Meet Jennifer Siebel Newsom, filmmaker, advocate, mother.
By Katie Hewitt
Jennifer Siebel Newsom can’t be typecast.
She’s a writer, producer and director whose first feature documentary, Miss Representation, explores how women are portrayed in media. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.) Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, the film examines a culture that values female youth, beauty and sexuality while diminishing women’s potential as leaders. Public reaction to its message was a cry for more resources to support education and social action. And, a call to engage men and boys.
That same year, Jennifer launched what would become The Representation Project, a nonprofit with a mission to break down limiting stereotypes that fuel social injustice.
Newsom, 43, is certainly not confined by cultural norms.
The Bay Area-born, Stanford-educated filmmaker is also an actor, athlete and mother of four. She and her husband, California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, live with their children in her hometown. Raised just outside San Francisco—a city historically designated the heart of the sexual revolution—her own upbringing was traditional. She grew up in a nuclear family with her father at the centre—more Norman Rockwell than Gloria Steinem.
Encouraged by her father to play team sports, she partially credits this furious pursuit for her drive and leadership ambitions. Jennifer played for both the U.S. women’s junior national and Stanford’s varsity soccer teams.
In between undergraduate and graduate school, she worked for Conservation International—an environmental coalition—before transitioning to acting after graduating from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Her agent at the time told her to lie about her age (Jennifer had the audacity to turn 28) and take her MBA off her resume. “I didn’t do either,” she asserts.
In 2014, The Representation Project launched what became a viral campaign, #askhermore, a call to elevate red carpet interviews with Hollywood ingénues. Entertainment news hosts often question actresses about their glam squads instead of their careers; it’s one of the subtler signs of industry sexism.
By 2017, Hollywood had more to answer for.
Everywhere, men fell from ivory towers over mounting accusations of sexual harassment and assault. Prominent anchors Bill O’Reilly and Matt Lauer parted with their networks; actor Kevin Spacey was erased from a completed film. Renowned comedians, musicians and directors hit the ground. You might even say they were pushed out by a public sphere finally taking women at their word. “For the first time,” says Newsom, “sexual harassment and assault are being taken seriously.”
She calls it a “watershed cultural moment.”
Newsom penned her own response to the sexual-misconduct allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, the man whose scandal triggered the #metoo movement, including her personal encounters with the accused. Her op-ed—published in the Huffington Post—called for “no more open secrets.” She explains, “no more open secrets was a big theme in 2017 and that’s a testament to the incredible courage of the survivors [of sexual assault].”
All in all, was it a good year for the representation of women? Newsom says she’s encouraged by the record number of women who expressed interest in running for political office in the 2018 races at all levels of America’s government. Still, “We have work to do,” she says. “Women are 50 per cent of the population, and we give birth to one hundred per cent of the population. But we’re represented in [U.S.] Congress at about 20 per cent. Women CEOs make up 5 per cent of Fortune 500 companies and we’ve never had a woman president.”
But no more open secrets is a tipping point: “We can’t go backwards from this.” (Just days after we spoke, TIME Magazine named the “silence breakers” of the #metoo movement their Person of the Year for 2017). The first day of 2018 saw the launch of Time’s Up, a sexual harassment prevention initiative that included an open letter penned by hundreds of industry women, including Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes, and a legal defense fund for survivors to pursue litigation. Within the length of a week, it reached its initial target of $15 million and continues to grow.
Newsom wagers that things are changing. And she’s betting on the next generation, encouraged by her time as WE Day California Co-Chair and by The Representation Project’s own Global Youth Advisory Council. “It’s about creating a culture that lifts up our kids. A culture that sends messages of encouragement, of inclusivity, and of courage,” she declares. “But perhaps even more importantly, it’s about making sure that we engage young people as part of the conversation because they are both the recipients and creators of that culture.”
Meanwhile, her own immediate future is wrapped up in her next documentary, a film about how gendered values influence social and economic inequality in America. Still a working title, the doc is set to premiere in 2019.
Below, WE talks to Newsom about representation, open secrets and resolutions.
In Her Own Words: Newsom On…
How her childhood informed her ideas about giving back and standing up for others.
I am one of five girls. I lost my older sister in an accident when I was almost seven years old; she was eight. I blamed myself for her death, even though it was an accident. My mom, after that, said: “You have to be a leader, Jen.” I think I was honestly in a fog for a long time, but I’ll never forget that.
My dad encouraged me to pursue sports. I was on the international soccer team. People don’t think women can be as strong [as men]. They can, especially when you’re at the Olympic national team level. Sports taught me to be fearless, and the loss of my sister reminded me that I was given this gift of life and to make the most of it [she pauses, a bit choked up]—I’m sorry…
My life needed to be about more than just me.
At a very early age after she died [our family] went to East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, and I became enamored, not just with the culture and the beauty of the place but [with] the people and the vibe and the way of life. There were kids at the side of the road dressed in rags and begging for food. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t have food or that you wouldn’t have clothes to wear. I had a privileged upbringing in that sense. All of that led to me realize that I could do more with my life.
Raising kids to represent their whole selves.[Newsom has four children: Montana, eight; Hunter, six; Brooklyn, four; and Dutch, who turns two in February.]
I try to raise them to be human beings, not gender stereotypes. One of the outcomes is that Montana won’t wear dresses. I said [to her]: “Not even for the Christmas photo!?” She’s a total wild spirit.
Hunter is my love bug, very shy, we call him “Dr. Hunter.” Whenever anyone is injured in the house, he always runs to make sure they are okay.
Brooklyn plays with trucks and is super adventuresome. So I’ve taken [my work] home, by socializing the boys to [also] be loving and caring, and the girls to [also] be athletic and outdoorsy and not spend all of their time focused on their appearance.
Talking to kids about assault and “no more open secrets.”
We have to talk to our children about [the fact] that some people feel limited, and some people feel like they don’t have as much power as they would like.
At an early age, it’s about teaching our kids to reject stereotypes and being true to who they are. At the same time, we need to start talking to our kids about consent. No one should be touching my body and we shouldn’t be touching other people’s bodies [without consent].
As they get older, the conversations get more detailed.
A New Year’s resolution for women that doesn’t involve dieting, dating or dressing for your body type.
Get engaged politically; take representation seriously. We’ve got to channel our energy into any opportunity to make ourselves or someone else better. We women need to take leadership on that. And, we don’t need to be elected leaders in order to do that. We can be leaders at home, we can be leaders in our communities, leaders at school.
We have to transform culture and the only way to do it is if we are really engaged.