Many people on the West Coast know Jennifer Siebel Newsom as the beautiful wife of Lieutenant Governor of California and former Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom. Although she is a graceful partner to a shining political star, her career is shining on it’s own. Jennifer began her career as an actress but has transitioned to a larger role behind the camera. She wrote, directed and produced Miss Representation, an award-winning documentary about the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America which then led her to launch her nonprofit, The Representation Project. According to the nonprofit, it “uses film and media as a catalyst for cultural transformation and inspires individuals and communities to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes so that everyone regardless of gender, race, class, age, religion, sexual orientation, ability, or circumstance – can fulfill their human potential.” Jennifer Siebel Newsom debuted her second film, The Mask You Live In which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently working on her third film, The Great American Lie. Jennifer is the perfect woman to join our Marc Fisher #MakeYourMarc campaign as this busy Bay Area mama of four is positively impacting actions and opinions of all who encounter her.
Jennifer, you have been an actress, entrepreneur, filmmaker, the current Second Lady of the State of California and you have four children. Congrats! Can you tell us a little bit about how your nonprofit, The Representation Project came to be?
When I went into acting at the age of 28, my male agent at the time told me to lie about my age and take my Stanford MBA off of my resume. Well, 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, and I am talking about an industry that not only informs American cultural values, but then exports the lowest common denominator of those values to the rest of the world. After several years in the industry where I noted the dearth of women in front of and behind the camera, I took a different path. I questioned how our culture operated, and made Miss Representation, which exposes how mainstream media and culture contribute to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.
The response to the film was powerful – so many people reached out to see how they could stay involved. Knowing this was more than a film, this was a movement, I launched The Representation Project. We harness the power of documentary film to awaken consciousness. And we don’t stop there – we take the energy generated from watching our films and turn it into ongoing education and action online and off. This sustainable model shifts attitudes and behaviors, ultimately transforming culture.
Since 2011, The Representation Project has released my second film as a director, The Mask You Live In, and become well known for creating popular online campaigns such as #NotBuyingIt, #AskHerMore, and #RepresentHer.
Was there one moment that you can point to where you really felt your work has been worth it? What was that moment of success?
My favorite moments of “success” that make my work feel most worthwhile are the small ones, the personal interactions that remind me why I do this work. For instance, I had the pleasure of going to the DC Women’s March this past January and while I was there, one young woman approached me and said “You are the reason I am here, Miss Representation was my awakening to feminism.” I felt so touched – and felt that through all the stress of being a working mom, through all of the late nights, through all of the personal struggle, I do this for all our girls and boys. Making a difference in that young person’s life means everything to me. Our work is about making the future brighter for future generations.
Is there someone in your life that’s motivated you or inspired you along the way?
Yes. Director Regina K. Scully is a dear friend who has been with me from the very beginning. She invested in Miss Representation when everybody else said we’d already achieved parity and “why invest in me (a filmmaker) who had never made a film before?” Her bold philanthropy, incredible sisterhood, outstanding generosity, spirit, and support have kept me inspired. And of course, there is my husband. He’s such a big thinker and a bright mind. I love how we feed off of each other and inspire each other. Mostly though, I love his commitment to service and the greater good. He’s just a beautiful human being.
Everything I had worked for and done in my life had no value in [Hollywood], and I am talking about an industry that not only informs American cultural values, but then exports the lowest common denominator of those values to the rest of the world.
What do you hope to accomplish with The Representation Project in the next 5 years?
In the next five years, I am really excited about building out our youth mobilization program. At the broadest level, our goal with this program is to shape young people into lifelong advocates of equality for everyone. And in the short term, we are working to protect each of these individuals now, during their formative years, from the damaging narratives society feeds them about what it means to be a “girl” or “boy.” I am so excited about bringing our program to scale and increasing our reach in vulnerable communities.
Both you and your husband Gavin Newsom are known for fighting for equality (Gavin fought and won marriage equality in California). These issues aren’t a priority for the current administration. How much harder is your job going to be? What can the average person do to make a difference?
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 hard to overcome. We’re seeing these toxic stereotypes play out on the national stage and the results are damaging. To upend this harmful status quo, we’ve got to challenge it daily in our communities, our schools, online, and in our larger politics.
As a consumer, be critical of the companies you buy from! Use our hashtag #NotBuyingIt to tell companies when their ads, merchandising, or values are missing the mark. Together, we’ve already effectively pressured companies like FOX News, Bud Light, Disney, and more.
As an employee, encourage your HR department to hold a workshop (you can use ours!) about reducing unconscious bias in the workplace and in hiring practices.
As a parent or guardian, encourage your children’s school to screen Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In and use our curricula to increase media literacy and social emotional learning. And of course, talk to your children directly about what is going on in the world, and the limiting stereotypes and narratives that are all around us. Awareness is power!
And overall, remember humans create culture, so we can change it.
Our goal with [The Representation Project] is to shape young people into lifelong advocates of equality for everyone.
You are deeply committed to supporting young women and have been involved in the Dove Self Esteem Project to the Girl Scout’s Healthy Media Commission, what do you think is the biggest issue facing young girls when it comes to how they are portrayed in the media?
The biggest issue is the underrepresentation of women behind the scenes. In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message girls receive – from an overwhelmingly male-driven media – is that a woman’s value lies primarily in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader. While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 33rd out of the 49 highest-income countries when it comes to women in the national legislature. And it’s not better outside of government. Women make up only 5.8% of S&P 500 CEOs and 17% of directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. So it’s no wonder studies show that the more media a girl consumes, the less secure she is and the fewer options she thinks she has in life. That’s why it’s incredibly important to talk to our kids and limit their exposure to negative representations, practice media literacy, and model positive behavior. And also, encourage more young women to get out there and tell their own stories!
In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message girls receive – from an overwhelmingly male-driven media – is that a woman’s value lies primarily in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader.
I’m sure you must get asked this question all the time but with so much on your plate how are you able to manage it all? Do you have any specific non-negotiables or time management tactics that you can share?
This is a great question because everyone, especially parents and caregivers, grapple with how to balance parenthood and a career. In the US, we still don’t have critical policies like paid parental leave, affordable childcare, and universal pre-K, which help parents all over the world better balance parenting and work. Now more than ever, it’s important we make our voices heard by the 115th Congress and support policy changes in 2017!
On a personal note, with four young children, I am still figuring out how to balance it all. I don’t always do a very good job of it and it’s pretty exhausting, but I am committed to being the best mom I can be and the most effective leader possible. It takes a village and I am grateful to the community of support I have around me. One important piece of advice I can give is to pick one activity that you like to do together with your kids, and commit to it – give yourself the space, and try to plan around that activity as much as you can. Last fall, I was my elder kids’ soccer coach. And this winter, I drove my kids to ski team in Tahoe. Those commitments were non-negotiable for me and became a really beautiful activity I got to share with my kids.
What’s your morning routine like?
Mornings can be hectic as a working mom of four, but I always try to take time to center myself through a short morning walk or some form of exercise after I drop the kids off at school. It’s a good way to get clarity on my day.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Peggy Orenstein’s new book Girls and Sex, on navigating sexuality as a young girl in today’s media landscape. In a culture where girls at such a young age are told their value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality, it’s critical we look at the forces that perpetuate that narrative and how it plays out on the development of a healthy sexuality. I am actually hosting a conversation with Peggy and Dr. Michael Kimmel on May 23rd to discuss how to raise healthy kids in a media-driven culture, which is what prompted me to get back into the book.
What is a good age to start talking to our kids about gender roles and gender inequality? How do you approach the topic with your own kids?
Our kids are socialized right out of the womb into strict gender roles. Boys are told not to cry or show emotion; girls to be pretty and like pink. As parents and caregivers, we play a critical role in encouraging our kids to be healthy and whole human beings and that includes supporting them to pursue their interests and not be limited by strict gender stereotypes. That conversation can start at any age. For example, I bought my son Hunter a doll because I want my sons to learn that empathy is not just for women. Care is not just for women. So we encourage all our children to be compassionate. In fact, my son Hunter is always the first to run to the fridge to get ice and a Band-Aid when someone gets hurt. As parents, let’s help all of our kids realize their expansiveness as human beings, and encourage them to be whole and stay true to their empathic, human selves.
Why is it so important that we talk to males especially young boys about gender inequality? How can the stereotypical boxes that boys are put in effect the way they view themselves and others?
The same limiting stereotype that tells women their value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality and not in her capacity to lead, tells boys they are valued for their power, dominance, and aggression. This status quo is perpetuated in kids’ toys, schools, and media and it harms us all. For example (and this statistic was shocking at first to me), the more media a boy consumes, the more sexist and violent his attitudes and behavior become. These changes in attitude and behaviors have real world consequences linked to depression, violence, and a host of other problems. And let’s remember that these damaging media portrayals don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are linked to a larger culture in the United States where women face systematic hurdles: where one in five women are victims of domestic violence, where one in four women are victims of sexual assault, and where women own vastly less wealth and earn vastly less money than men. That’s why together, we all need to challenge this toxic status quo to create a world that’s safer and healthier for all.
What effect can opening these lines of communication have for the future men of this world?
When researching for The Mask You Live In, we found that compared to girls, boys in the US are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit violent crimes, and/or take their own lives. These statistics are linked with how we, as a culture, are socializing our boys to be strong, tough, and not show emotion. Consider the startling stat that every day three or more boys commit suicide. And suicide remains the third leading cause of death for boys.
So when we support boys and young men in being their whole selves, finding the courage and conviction to stay true to themselves and not repressing their emotions, the effects are far reaching. Boys and men are happier and more engaged at home, in school, in their relationships, and in their place of work. They have healthier relationships. At work, they’re able to be more productive, because they don’t have to ‘don a mask’ of masculinity and instead can be their whole selves. Disrupting the gender narrative would make a profound difference for all of us.
3 pearls of wisdom
Support your kids in staying true to themselves and let them know they’re not limited by their gender.
Be conscious of, and set boundaries around, your kids’ media consumption, and discuss with them what they’re watching and why certain stereotypes might be harmful.
Model healthy relationships for your kids to encourage them to treat everyone with respect and compassion.