I thought I knew what I needed to know about media literacy and gender stereotypes and their relationship to self esteem, leadership and power. I thought I was equipped to raise healthy children who could parse dangerous marketing messages. And then my daughter, only six years old, stopped wearing certain items of clothing lest they make her look fat. And I heard about first graders on diets. And I got scared.
Children today consume on average more than 10 hours of media a day including Youtube, Reality TV, “chick flicks”, gossip magazines, talk shows, sitcoms, and Superbowl commercials. Its no wonder managing the message is so hard. And its no wonder Miss Representation, a powerful documentary that examines the media’s impact on women and society, is generating so much discussion
Miss Representation goes beyond the groundbreaking work in the Killing Us Softly films and discusses how media affects women as leaders. Consider this: Women makeup only 17 percent of Congress despite representing 51 percent of the population. Eighty-four percent of guests on Sunday morning political tv talk shows and 85 percent of radio producers are men. Eighty percent of the op-ed pages are dominated by men. The number of women in senior management positions globally has gone from 24 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2009. And sixty-five percent of women and girls have eating disorders.
I recently interviewed Jennifer Siebel Newsom, writer, producer and director of Miss Representation about the film, eyebrow waxing, our children and the Real Housewives series. Waxing is okay but the Housewives are a no-no. Here’s what else she had to say.
Why did you make this film?
I was in the entertainment industry after Stanford Business School. I got to Hollywood during the junk food reality television era when celebrity was defined as the lowest common denominator of what it means to be an American.
I recognized what a loss it is when women and girls don’t own their strength and I wanted to encourage women and girls to not be limited by the messages others send about them.
You often talk about women and power. Can you expand on the connection between media messages and power?
If we only see our value in being pretty or sexy, we will invest all of our energy in that. This contributes to why it is so difficult for women to be in leadership positions. Institutional sexism perpetuates gender norms. Men have created the sexist institutions and women have bought into it. When we acquiesce, we’re reinforcing the culture that sees us having lesser value. It’s dehumanizing.
We women need to rediscover our voice and stand into our power. Many of us were raised to please others, but we have more to offer. We’re allowed to ask questions and challenge the status quo.
What would you say to women who take pleasure in beauty treatments and looking good? (I ask having just endured hot wax ripped off my face in an effort to achieve the perfect brow).
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be aesthetically pleasing – but is it our only value? We need to redefine beauty. We define success in a certain way and it’s not inclusive in depth and breadth – it’s so limiting.
This is our century to really stand up and uncover our strength and our power. It’s not a power that’s about wearing a suit and being a man in a man’s world. And it’s not a hypersexual power. It comes from real strength and not from injectables and plastic surgery.
Several parents have told me they don’t need to see the film because they are raising sons, not daughters. What would you say to them?
Our boys need to hear this message; we live in a culture that cuts off boys hearts from their heads. And for the mothers of boys, women are 51 percent of the population and give birth to 100 percent of the population. If we’re not raising our boys to be respectful of women, we’re guilty.
We’re also increasingly starting to objectify our boys. I was at the park with my two and a half year old son the other day and there were some high school boys there playing basketball. It was clear they had been lifting an abnormal amount of weights. We’re all vulnerable to media messages.
Sons and daughters, parents and nonparents, need to see this film because it challenges the limited messages we receive and normalize. Men who have daughters or wives they deeply admire tell me they can’t think the same after viewing the film.
My job is intense during the day and then at night I blog about some serious topics. After the kids go to bed I just want to watch mindless television so I tune into the Real Housewives. I know how horribly reality tv depicts women, but is it that bad if I’m aware of it?
Stop. Don’t consume the bad stuff. It’s much healthier to read a book. Don’t feed junk into your soul.
“Miss Representation” sends a powerful and moving message. What can we do to take action after viewing it?
On our website www.missrepresentation.org you can take a pledge to challenge the media’s limiting portrayal of women and girls. When you sign up you will get brief reminders to take small actions, like complimenting other woman on something other than her looks for an entire week. Get more involved in the political process. Ask every elected official what they are doing for mothers and families. Have a dinner conversation with your family about the film. Vote with your money. Don’t consume the bad stuff.
Readers, if you’re in the Boston area, join us tomorrow, June 3 at 9:45 for a free screening of Miss Representation at the Dedham Community Theater followed by a panel discussion with Harmony Wu, PhD Critical Film Studies; Sarah MacDonald, Dedham Board of Selectman; Emma Katzberg, Regional Whole Body Merchandising & Store Support Liaision, Whole Foods; and Eliza Brown, Regional Coordinator for Whole Foods Specialty Team.
*This interview first appeared in The Dedham Transcript.