'Miss Representation' director is aiming to change American culture

Published: Thursday, Jan. 27 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

PARK CITY — Jennifer Siebel Newsom has a pretty ambitious item at the top of her "to do" list each day. She wants to make deep and fundamental change to American culture.

"I always set my goals really high," she laughed in an interview with the Deseret News, talking about her Sundance Film Festival entry, "Miss Representation."

"I am guilty of that."

The changes she hopes to make are about how we entertain ourselves, how we think and how we interact.

As of the midpoint of the Sundance Film Festival, her documentary about how media portrays women and girls — and how that affects males and females — remained unsold. The first-time director is confident a deal will get done and insists the release will be across many platforms: broadcast, theatrical and digital.

"We have to combat the challenge we have in front of us from all angles," she said. "You have media that is coming at you 24-7. There is no sort of shield or buffer to protect our kids from this onslaught. With the Internet, iPhones, all the channels and networks, and billboards and Facebook, there isn't anywhere they can go now where they are not going to be sold to."

Siebel Newsom believes one of the messages being peddled is that a woman's value stems from her looks and her sexuality, and this attitude isn't different from her real-life experiences.

She graduated from Stanford University where she was an accomplished athlete and scholar. She studied third world development and saw firsthand women in Africa and South America often treated as second-class citizens. Following her passion for the arts, she landed roles in Hollywood and saw similar attitudes about women on both sides of the camera and in the finished product.

"I went to the multiplex and I always saw these male-driven films. Women characters that I did see were flat and uninteresting."

She was uninspired as an artist and then shocked as a citizen by the 2008 election campaign and its scorn of women like Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and the spouses of the male candidates. Female political leaders were labeled with derogatory slurs and were dismissed, even in the top levels of mainstream news. She also faced raising her own child, born in 2009, in a world with such attitudes.

"I couldn't imagine raising a child in this culture," she said. "It is the lowest common denominator. It is sensationalism. Who can get the most eyeballs? Everything is the extreme.

"I was enraged. I felt this great sadness and so I needed to channel my energies to awaken people to what is going on in our country. We are sending really unhealthy messages about what it means to be a woman."

From those observations and emotions, "Miss Representation" was born to educate and eventually change the powerful media message and cultural norms regarding a person's worth. She also favors government intervention when possible.

"The media isn't another piece of hardware," she said. "It isn't some toaster oven the way we thought it was in 1980s. Media communicates our culture. It has a tremendous responsibility. It dictates our culture norms. If we want to live in a better world, we have to change the media."

Cynics might dismiss the filmmaker's lofty goals as idealistic or na?e. After all, artists have always dreamed about changing the world, but Siebel Newsom isn't wishing.

She is planning.

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