Q&A with Jean Kilbourne: Internationally recognized feminist activist, filmmaker, author, and advertising critic

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Dr. Kilbourne! Thanks for speaking with us today. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Dr. Jean Kilbourne: I’ve always had a hard time describing what I do because I’m involved in so many different fields.  I basically invented my career and I need to come up with a name for it!  Mostly I say that I am a cultural theorist, a feminist activist, and a critic of advertising. For decades I’ve been studying how advertising and marketing contribute to a wide range of public health issues, such as violence against women, eating disorders, the sexualization of children, high-risk drinking, addiction, and other problems.  Usually when there is a public health problem, there is an industry (or industries) contributing to it and profiting from it, as in the case of the junk food, sugary beverage, and diet industries and obesity, for example.


MS: What was it like working on the first Killing Us Softly? How has your approach or perspective changed?

DJK: I made the first version of “Killing Us Softly” way back in 1979.  It was simply a filmed version of my lecture on advertising’s image of women.  It was done very cheaply, with one take and only one camera.  There was virtually no marketing but, in today’s language, it went viral and has gone on to become one of the most popular educational films of all time.  I’ve remade it three times, most recently in 2010.  Much of what I said in 1979 is still true, but I think my analysis has deepened and certainly the films are infinitely better technically.  Although they are still based on my lectures, we now use commercials and graphics and a range of film techniques – and several cameras!


MS: Your work with gender issues and media coverage is brilliant—especially the concentration on eating disorders. Do you think things are getting better or worse?

DJK: Thank you!  In terms of the image of women in advertising and the popular culture, things are getting worse.  The ideal image of beauty is more tyrannical than ever before, as is the obsession with thinness.  This is partly due to the widespread use of Photoshop to create impossible ideals.  The sexualization of children is worse and images of violence against women are more widespread and extreme.

Alarmingly, pornography has become our nation’s primary form of sex education. On the bright side, however, I was alone when I started speaking about these issues and my ideas were often considered radical.  Now these ideas are mainstream and there are countless individuals and organizations working on these problems.  So this is heartening.


MS: So Sexy So Soon demonstrates how scary our society really is for kids… What can we do each day to try and combat these issues?

DJK: The most important thing we can do as parents and caregivers is to talk with our children honestly and openly about sex and sexuality and relationships (in an age-appropriate way, of course).  Children need at least one adult in their lives with whom they can have authentic conversations.   We also need to lobby to change this toxic cultural environment.  It would be great if we could ban all advertising and marketing aimed at children (as some other countries have done) but,  since that’s impossible in our society these days, let’s at least get advertising out of our schools.  Let’s support organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, SPARK, the Brave Girls Alliance, and others.

I have an extensive resource list on my website (www.jeankilbourne.com)


MS: Was there ever a time in your career when you weren’t taken seriously?

DJK: Was there ever!  I began speaking at a time when some people still believed that women shouldn’t speak in public.  To make matters worse, I was a feminist talking about sexism.  Women are still taken less seriously than men (and there’s a whole lot of research backing up that assertion) but it has gotten better.  I had many jobs before I launched my career as an activist and public speaker.  I was a waitress, a secretary, a teacher, a saleswoman, a model.  And I was sexually harassed and discriminated against in every one of these fields.

MS: What are you currently working on? Is there a specific issue you’ve been drawn to recently?

DJK: I’m still lecturing and working on updating my presentations.  But I’ve begun to think about writing a memoir, maybe something about the making of an activist.  I’ve also been taking more time for personal travel.  In the past few years I’ve been to Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan, Morocco, and many other places.  My mantra these days is If not now, when?


MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

DJK: I’ve been so lucky to have many people in my life who inspired and helped me in a variety of ways.  Jean Baker Miller, the author of Toward a New Psychology of Women, was a friend and mentor, as was George Gerbner, a renowned researcher and professor.  My mother died when I was nine, so I’ll always be grateful to the mothers of some of my friends who made a bigger difference than they could ever know – especially Inez Emerson, Helen Perry, and Rosalie Cartwright.  In 1968 I had the great good fortune to begin therapy with a brilliant psychiatrist named Paul Russell.  I am not exaggerating when I say that he saved my life.  I’m also inspired and moved by all the people in recovery from addictions whom I’ve met along the way. And my daughter Claudia Kilbourne Lux and her friends give me hope for the future.


MS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

DJK: I’d just like to say that, although things often seem quite bleak and hopeless, I do think we are making progress.  And I’ve always believed that action is the antidote to despair.

Follow Jean on Twitter: @jeankilbourne
For more information, visit www.jeankilbourne.com

 

Q&A with Lois Lowry: author of THE GIVER and NUMBER THE STARS

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

Lois Lowry: I am a writer who does primarily books for young adults and middle-grade kids. It is my full-time job. I started doing this when my own children were teenagers.  Now, many years later, they are grown…and I have a 30-year-old grandson.  So I have been at this for a lot of years. My first book was published in 1977.

MS: Why is it so important for children to read? Did you read a lot as a child?

LL: Yes, I loved reading, as a child. In those days we had no TV!  Books, for me, were a primary pastime. It’s harder now for kids, with so many choices of how to amuse themselves, how to learn, how to spend time, to focus on books the way I did.  But I do think it’s important that kids read in order to develop their own imagination and creativity.

MS: You create very realistic characters… What’s your process for character development?  

LL: I don’t have any formal process. Characters appear, almost fully formed, in my imagination; and they continue to develop as I write the story.

MS: Your female protagonists are strong characters and great role models for girls. Is this intentional? Do you feel it’s important for children to have strong female role models?

LL: The fact that I am female accounts for the fact that most of my books…not all…have female protagonists. The fact that they are “strong characters” is because such it is necessary to the story always. The protagonist is the one who makes choices, who faces obstacles, who battles through to achieve a goal.  Male or female, that character has to be a strong one to engage the interest and empathy of the reader.

MS: Do you agree with the statement “Girls will read books with female and male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

LL: No, I don’t.  One of my books, NUMBER THE STARS, is very popular with boys, though the two main protagonists are both girls.  It may be a bit of a leap for a boy to pick up such a book…and it has a picture of a girl on the cover….but the important element for a reader of either gender is a compelling story.

MS: Was there ever a time in your writing career when you weren’t taken seriously?

LL: Probably when I was a housewife and the mother of four young children…and trying to write….very few people took my aspirations seriously. The important thing is that I did, always.

MS: How much time do you put into world building before you write a novel? How long did it take you to create your world in The Giver?

LL: Not much.  It builds as I write it…and as I go back and rewrite it.  The rewriting and revision is the important element. I discover the world as it creates itself. Then, as I begin to know it, I can go back and flesh it out.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

LL: Stuart Little. I love his indomitable optimism.

MS: What advice do you have for women aspiring to be authors, directors, producers or artists? 

LL: My advice would be to take oneself seriously and to focus on the craft. Not to think about achievement or success but rather the work itself, the joy one can take in it….and the joy one can give to others.

Q&A with Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham: Author of the Lolita Effect

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham: I’m a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa; my research specialization is feminist media studies, and I study and write about representations of gender and sexuality in the media.

MS: Why did you write the Lolita Effect? When did you become aware of these problems? Was there a specific moment?

MGD: I wrote the book for a few reasons: to draw attention to the issue of the sexualization of young girls in the media and the social repercussions of that phenomenon; to make a distinction between “sexualization” and more progressive, open, healthy conceptions of girls’ sexuality; and to translate my research and that of other feminist scholars into a form that was accessible and available to general audiences. I’m not sure I can identify a key moment when I became aware of the issue – it developed gradually, especially during the mid-1990s, when a number of studies were recognizing some of the complications and problems associated with girls’ adolescence in American culture. I began to wonder how the media were implicated in these problems.

MS: What’s the most important thing a parent can explain to their children about the media?

MGD: First of all, that the media, especially the entertainment media, are filled with myths — media images and messages are not “reality” but constructions that seem real, so they should be recognized as something close to fiction; and second, that these constructions of reality are tied to profit motives, so the representations are designed to maximize advertising revenues for the media industries and are not at all in the best interests of the audience members.

MS: Do you think that the media is changing? For better or for worse?

MGD: I can’t say I see any great changes, as the underlying structures — the dependence on advertising, the commercial motivations, the circulation of myths of femininity and sexuality — have stayed the same for decades now. But if anything, it’s getting worse: the media industries are targeting younger and younger children with sexualized and retrograde messages, and the constructions of “ideal” femininity have become even more unattainable and narrowly defined.

MS: Should we try to censor children from the media? Is this possible?

MGD: I’m absolutely not an advocate of censorship. I am much more in favor of open public discussions of important issues that could lead to pro-social change. But some form of regulation might be helpful; this is the case in Scandinavian countries, which are havens for free speech but which also recognize the developmental differences between children and adults.

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

MGD: I’m currently writing a couple of academic articles about sexual violence against women and girls. After that, I’m hoping to begin work on a book of essays about media and contemporary girlhood.

MS: How can people take action and try to change the media or advertisements?

MGD: Expressing your views directly to media corporations can be effective. Monitoring your media environment, as well as your child’s, to try to avoid misogynist and harmful media content is another step you can take. Boycotting products that use sexist advertising, and publicizing the boycott, is a good way to challenge sexism in popular culture. I’m also an advocate of media literacy programs that help people develop analytical skills so that they can be active media consumers rather than passive audiences.  I think media literacy should be part of every K-12 curriculum: in today’s media-saturated environment, it’s as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

MGD: That’s a really hard one! There are so many amazing women — and men — whose activism and brilliant social critiques have changed the world. If I started listing them, it would take all day! But my work is indebted to the work of all the feminists who have gone before me.

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

MGD: I’d say, let your passion guide and inspire you, and find ways to combine your energy and emotion with articulate analysis. Forge strong bonds with others who are working to change the world — coalitions and networks are important, not only in terms of making a difference, but in terms of emotional and moral support. Read the work of feminist activists whose insights offer depths of understanding as we try to tackle the world’s problems; the brilliance of our feminist foremothers will enrich your own work.  Get involved with grassroots groups in your communities, and start creating the work through which you want to share your vision: short films, essays, plays, dance performances, whatever. These days you can post your videos to Youtube or blog or submit your writing to local literary journals; eventually, you will gain a wider audience. Above all, keep striving for change — there’s so much to be done!

photo credit: Overlook Press

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.

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