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'Miss Representation' director is aiming to change American culture

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 2:26 a.m. MDT

Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

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.

Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Sundance Film Festival) Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Sundance Film Festival)

"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.

 (Jennifer Siebel Newsom in Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival 2011 with her film \ (Jennifer Siebel Newsom in Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival 2011 with her film \"Miss Representation.\")

"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.

Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Sundance Film Festival) Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Sundance Film Festival)

"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.

Universities across the United States will screen the film to help students understand the impact of media on culture. With a hand from Common Sense Media, a 30-minute version will be prepped for high schools and middle schools, with appropriately tamed visuals for the younger audience (the film includes disturbing sexual images, some nudity and strong language). Screenings will also be arranged for parents to "educate and awaken them" and to give them talking points to use effectively with children.

Part of Siebel Newsom's strategy is reaching young people before another generation embraces old attitudes.

"We in America are almost blind to the subtleties of sexism," she said. "It is almost the norm now"

In the process of making the film, the director spent time speaking with young men and women, some of whom appear in the film.

"I was so blessed to speak to these young high school boys," she said. "These young men in particular know there is something wrong. It (media) is communicating to these boys that a women's sole purpose in life is to find love, but that (finding love) isn't shown as a value for boys. No wonder we have an imbalance. "

And although the film is about women and the media, Siebel Newsome doesn't limit the audience to one gender and believes the change she seeks will only come from efforts by both.

"This film is a film for men," she said. "It was one of the reasons I was so careful making sure there were men in the film speaking about what we need to do and how critical it is. I needed men to speak to how it isn't cool to demean women and disrespect women, or treat them as second-class citizens who aren't worthy of respect or positions of power."

The director is already thinking about follow-up projects that focus on similar issues at worldwide levels. During the fundraising stage of the film she discovered that foundations were more willing to fund international projects and that few, less than 10 percent, were willing to fund causes for women or girls.

"What about our own backyard?" she said. "And we are influencing other cultures. We export the worst of Hollywood culture around the world."

She believes media are mirrors of our society but reflect a distorted image. Her film reflects some of those images back to potential viewers — and she hopes it works as a tool for positive change.

"Most importantly, we should talk about this with men and women in our lives," she said. "We must empower each other; encourage men to see women as equals and not as threats. We will live in a better society if we encourage women to be in positions of leadership."

e-mail: lc@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company