of the sexism was not reprimanded. What that message then communicates to us is that it’s okay to treat women with disrespect and to demean them and to discourage them. And therefore, why logically would any woman aspire towards that when they know that they would be held to a completely double standard and that they would be mistreated like that? That doesn’t help us when you look at the fact that we need more female leadership and more of this transformative leadership in our country, whereby characteristics and values of empathy and collaboration, empowerment, and creating a win-win scenario for all are embraced. Because we know those qualities of leadership are necessary for progress, and necessary for success in the global economy. We’re not encouraging those in our male leaders and we’re not supporting enough women to achieve leadership at the same time. So those are the reasons really I was compelled to make this film.

NP: One of the interesting statistics you bring to light in your film is how early things go wrong. At age 7, around 30% of girls and boys want to be President, but 8 years on at age 15, the results are radically different. So it really is between 7 and15 when things start to go awry.

JSN: Exactly. This is an interesting story actually. My daughter Montana is two years old, my son Hunter is 3 ½ months old. When Hunter was born — and I say this jokingly but just to share this with you — Hunter received a letter from the President and the First Lady and then the Vice President and Second Lady congratulating us and wishing him well and success in life. Congratulating him on his birth — that’s a very special thing. My husband is now the Lieutenant Governor, formerly he was the Mayor of San Francisco when Montana was born. But I would say that he actually had a stronger leadership position, and was more respected in some ways, as Mayor of San Francisco then as Lieutenant Governor of California. Anyways, Hunter also received a shirt that said “Future President,” and a few other [items] of White House paraphernalia. These are from different people, this is not just from the White House itself. Montana never received a shirt that said “Future President” and didn’t receive acknowledgment from the President. To share this with you, by the way, I’m so not complaining. I find it really interesting that in our subconscious, as a culture, people who are thrilled that I gave birth to a boy are thinking that boy is going to be a leader, that boy can be President. But that didn’t occur to people about Montana, my daughter. Isn’t that interesting?

NP: A lot of this is so subconscious. Often there’s no harm meant.

JSN: Right.

NP: A really good example of this is I remember when I just got out of college; I’d trained as a sound engineer, and I went for a job at a recording studio. I showed up and they just looked bemused. We had a great interview, and they said very honestly — and if they’d thought about it, they would never have said it because they could’ve got sued, but it was just such an innocent remark — they said to me, “Oh, well, to be honest, we’ve never had a girl in our studio, but we’ve got a job upstairs in the office if you’d like.” I could’ve told them where to stick it and complained that they were being sexist, but it wasn’t meant in a sexist way. It was just an utterly honest, off the cuff remark. I actually ended up taking the job as the tea maker upstairs in the office, and I was running the company within a year.

JSN: Oh, wow. Good for you.

NP: But that’s just an example… There was no malice meant. It’s just such a cumulative effect and we’re all guilty of it… Even if you think you’re one of the most politically correct people, you are nevertheless a product of your upbringing, your surroundings, and the culture that you’re swimming in.

JSN: Yes. You’re so right. That’s why it’s no one’s fault. It’s really that we’ve got to take responsibility and accountability. We need to be thinking about the multiple bottom line, and the fact that we can’t continue to operate as a country nor a culture this way. We have to, to your point, look at our own internal sexism and what we’ve learned, and… relearn or unlearn what we’ve learned. But it requires an awareness and a sensitivity because, as you said earlier, it’s so subliminal. It’s so steeped into our subconscious.

NP: Part of it is because so much of the dialogue is defined by men out there, which is not their fault. They’re just in the position of power, and it’s one of those self-perpetuating situations.

JSN: Exactly.

NP: It’s going to take an conscious effort to break that cycle for both men and women.

JSN: Right. It does require complete consciousness, and a willingness to change. Because facts are facts. I think if you look at the facts, you can’t argue that those aren’t real. They’re real. So then you have to make the connection, okay, well what can I do? I think that’s where we are. That’s why we launched MissRepresentation.org, for people to join, to take the pledge, to follow us on Facebook and Twitter, but actually to start taking action so that it’s not like they’re just talking about it, which is great, I mean, you have to see the movie, and then you have to talk about it. But then you actually have to do something. You have to do something individually, and then you have to do something with the community, or at your corporation, or in terms of legislation and government, whatever it is. That’s what’s required to create a pattern interrupt and a real shift in our culture. Until we all agree to do that, and I don’t know what percentage of the population it has to be, maybe it’s just 30%, maybe it’s just sort of the tipping point, but until we really have the masses doing that and taking it initially step by step and spreading the word, we’re going to be challenged as a society. Because you need women’s voices to be heard, now more than ever, and we need more women in leadership — period.

NP: The shocking thing is that you expect sexism in certain areas, such as from the Christian right, but you don’t expect it in the more politically correct corners of the globe and from the more progressive thinkers. It was a shock, obviously, when the Ron Suskind book came out, which talked about the Obama White House administration, and how, for the first few years of his term, it was a very tough environment for women. So it really is about encouraging even the most progressive thinkers to reassess what they’re doing. I think it almost has to start with them first, before the areas where you see sexism coming and can expect it.

JSN: Right. Right.

NP: Another example of that is I notice, even on The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher, the skew towards male guests and male panelists.

JSN: Exactly. There was a study that came out, I don’t know if you saw that recently, I don’t have it exactly in front of me, but on The Daily Show and Colbert Show, the ratio of men to women was like 80% men, 20% women, something like that. There were more Republicans on the show then women, which is interesting as well — for progressive talk shows.

NP: I don’t know in this climate if the situation’s even improving. One of the statistics you include in your film is how, in the last election, for the first time in three decades, women haven’t made a gain in Congress.

JSN: Yes, exactly…

NP: As a nation, it’s embarrassing that America’s behind Cuba, China and Afghanistan when it comes to having women represented in government.

JSN: Exactly. And just to add to that… The argument that’s often made is, “Well the reason we don’t have more women in legislative positions is because women have to give birth to and raise their children.” My argument is [that] we are the only industrialized country in the world that does not have paid family leave whereby the father could play a larger role in parenting. We don’t have a national flex time policy, and we’re one of three countries including Swaziland and Papua New Guinea that don’t have legal paid maternity leave. So what is that saying? It’s saying that we don’t value motherhood. If mothers were paid for the work that we perform, which is our second shift or second job or third job even, because we have the household which is like another job in and of itself, we would be making $117,000 a year, which is a lot of money. But our society, America’s culture does not value motherhood enough — that’s the problem…

NP: I think that with the current pervasiveness of the Christian right and traditional values, we’re actually moving backwards rather than forwards. Another worrying statistic is that women won’t achieve political parity for 500 years, but if we keep going backwards, it’s going to be a lot longer than that.

JSN: Exactly. You know what’s interesting, with regards to the Christian right, is the disconnect that’s going on in that culture that I think needs to be examined… Because of deregulation, capitalism, and everything being about the bottom line and no multiple bottom lines, we’re seeing the media and advertisers selling to our kids at younger and younger ages, and they’re selling sex. And that’s the exact opposite of what the far right would desire and want. So, to me, it’s like, come on people, wake up! This is dangerous. This is not what you intended. This is not what you want. We’re devaluing, we’re harming our children… there’s got to be a connection and a level of accountability that’s not being made.

NP: In the film, you talk about how it’s so easy to blame the public for the media we have, in that they claim that they’re giving people what they want. But what’s actually happening is we’re giving the advertisers what they want. You see that when great shows get cancelled, not because of ratings, but because advertisers won’t support them. Our media is actually advertiser driven, rather than viewer or people driven.

JSN: Exactly. Right. Right.

NP: And that comes back to those in charge of our ad agencies?

JSN: Well in telecommunications, advertising, entertainment, news media, and publishing, women are in 3% of positions of clout.

NP: Talking of women with clout, you have an amazing collection of interview subjects. One of the women that I enjoyed the most was Rachel Maddow.

JSN: Isn’t she lovely? I really, really loved interviewing her.

NP: How did you get all of these amazing voices into this movie?

JSN: That’s a great question. I started shooting in September of 2008. I started with friends and a few well known people that I knew and had asked to be a part of the film. It was really hard. I got a lot of “no’s” or conflicts with their schedule. I had to call on friends, and ask friends of friends to make phone calls, and I didn’t take no for an answer. A few people flat out wouldn’t give me an interview. I did try and communicate with them that this was a film that was going to make them look good, that this was about empowering women. And I had a lot of men helping me, which was wonderful, who these women trusted. Somehow I got through their handlers. I told them my story and I think that they felt safe enough to share their story. But it required one interview with someone of a certain respect level to get some of the others, and then there’s sort of that snowball effect. Really though, I think people were like, “Oh, this is important” and “Of course Jennifer.” It was a lot of just juggling schedules. I would have to fly back to New York or fly to DC or LA, and only have a few minutes to make it work.

NP: One of the other amazing women that you interviewed was Catherine Hardwicke of Thirteen and the original Twilight.

JSN: She’s great.

NP: One of my pet peeves was she worked miracles with Twilight, and then the moment the film was a success, they took the franchise out of her hands and gave it to a guy. For me, what she brought to the first film, this subtle sense of longing, is lost in the more action driven sequels.

JSN: Yes, you’re so right. Exactly. She brought an intimacy and an emotional connection and an emotional through line that I credit her for. That is why I think we need more female writers and directors, because I think they’re more interested in the emotional connectivity and the drama and the character. I mean, there’s some incredible male directors that can do that, but it does seem like in Hollywood men who make these action films are more rewarded then the women and men who make these character driven, smaller stories, that actually are more powerful and moving.

NP: Yet when these films are made, people go see them in droves, whether it be The Help or Sex and the City, there’s just not enough of them.

JSN: Yeah. There are not enough of them, and that’s where we as consumers need to recognize women have 86% of consumer power in the country and we’re not using it well. We’re not being thoughtful with it. I understand we’re all busy and have kids and are working and taking care of our families, but, at the end of the day, if we’re going to change the cultural landscape one way that we have to step up and be accountable is we have to consume that which is good for women and that which empowers women. Because otherwise the system will continue to encourage sexism…

NP: Even how our support and dollars are measured perpetuates the problem that women are a silent majority. For example, with movies, studios look at the opening weekend to measure success. Whereas women, who often have to look after children, will frequently wait for the DVD to come out. But for a movie to get green lit, all the executives are looking at are the potential opening weekend numbers.

JSN: Exactly. We’ve institutionalized sexism in our country and that’s the big problem, right? It’s so entrenched in business and in government and just in our culture at large, so we have to reverse that. One thing I’m learning as a working mother is that I need to take time out for myself. I need time with my girlfriends, and my kids will be happier for that because mom’s taking care of herself. I think we women need to remind ourselves of that and we need to have that weekend out with our girlfriends, or that date night with our husband. I always take my husband to go see the movies I want to see. I hate the movies he thinks he wants to see, and he’s rarely, rarely satisfied to be honest because they’re just dumbed down, action packed, violent junk. Thankfully he’s willing… What was that movie? It was a real hit with the woman from Saturday Night Live?

NP: Bridesmaids?

JSN: Yeah, yeah. My husband, he laughed so hard, it made me so happy. Granted it was raunchy or whatever, but it was still a “chick flick.” But it was an educated, entertaining chick flick. It was great because, as Geena Davis points out… there’s this misnomer that women will go see movies about men but men won’t go see movies about women. But actually, men will go see movies about women. The problem is there just aren’t enough marketing dollars behind those films, and because they’re aren’t enough marketing dollars, there’s not enough attention so not enough people go see those movies on the opening box office weekend and so then they aren’t out long enough.

It’s a vicious cycle, but I think through social media and all of our communications online and our technology, we women, since we’re online more than men anyway, I think we just need to come together and communicate with each other the value of supporting female storytelling and supporting that time together when women can be there together and celebrate and enjoy life together and have experiences together. This is one simple way that women can actually help to change the cultural landscape while having fun in the process. Just to go opening weekend. I just saw Glenn Close’s film [Albert Nobbs], that she financed and produced herself, which is really an interesting little character driven film. It’s a period piece… Very interesting. The type of film that you want to talk about after. Those are movies that women love to go see because we want to talk about them after. It’s just like a book club…

NP: Well, hopefully this movie will help change things.

JSN: Yes… And the next film will continue this conversation. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

NP: You are very welcome. Obviously you are trying to be the change you want to see with Girls’ Club Entertainment, your female orientated production company — so good luck with that.

JSN: Thank you. I appreciate it.