Q&A with Jennifer Siebel Newsom: Director of Miss Representation

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Melissa Seymour: Hi, Jennifer! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: I’m the writer, director and producer of Miss Representation, a 2011 documentary that challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman or girl to feel powerful herself. In conjunction with the release of Miss Representation the film, I launched MissRepresentation.org, an organization being renamed this fall to The Representation Project. I continue to write, direct and produce documentaries while also running The Representation Project.

MS: What is the long-term goal for Miss Representation?

JSN: Our mission is to transform culture so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, age or circumstance can fulfill his or her potential.

MS: Do you think it’s important for women to reach out to one another and mentor each other?  Did you ever have a mentor in your field?

JSN: Miss Representation actually wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many female friends mentors and a few good men. The eventual film was the result of a lot of hard work, passion, and collaboration. I hope that it stands as a testament to what a small group of committed individuals can accomplish together – a testament to the power of the collective.

Early on I approached my friend Regina Kulik Scully with the concept for the film and she really encouraged me to move forward with production. She came on as an early executive producer and trusted me completely. I am so grateful for her friendship as I am to my film team’s hard work, support, and belief in me. The film is filled with the stories of inspiring females who prove, over and over again, that our potential is really unlimited – especially when we support each other and work together. Many of our interviews from Miss Representation remain friends, supporters, and role models to me and the org.

MS: How does having experience as an actress affect how you view the media?

JSN: As an actress I witnessed the injustice towards women in the media first-hand. It’s not just in front of the camera that we see these demeaning images and stereotypes, but the treatment of women behind the scene is just as limiting.

There are so few opportunities for women to excel as writers, directors, and producers in Hollywood – the influencers of which stories get made. Wanting to change this culture was a big motivation for Miss Representation and remains a goal of the organization.

MS: You’ve mentioned that when you were acting, people treated you differently due to your degrees from Stanford University and Stanford Business School. Could you expand on this?

JSN: My first agent didn’t take me seriously and went so far as to request that I take my Stanford MBA of my resume – he didn’t want me to seem too threatening. Ironic that he had no problems diminishing me however.

MS: What are you planning to work on in the future?

JSN: I’m currently writing, directing, and producing The Mask You Live In (MASK) and The Great American Lie, documentaries that explore American masculinity and the social, political, and economic consequences of a society that values dominance, power, control, and aggression over empathy, care and collaboration. MASK itself explores “the boy crisis” in America that results from extremes of masculinity imposed on our boys and men.  Both films examine the intersection of gender, race, class, and circumstance, and how kids are further influenced by our education system, sports culture, and mass media– especially violent video games and pornography.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

JSN: Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton, and my husband, Gavin Newsom.

MS: Do you have any advice for young women that are hoping to become actresses, directors, producers, or writers?

JSN: The most important thing is to be passionate about whatever you do and be true to your authentic self.  Find that thing that you love that you also happen to be good at and don’t look for outside affirmation. Most importantly, don’t leave your values and morals at the door.

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Q&A with Brenda Chapman: Director of the Pixar film Brave

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Melissa Seymour: Hi, Brenda! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Brenda Chapman: I’m a mother, writer, director, artist and storyteller.


MS: What was it like co-directing the Pixar film Brave?

BC: Well, first, I didn’t co-direct. I was sole director of the film until I was replaced in the 11th hour. Sorry, it’s a bit of a sticking point for me. 🙂


MS: What challenges did you face?

BC: Well the big one is my answer above. I faced the challenges that most directors face – creating a compelling story, creating good characters – it just doesn’t come that easily. Also when you have many notes coming from many different people above you, it’s hard to hang on to your vision as the director.


MS: What made this project so rewarding?

BC: That despite it all, in the end, it was still the story I’d been struggling to tell. That I could still see my daughter in Merida – she inspired the character – and that the mother/daughter story seemed to resonate with so many people, not just women. I’ve had many letters and emails from mothers and daughters who relate so much with the characters, and I also have received quite a few from men who love that they can see their mothers, wives, sisters or daughters in Merida and Elinor… or themselves in Fergus. 🙂


MS: Tell us a bit about the A Mighty Girl’s “Keep Merida Brave” campaign. Why is it so important to 
keep Merida her child-like, stubborn, strong-willed self?

BC: Because she’s a different kind of princess – one girls can relate more to than the pretty, helpless heroines of the past. She goes out and gets what she wants. She makes big mistakes and has to try to put them right, and learns something about herself … and her mother… along the way. To change her to look like the other princesses of Disney past is to say she isn’t good enough as she is. That’s a horrible message to send to children.

And I hope no one tries to make another Merida. There are so many different types of characters that girls can be – let’s discover them! Let’s inspire girls with all the different possibilities – lets explore different stories in which girl protagonists can struggle and shine through.


MS: Why are campaigns like #BraveGirlsWant important?

BC: Young girls have so long been fed these stereotypically passive characters, sexualized characters, marginalized characters – it’s time to say “Hey! That’s enough!” We need to stand up for ourselves and not let society and the media try to make us less than who we are.


MS: How can we increase the number of women directors?

BC: Getting the men who run the studios to crack open their minds and give more women the opportunity. Or getting more women to run the studios. I know there are plenty of talented women out there who would be ready and willing to take on either job!


MS: Do you think it’s important for women to mentor other women in their field?

BC: Of course! And I think the majority of women do. I know it’s said that women tend to scorn other women in the workplace, but I have  yet to see that. Maybe it still happens, but I think the more we bring this issue forward, the less that will happen.

It’s important to mentor, but also important to set an example. Our failures are just as important as our successes. We have to show how we handle adversity, so when the younger women and girls come up against it, then they can look to us and say, “If you can do it, we can do that, too!”


MS: What are you currently working on?

BC: I’m developing a couple of projects for DreamWorks Animation… can’t tell you anything about them, unfortunately.


MS: What do you hope to work on in the future?

BC: Stories with female protagonists. In the past, I never thought about it that much, but after everything surrounding BRAVE, I realize that it’s sorely needed. I may make films, I may write books. I’m looking forward to it all.


MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

BC: My mom.


MS: Do you have any advice for young women striving to become directors, producers, or writers?

BC: Don’t give up. When you get knocked down, get back up. Watch movies, read books, love your art.

photo credit: http://www.hdwallpapers.in/walls/disney_pixar_brave-wide.jpg