The documentary Miss Representation, which premiered to sold-out screenings at Sundance last year, addresses the lack of positive portrayals of women in the media through statistics, damning clips and interviews with talking heads like Condoleeza Rice, Nancy Pelosi and Katie Couric. The film is also part of a larger educational advocacy project that aims to break the link between the media’s treatment of women and the way girls see themselves. Although the movie screened at festivals throughout the year and was broadcast on OWN, today’s DVD release marks the first time the film will be available to many audiences. Writer-director Jennifer Siebel Newsom spoke to TIME about reality television, how the world has changed since her film first aired and saving the next generation of girls.
Why do you think the film received such strong reactions at festivals?
People really recognize there’s been a backlash against women’s rights in our country and that the media is perpetuating it.
We’ve been hearing a lot this election cycle about the ‘war on women.’ Do you think more people are interested in the depiction of women since you first screened the film?
I knew that there was a problem a long time ago but even so, a lot of people questioned why I was making this film. Do I think things are worse than when I started? No, it’s more obvious now. People have started to see more reality stars becoming “celebrities,” making millions of dollars from sex tapes. I think people are seeing the impact this is having on their kids — especially on their young girls.
What first brought the problem to your attention?
I was a tomboy growing up and really believed that the world was my oyster — that I could do and be and achieve everything. I did experience some sexism when I lived and worked in Africa so I naively thought sexism was a third-world phenomenon. But back at Stanford Business School I noticed the boys’ world — the faculty was mostly men — and then in Hollywood I found such a boys’ club. The problem is Hollywood influences the rest of the world. People are so curious about our culture in America. Both men and women worldwide are being fed these notions of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, and you’re seeing it not just in make-believe reality TV, you’re seeing it in news media, you’re seeing it in radio, you’re seeing it in all forms of media — and that’s the danger.
Tell us about the educational curriculum you’ve created along with the documentary.
We always knew we were going to do education advocacy. I just didn’t realize how intense our education curriculum was going to be. Most education curricula are literally the documentary and some questions; ours is little age-appropriate modules with four different age groups being taught gender and media literacy. The only way to change what’s going on in our culture is to change culture, and how do you do that? You have to educate people and inspire them to recognize their power as consumers.
Do you think we’ll see more documentaries in the future with intense cross-platform work?
Yes. We’re all learning from each other. I do come from the nonprofit world and I’m married to a public servant [California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom] so I’m more comfortable in the advocacy realm. And we’re going to continue to get behind and make films of this nature.
What do you think is the role of social media?
It’s interesting. I made this movie with a lot of people’s input and that’s what social media affords us. The next film will be much easier for me because I have a ready-made community that I can ask to provide me with thoughts and feedback.
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What are your hopes for the DVD?
I hope that there’s real change. It really starts at the home with saying, ‘There’s no media out there for our teenage daughter, so we’re going to encourage our daughter to play sports,’ or ‘We’re going to have a screening and make sure that all the parents buy into this, we’re not going to buy into this limiting notion of what it is to be a girl.’ It starts with the individual, and individual action has that snowball effect that leads to communal action.
What’s the next step for the project?
There’s the educational and empowerment component and a campaign to celebrate the good media and calling out or shaming the bad media. I want to do it in as peaceful a way as possible. I just want to shake people a little and remind them that whether they like it or not, someone is looking up to them.
Newsom and her producing partner, Regina Kulik Scully, are in the early stages of work on their next documentary project, which will address issues of masculinity.