Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom (right) and Devanshi Patel (left) in Siebel Newsom's documentary, "Miss Representation"
Lately, it seems the entertainment industry is doing alright by women: Tina Fey won the Kennedy Center's top humor award in 2010, and Bridesmaids, written by and about two ladies, earned loads of accolades this year (and was actually deemed funny by male critics). But the dirty truth prevails that whenever women show up on TV shows and movies, they're usually seconds away from being objectified, degraded, or flat-out ignored. For every "Hermione," there are a dozen "Snookis" duking it out over the guy du jour. It's a reality Jennifer Siebel Newsom intends to make loud and clear in her new documentary Miss Representation, which airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network tonight at 9 EST.
A Stanford MBA graduate and former Hollywood actress, Siebel Newsom began making the film when she got pregnant with her daughter (daddy is California's lieutenant governor, Gavin). "I wanted my daughter or son to live in a world where women are valued," she says.
The documentary harnesses a wealth of clips, interviews, and statistics to show that women are being depicted on TV and online as poorly as ever, with dangerous potential side effects for girls sitting on the other side of the screen. Among the film's shocking stats is the claim that 65 percent of women suffer from disordered eating behavior, and many times as a result of comparing their own looks to those of airbrushed models. The problem lies behind the camera, as well: While the average teenage girl consumes upwards of 10 hours of media a day, women hold just 5 percent of clout positions in the industry.*
And yet, the energy surrounding Miss Representation suggests that plenty of TV and movie lovers want to see change. A stereotypically female quality—being social—may be the perfect secret weapon; Siebel Newsom cites the film's social media fans ("at one point people were tweeting about us every second") as a crowd force with potential to spark critical conversations about women in media around the world. "We're striking a nerve," she tells me breathlessly. "I'm optimistic."
Mother Jones: In terms of the attractive class of women that we are all often trying to measure ourselves up to, you sort of fit that mold. You're tall and classically good-looking. How has that helped or hindered you as you try to deliver a message of acceptance about all body types and appearances?
Born in Sri Lanka and settled in Toronto, author and poet Michael Ondaatje has been messing with genre for the past 40 years. In his 1970 hybrid novel, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, he layered lyrical poetry, news clippings, photos, and narrative fragments to create a palimpsest of a Wild West hero. Coming Through Slaughter's form echoed the improvisational jazz that its protagonist played. And while it is less apparently experimental, it's hard not to mention The English Patient, the book and later film that launched him into international stardom.
For The Cat's Table (in bookstores Tuesday), he reimagines his personal history, which would make great fodder for a memoir, but, as he puts it, "What is nonfiction? If a politician writes of his life, and he decides to talk about A rather than X, he's fictionalizing it. A book is full of omissions." Instead, Ondaatje offers a lush, imaginative account of three roguish boys wreaking havoc on a ship bound for England, amid a sea of circus performers, thieves, and outcasts.
Mother Jones: I've just finished The Cat's Table. It was more lighthearted than what I'm used to reading from you—very enjoyable.
Michael Ondaatje: It was a pleasure for me to write too. I wrote faster than my usual books. It felt different and looser.
MJ: You've called it a novel, but the main character is Michael, and you also moved from Sri Lanka to London as a kid. Can you tell me more about your own voyage?
The announcement last week that the Obama administration will require health insurance plans to cover preventative health care for women at no additional cost elicited whoops of joy from females all over the country. The idea that contraception will be fully covered was an especially celebrated point; Mother Jones blogger Jen Quraishi heralded the occasion as "a momentous day," and Jezebel happily noted that it was time to "kiss your co-pay goodbye."
Not everyone found the rule change so invigorating. That's because the new regulations contain a religious refusal clause, also known as a "conscience clause," exempting "certain religious employers" from having to cover the cost of contraception in employees' insurance plans if doing so would contradict the employer's belief system. The proposed conscience clause defines a religious employer as a nonprofit organization that "has inculcation of religious values as its purpose" and primarily employs and serves people who share its religious tenets. Religious groups say that language is far too weak and might force some religious institutions that don't want to provide birth control to women to do so anyway. Women's groups, meanwhile, are arguing that the language shouldn't be there at all.
Two weeks ago, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued a new set of stringent guidelines for abortion clinics. Under the new requirements, the three remaining clinics in the state would have to make enormous structural changes to their buildings and obtain new certifications in just two weeks or face possible closure. These types of laws are known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, and critics say they're intended to make it almost impossible for clinics to operate.
But despite the new rules, abortion rights activists aren't giving up: On Tuesday, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of one of the remaining Kansas clinics, the Center for Women's Health, which is run by a father/daughter duo who practice in Overland Park.
Director Andrew Rossi opens his doc with shots of clunky presses spitting out broadsheets—footage that feels dated, and that's the point. He catches the Gray Lady at a moment when print is waning and the bosses are scrambling for ways—a paywall?—to survive the impending digital era. Rossi becomes "part of the furniture" at Times HQ as journos mull the value of Twitter, whether to publish WikiLeaks docs, and how best to cover the demise of newspapers. And while the film's big unanswered questions might leave viewers feeling untethered, the paper's personalities—from editors' goofy antics to reporters coaxing sources into going on the record—leave us believing that all the news that's fit to print isn't doomed quite yet. "Of course we will survive," insists media columnist David Carr, the film's smack-talking star. "You," he reminds his fellow journos, "are a bunch of tenacious motherfuckers!"