Mamalode’s founder Elke Govertsen had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Siebel Newsom at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit last November. They bonded over a passion for gutsy storytelling and their connections to Montana. Jennifer, who recently gave birth to her fourth child, is an actress, award-winning filmmaker and advocate. Her first film, Miss Representation, which exposed the ways mainstream media and culture contribute to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence, premiered at the Sundance film festival in 2011. Public response to the film’s message became a catalyst for The Representation Project, an organization she cofounded later that year that serves to inspire individuals and communities to create a world where everyone can fulfill their human potential. During this month of stories about GIRLS, we are honored to feature our conversation with Jennifer about life, civic engagement and the power of media.
Tell us the personal story behind Miss Representation. What inspired you to write and produce this film?
When I went into acting, my agent told me to lie about my age (I was 28) and take my Stanford MBA off of my resume. I didn’t do either but my confidence was really shaken as I realized that everything I had worked for and done in my life had no value in that town. It didn’t make sense to me that I should be devaluing my accomplishments to achieve “success.” And when I met my husband Gavin Newsom, then Mayor of San Francisco, I was still acting and producing in Hollywood. As Gavin introduced me to various women in politics, I saw a complete disconnect between these powerful women in the real world and how the media portrayed powerful women. So, I started doing research on the representation of women in positions of power and influence and the media’s misrepresentations of women.
When l I found out a few years later that I was pregnant with my first child – a girl – everything came into focus. Here I was, enmeshed in an entertainment industry where Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan were all tabloid fodder, and I couldn’t imagine how my daughter would grow up to be emotionally healthy and fulfilled given our culture’s disregard for, disrespect of, and extreme sexualization of women and girls. I realized then that I had the unique opportunity to combine my strengths as an artist and producer with my newfound determination to create a better world for her. In essence, we had to rewrite the story for women. So I made the documentary Miss Representation to expose the media’s limiting portrayals of women and girls and address how media contributed to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.
You are a mother of four. Talk about the intersections between parenting and your career.
What’s ironic is that for all of the talk about the challenges of working motherhood – all the questions around “can you have it all” – for me, being a mother is first and foremost what drives and influences my work. And I don’t believe I am alone in this. I am determined to make this world a better place for all of them. For all of us. But whether or not your career directly relates to children, so many of us are driven to work because of our children – to enrich their lives, to expand for them what is possible, to ensure they can fulfill their human potential. In my case, my work and my children are intrinsically connected and interdependent.
Of course, it’s challenging to “have it all” and it’s a true balancing act. With four young children, I am still trying to find the right rhythm. And, it’s not always successful nor pretty. Case in point, my kids haven’t had that many playdates this year. I even botched one today when I forgot to provide the mom who was picking my daughter up our address!! It’s certainly exhausting and overwhelming – one of my kids is always going through something and needing that extra love and attention. But I am committed to being the best mom I can be and the most effective leader possible.
Let’s be honest, though, it takes a village. None of us can do this juggling act on our own. The only reason I have my career is because there are incredibly loving and kind people who support my children during work hours.
If I am struggling, so many other women are struggling even more! And, most women don’t have the luxury of multiple options for taking care of their kids while pursuing careers. Many women have to quit their careers and stay home because they cannot afford childcare. Or they have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills, put food on the table, and ensure their kids ride that escalator to opportunity. Or they have to get lucky and marry partners who commit to 50/50 parenting. What’s disturbing to me is that in the US, we still don’t have critical policies like paid parental leave and universal pre-K, which make it easier for parents in America to better balance parenting and work. So now more than ever, it’s important we make our voices heard by the 115th Congress and support policies that benefit all families.
As an advocate for girls and women and wife to former San Francisco Mayor and current Lieutenant Governor of California Gavin Newsom, what are your thoughts on the nation’s current political climate?
I couldn’t have scripted a presidential race that more aptly illustrates the limiting gender dynamics that my documentaries Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In so clearly expose and that we at The Representation Project are trying to overcome. On the one hand, we were so close to shattering the highest glass ceiling in this country – though in the end we were held back by our society’s double standards for women in power – as revealed in Miss Representation. And, on the other hand, we saw the dark underbelly of misogyny, racism, and toxic masculinity rearing its ugly head – a cultural value system we expose in The Mask You Live In.
Now Trump’s value system is not limited to his version of “locker-room talk” – it’s very much who he is as a human being. From both his words and his actions, it’s clear he sees women as objects to be controlled and anything associated with the feminine – empathy and caregiving in particular – as soft and of lesser value. Underneath his claim that he “loves women,” is a lot of evidence that he sees women as subordinate to men and believes their role is to “perform” for men. Not only does he intend to gut federal funding for violence against women programs, but there are scores of other social programs primarily benefitting women and children – like healthcare and education – that he intends to cut.
To that end, if we’re going to right this course and change the direction our country is headed in, we need to address head on the shortcomings of this hyper-masculine value system which celebrates power, dominance, and aggression at the expense of empathy, care, and collaboration. And I think we really need to focus back on our common humanity. We must have empathy for those who are less fortunate than us, and we must remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. But despite the divisiveness we see in our current political culture, there are a couple of things that really give me hope for the future. The first is the amount of civic engagement we are seeing around the country, and the second is the record number of women that have expressed interest in running for office since the election!
Your next film project “The Great American Lie” sounds juicy. What can you tell us about it?
Well I can’t say too much because it’s still in production, but the next film explores what we call the “gender hierarchy.” It unveils why we as a country spend so much more on activities that are associated with masculine attributes – defense, war, infrastructure spending, etc., and so little on activities associated with the feminine – education, healthcare, childcare, etc. Ultimately, it connects the dots between this hyper-masculine value system and the increasing inequality we see today. I’m really excited about how it is turning out, and think the subject matter is quite timely.
If we asked your kids to tell us anything they think we should know about their mother, what would they say?
I think they might say that I can be a little strict but that I am their favorite coach! Soccer, skiing, tennis, basketball, horseback riding, dance – you name it, I love it all! And, I just want to expose them to everything and see if anything sticks.