Sundance 2011: Is the media keeping women out of politics?


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If you think we’re in the midst of historic times for women in politics with Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and even Sarah Palin on the national stage, one documentary at Sundance is urging you to think again.

That was the message that came through at a Saturday screening of ‘Miss Representation,’ a documentary about the objectification of women in the media and how that relates to their career choices and political activism. The film, directed by former actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom (and now wife of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom), played at the Yarrow Theatre to an older crowd made up mostly of women.


The documentary opens with the director’s narration, as she explains that her impetus for making the film came when she found out she was pregnant with a girl. She was worried about the type of world her daughter would grow up in, she said, and wanted to attempt to change the negative female stereotypes she encountered frequently on television, at the movie theater and in tabloid magazines.

Paris Hilton, the debaucherous women of ‘The Bad Girls Club’ and ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’ are all included in a roundup of media clips depicting women as promiscuous or catty. A stellar lineup of prominent women leaders and academics ranging from Katie Couric to Gloria Steinem appear throughout the film to comment on these (mis)representations.

After the film, some of the movie’s talking heads gathered to speak on a panel, where the environment felt like a town-hall rally. Actress Geena Davis presented a number of statistics about how poorly women come across in children’s media, such as in Disney films. James Steyer, head of Common Sense Media, suggested the film be shown to the heads of media conglomerates, many of which have a tiny percentage of women on their company boards.

‘We have to shame them, period. It’s disgusting,’ he said, almost shouting. ‘Bob Iger, Philippe Dauman, Jeff Bewkes, you know what, they need to watch this. ... That is the power structure in the media industry.’

Gavin Newsom, previously the mayor of San Francisco, did not participate in the panel discussion, instead lingering in the back of the room, looking on proudly at his wife.

He told us his spouse had been hard at work on the documentary for two years, calling the night she found out she was accepted to Sundance an ‘indelible’ moment.


‘She had no idea if she would get in, and she was feeling down and wasn’t even feeling very well and she was about to go to bed early, and all of a sudden I hear this giant scream in the other room,’ he recalled. ‘I said, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ And she’s crying. I’m like, ‘My God, what happened?’ And she said, ‘We got into Sundance!’ And that alone was an extraordinary validation of what went into this.’

Her efforts also have made him reflect more on women’s role in government and the media, he said.

‘I remember showing her a new logo that our Recreation and Parks Department did of a kid swinging on a swing, and I brought it home and I said, ‘Guess what I did?’ ‘ he said. ‘I put a little ponytail on the kid, and I said, ‘We just changed it, because you sensitized me to these gender issues.’ ‘

--Amy Kaufman

[For the record, 8:19 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled Hillary Clinton’s first name as Hilary and Philippe Dauman’s first name as Phillipe.]



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