Jennifer Siebel Newsom: Rewrite the story

Jennifer Siebel Newsom came to Sonoma Feb. 3 with a 2-year-old in tow, and a message for the media: “Rewrite the story.”

Newsom, who arrived in a family sandwich including her parents and one of her three children, told a packed crowd at the Sebastiani Theatre that “only 3 percent of media positions of power are held by women.” The ancillary conclusion, she said, was that 97 percent of what we watch, hear and read comes from a male perspective.

Newsom, nationally-known for the documentary film she produced and directed on gender bias in the media – “Miss Representation” – explored that theme in conversation with Sydnie Kohara, a Bay Area TV news anchor now living in Sonoma. Newsom’s husband, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, was scheduled to appear with her but was delayed on the East Coast by a snowstorm.

“You really can’t be what you can’t see,” Newsom said, reiterating the mantra of her core message. And what too many women can’t see in media representations, she said, is an image of themselves that can be taken seriously, that transcends body and beauty, that stands on an equal footing with men.

Newsom described her reaction upon opening a present for 2-year-old Hunter and finding a blue T-shirt with the printed message, “Future President.” She was struck, she said, by the fact that her older daughter Montana had received no such message.

The conclusion, she said, is that we are sending “very subliminal messages to our daughters, and to sons, right out of the womb, about who they can, and cannot be.”

But the messages in the media Newsom most objects to are anything but subliminal. Her 87-minute film, “Miss Representation,” is bursting with clips of gender stereotype spilling from the mouths of TV anchors, male and female. Among them is a clip showing Greta Von Susteren barking at Sarah Palin, “Breast implants? Did you have them or not?”

In another on-air clip, Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly asks a Fox correspondent, “You get a woman in the oval office, most powerful person in the world, what’s the downside?” The answer: “You mean, besides the PMS and the mood swings?”

Jane Fonda appears on camera to observe, “Media creates consciousness, and if what gets put out there that creates our consciousness is determined by men, we’re not going to make any progress.”

It is in this context that Newsom places the following statistics:

• U.S. women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar men earn.

• Women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population but only 20 percent of Congress.

• Worldwide, 71 countries have had female presidents or prime ministers, but the United States is not among them.

• Thirty-five women have served as state governors, compared to 2,319 men.

• Women own only 5.8 percent of U.S. TV stations and 6 percent of radio stations.

• Males outnumber females three-to-one in family film roles.

• Women make up about 37 percent of prime-time TV characters. Women 45 and older make up just 15 percent of prime-time TV characters.

• Only 20 percent of news articles are about women.

• In 2011, women comprised 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.

The success of “Miss Representation” inspired Newsom to leverage the film into an organization that is becoming a movement. She calls it The Representation Project and its goal is to expose injustices created by gender stereotypes in the media and in culture at large. One strategy for doing that, Newsom repeats, is to “rewrite the story.”

And one way the Representation Project is trying to do that is by employing marketplace pressure through a campaign they call, “Not Buying It.”

The idea is to inspire an army of consumers to pay attention to demeaning, gender-stereotyping media messages, to copy images of those messages on to their Twitter accounts, and then to send those images, with the message, “I’m not buying it” to each offending corporation or media outlet.

Newsom’s next film, “The Mask You Live In,” is a follow-up attempt to reveal the gender stereotypes that burden men and dictate a male culture in which “respect is linked to violence,” in the words of educator and youth advocate Dr. Joseph Marshall, who is quoted in the film.

According to research conducted for the film, boys in the United States are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with behavioral disorders, more likely to be prescribed stimulant medications, more likely to fail out of school, to binge drink, to commit a violent crime and/or take their own lives.

Again, repeated Newsom, it’s time “to rewrite the story.”

Information about The Representation Project can be found at therepresentationproject.org.