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A Look At Media, Gender In 'Miss Representation'

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American teenagers devote an average of 10 hours and 45 minutes to media consumption each week. Filmmaker Jennifer Newsom says the overarching message for young girls is harmful. In Newsom's documentary, "Miss Representation," she exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence.

JACKI LYDEN, host: When Jennifer Siebel Newsom was 28, she moved to Hollywood to act. And the first thing her agent told her to do was lie about her age and take the MBA off her resume. She didn't follow that advice and still landed roles in films and TV series. But all the while, she was watching how women were being portrayed in the media and getting fed up. After she married Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco at the time, she started paying more attention to women in politics.

JENNIFER NEWSOM: When I witnessed the 2008 campaign and the sexism that was directed at not only Hillary Clinton but Sarah Palin, I knew I needed to speak out, especially knowing that I was pregnant with a baby girl. I couldn't imagine raising a baby girl in a culture that limited and demean and discourage women on a regular basis.

LYDEN: So she wrote and directed a documentary "Miss Representation." The film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and is screening across the country. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, thank you for being here.

NEWSOM: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: Tell us a little bit about the time you worked in Hollywood, Jennifer Newsom. Did it seem normative that women were valued for the way they look, or you think that's actually gotten worse?

NEWSOM: You know, I think because of the advent of reality TV and the sort of celebrity lowest common denominator or what it is to be an American culture, I think it has gotten worse. I mean, we're in a time where it's all about viewership and numbers. And the way that the media is increasingly selling to us is through sexualizing women.

LYDEN: I want to ask you a little bit more about Hollywood. Are there not more roles in which we see women as doctors and lawyers and police chiefs and women are more placed in all kinds of professions?

NEWSOM: Yes. I think it's because there are more female TV network execs and female writers. But unfortunately, there's an energy in the writing room - I've witnessed it firsthand, and I've spoken about it with female TV execs - that if there weren't enough women in the writing room, oftentimes, those women are shut down. And so those women need to have a voice. They need to have clout. They need to have some decision-making authority, and they need to have the backings and support of other women that are producers on the show.

LYDEN: Now, to some degree, it may seem like using a woman's image to sell something or attract more viewers or listeners or whatever is not necessarily new. But as your film shows, I look at the montages and misrepresentation of cable TV, you see women with evermore cleavage, smothered in makeup, clear desks so that you can actually see, you know, people sitting down in sort of a crotch shot, and I'm not the only one to notice this.


JAY LENO: Folks, we're going to play a game. I'm going to show you a photo of a woman. You have to guess whether she is a professional newscaster or a Hooters waitress. Are you ready? Here we go.

LYDEN: That, of course, was the comedian Jay Leno. So who's making the decision to put these women on display like this? Is it the executives or the women?

NEWSOM: You know, I think it's a combination of the people that are behind the scenes of media companies, whether it's the stylist, the makeup artist, the executive, the CEO, the producer. And in some cases, it's - you know, we women buy into sex is power, and we are just as guilty as, you know, making the decision to dress or style ourselves a certain way. So it's really a combination. But at the end of the day, I do believe because women are only 3 percent of media positions of clout, if you had more women in leadership, I don't think you'd have such a sexualized media culture.

LYDEN: In this climate that you portray, Jennifer Newsom, you also talk about how women in politics have become talked about and what it seems permissible or at least commonplace to hear.

NEWSOM: Right.

LYDEN: Let's listen to another clip from your documentary.


BILL O'REILLY: Both you and Sarah Palin are good-looking women. I mean, you're attractive, young - relatively young - women.

MICHAEL SAVAGE: Kagan he's going to put on the U.S. Supreme Court? Isn't there such a thing about the aesthetics of the appointee? Let's put it to you this way, she's not the type of face you'd want to see on a five-dollar bill.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: I think I'm going to send Sotomayor and her club a bunch of vacuum cleaners to help them clean up after their meetings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Cynthia McKinney, the former congresswoman from Georgia, was another angry black woman.

LEE RODGERS: Look at these ugly skanks who make up the female leadership of the Democratic Party.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know that ugly hag Madeleine Albright? Remember her?

LYDEN: You know what really shocks me when I listen to this and saw this in your documentary "Miss Representation" was the intensity in that vitriol...


LYDEN: know, the emotional tout. What's the message, do you think, that kind of emotional tongue sends to young girls, if it's permissible, to talk about the appearance of female politicians? I might point out that nothing that we just heard is about their politics. It's all about the way they look.

NEWSOM: Right. So the message that is then communicated to young girls is why would anyone put themselves in that position to run for a leadership position in the first place because you're just going to be torn apart and spit out. So it's very discouraging. And what it does is it discourages women of all walks of life from aspiring towards leadership.

And unfortunately, what's so damaging about that is that we need women in leadership in this country. I mean, study after study after study is now proving that you have more diversity in the higher echelons of business and government. You have greater creativity, greater productivity and a better bottom line.

LYDEN: So what is, do you think, the remedy, or at least the push back, how to not only rise above it but counter it?

NEWSOM: We now have to take the power back. A woman in Manhattan was so upset by a really sexualized ad near the bus stop at her daughter's high school that she wrote into and called the mayor's office and the ad was pulled down the next day. And a woman in San Francisco was unnerved by a commercial that really displayed motherhood in a really horrible light. And she wrote into the CEO of Procter & Gamble, and they pulled it off the air. There's so much that we can do. I mean, we all have so much power. Women are 86 percent of consumers, so let's use it. Vote with our remote, vote with our dollar, vote with our voice. Speak out when you see an injustice.

LYDEN: That's Jennifer Siebel Newsom. She wrote and directed "Miss Representation," a documentary that challenges the media's limited portrayals of women and girls. She joined us from her home in Marin, California. Thank you very much.

NEWSOM: Thank you very much.

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