Q&A with With Jennifer Siebel Newsom

Jennifer Siebel Newsom may be uniquely positioned to create a documentary on women and the media. The second lady of California — she’s married to Gavin Newsom (D), the state’s lieutenant governor and a former San Francisco mayor — spent several years in Hollywood, appearing in “Mad Men” and a host of other television shows and movies before embarking on her latest project, “Miss Representation.”

The documentary, which runs this month on the Oprah Winfrey Network (view clips at www.missrepresentation.org) addresses what Newsom sees as gross misrepresentations of women in the media, which she defines as advertising, news, Hollywood entertainment and publishing.

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Newsom spoke to The Hill about working with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other politicians for their views on how women are portrayed in the world today. 

Q: How did you get the idea for “Miss Representation”?

I went to Hollywood at the age of 28 right out of Stanford business school, and about that time, the reality-show culture was taking off. And having experience in front of and behind the camera, and witnessing what was going on, I was particularly concerned, especially when thinking about having children and raising them in this culture.

When I witnessed the 2008 [presidential] campaign, and I saw the sexist remarks that media pundits were directing at Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, focusing on what they looked like and not necessarily their issue positions, I knew that something was wrong, and I made a connection between the disparaging representations and our under-representation in positions of power.

One of the tag lines of the documentary is: If you can see it, you can be it, or if you can’t see it you can’t be it. And unfortunately what’s happening is the media is dictating our value and gender norms and telling us who we can and cannot be. And the message that seeps into our subconscious is: A women’s youth and sexuality is the most important.

Q: You got Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein and Condoleezza Rice to speak in the film. Why’d you choose them? 

Pelosi has always been a champion of women, and she’s been concerned about women and daughters and raising children in America, and so I was interested in her perspective.

Feinstein was the first female mayor in San Francisco and has dealt with sexism since her early days, and is someone I admired.

I was also interested in interviewing [Sen. Olympia] Snowe [R-Maine] and others, but it didn’t work out with our schedules.

I also interviewed my husband and [Newark, N.J., Mayor] Cory Booker [D]. My husband appointed the first female fire chief and the first female police chief in San Francisco, and he’s done a lot of work with his commission on the status of women in San Francisco.

And Cory Booker has an interesting background with his work in championing people who are disadvantaged.

Rice, I was really curious because she was really, in some cases, the only woman in the room in her work in the Bush administration. She really has a unique perspective, not just as a woman but as an African-American woman.

Q: What did you learn about them that you found surprising?

I hadn’t realized that Sen. Feinstein had so many interests around crime and areas that some deem masculine areas. 

Rice — there was a story she shared with me. She was somewhere in the Middle East, and she was meeting with a leader who essentially couldn’t really look her in the eye and shake her hand, and definitely played the Middle Eastern gender stereotype with someone of the opposite gender. And then his granddaughter came in, and he was so excited for his granddaughter to meet Secretary Rice and was happy she could look up to her. It just goes to show how deeply entrenched sexism can be, but the perpetrators all have a young person in their lives that they care about and that they want to see succeed, and this was an example of someone who couldn’t be removed from it but yet wished for his granddaughter to achieve.

The one thing I always admired with Pelosi is that she’s so graceful and gracious. I think it’s a beautiful feminine quality and attribute to be gracious and graceful, and I feel that whenever she’s around, and I appreciate that.

Q: In the film you highlight the statistic that women compose 17 percent of the legislative body. Why did you decide to look at Congress?

The political sphere is obviously the most public power sphere. A lot of people argued that this film has been made before; women have achieved parity. And they were wrong. The gender gap persists in this country, and women have only 18 percent of leadership positions in all the sorts of top industries. Where I delved in this political realm is where we purport to have this great democracy, and yet women don’t yet have parity.

Q: Do you have any opinions on the coverage of some prominent women in the GOP, like Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann?

I’ve been following it a little — granted, I just gave birth to our son four months ago … I end up catching little bits here and there.

I don’t think Michele Bachmann has been treated very fairly by either her party or the media circus. I don’t, and I think it’s fair to say, whether I agree with her policies or not, I as a woman am inspired to see a woman up there representing her platform.

It’s very inspiring to see a woman out there being eloquent and poised, but I think it’s important for girls and boys and women and men out there campaigning for the presidency. And I’d like to see more women out there.

I would’ve loved to interview Palin for the documentary. I’ve never met her.

The only thing that makes me sad — when one embarks on a reality show. People have asked my husband to do a reality show, and it’s like, no way. The reality-show culture is cheap, and they’re looking to create drama.

Maybe it’s the media that did this to Sarah Palin — or anyone that does reality shows — it just makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t trust them.

But I would like to meet her, because I think she’s inspired a lot of women, and her image was inspiring … but I’m not convinced that she was that polished and informed, and I didn’t quite understand her policies.

Q: Have you personally experienced misrepresentation in the media?

Oh, completely. I had some bad things happen to me when I was younger — you’ll see in the film — and likewise in Hollywood. 

I’m married to a politician. When we started dating, I was thrown into the crazy media circus. There are certain things that are in our power and our control, but at the end of the day, it’s harder. The media trivialize women to such an extent, it’s hard to take them seriously.