Jennifer Siebel Newsom on gender stereotypes and toxic language: "The opportunity here is to unveil the damage of fearmongering"

Salon talks to the woman behind the Representation Project about men, women and where we go now

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 17, 2016 5:34PM (EST)

Jennifer Siebel Newsom   (Andrew Paynter)
Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Andrew Paynter)

We'd better get busy, America. We have more work than many of us even imagined. Last week's election made it abundantly clear that we have significant glass ceilings to smash and that misogyny is alive and well and normalized at the highest levels.

So let's get moving. Let's talk to our kids. Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom has a few ideas.

Newsom is the documentarian behind the groundbreaking 2011 documentary "Miss Representation," which explored how the media shoehorns girls into gender roles from an early age. It was followed by 2015's "The Mask You Live In," which looked at the story from boys' point of view. She's also the founder and CEO of the Representation Project, which seeks to find ways to challenge and overcome gender stereotypes. And as the wife of California Lieutenant Governor of California Gavin Newsom and mother to two sons and two daughters, she also knows firsthand about how to navigate these things in the real world.

Salon spoke to Newsom recently about her projects, this pivotal moment in history and where we are now and where we go from here.

One thing I would like to believe is happening now is that men are beginning to understand that they have a role to play in this conversation. We cannot move forward if all gender and sexism issues are just seen as women's problems to deal with and to solve. And you are talking about that.

You took it on first with girls and now you're looking at it with boys. Tell me in terms of this past year, what are some of the things you think have really changed? Part of me is very concerned how emboldened the misogynists are. But then the other side is that we're having this conversation about masculinity.

I would say that this election season has burst through the ugliness, the underbelly of misogyny in our society. That's a blessing and a curse. The curse is clearly that we've seen the most vile, horrific misogynistic behavior and that's on our screens 24/7. You really can't avoid it because the media just repeats it and to some extent propagates it for eyeballs and attention.

That is in its own way extremely damaging. The beauty of it, though, is that because we've now unearthed it, we can name it. Now we have this opportunity to re-create culture, to out the problem and then start taking steps in terms of the solution.

That's really what we do at the Representation Project. We out cultural problems and then give people little steps and actions they can take vis-à-vis educating them to combat the problem and ultimately provide solutions.

When you're having these cultural conversations where people are standing up and speaking, that's where we can move forward and change. You're looking at these things . . . right from birth.

We have been socializing our kids right out of the womb to believe where their value lies. We've been socializing our girls to believe that their value lies in their youth, their beauty and their sexuality — not in their capacity to lead, not in their agency. We've been socializing our boys to believe their value lies in power, dominance, control and aggression at the expense of empathy, care and collaboration.

We've literally said, "Boys, your value is economic dominance, financial success, sexual prowess and athletic achievement." Boys learn early on their value. It's how parents pressure their boys at early ages to play sports, like that's what it means to be a man.

Before they're even walking. Boy onesies have little footballs on them, and the girl ones have kittens. What are we telling them before they even have awareness of what the message is? It happens before birth. And then they go off into college and the workforce and shocker: There's a problem. So what do we do now?

Right out of the gate, we need to socialize our boys and girls as human beings not as gender stereotypes. Gender, as we know, is a social construct. Even if it's true that on a spectrum — and I'm generalizing here — boys maybe are more physical, some boys aren't — just as some girls are more physical. So at the end of the day, we're all human beings. A lot of studies indicate that boys are more sensitive at birth than girls and that we socialize that sensitivity out of them.

What do we need to do to combat that straightjacket of gender stereotypes that we put our kids into? We need to encourage our boys to play with dolls and stuffed animals and nurture them, and learn that caregiving and nurturing and love and empathy are not just feminine pursuits. We need to encourage girls to not only play with dolls and dress up, but to build things and play with Legos and trucks and be physical and go out there and kick a ball.

You've got to expose your kids. Ultimately they'll gravitate to what they're more comfortable with, and that's great. That's what you want to nurture. We want to give them that expansive opportunity to be a human being and not a stereotype.

Our boys are born with empathy just like girls. The socialization process that starts at the earliest of ages — it tells boys not to cry, toughen up, be a big boy, be a man or "that's a girl thing." They're ultimately led to believe that anything feminine is not appropriate or it's less than. It creates this battle inside themselves where they're denying and disconnecting from parts of themselves, and that's extremely hurtful.

Then we see the extreme outgrowth of that is this reactionary violence against women.

And against themselves. Young men are more likely to complete the act of suicide than girls. Compared to girls, in the U.S., boys are more likely to be diagnosed with behavior disorders, are more likely prescribed medication. They're more likely to binge drink. They're more likely to be expelled from school. They're more like[ly] to commit a violent crime, and they are more likely to take their own lives. These are frightening statistics. What we've finally uncovered is that this straightjacket of gender stereotypes we're asking our boys and girls to conform to is harming our boys as well.

I feel sorry for Trump. Don't get me wrong. The man is evil. But there's something wrong with him. Clearly he was socialized in such a toxic way that he's not even conscious of his own inner pain and disconnection and suffering. He's just sort of acting out on others and is in some ways very childlike and hasn't matured in some respects.

This is part of conditioning. And we're all responsible for that behavior. He's not the only one, in other words. He's not the only misogynist. He's not the only predator. He's not the only racist. He's not the only bigot. He's clearly unleashed that inside of so many people.

It's brought us to this place where it's been outed, and we should be a little scared in our country because we have a lot of damaged souls and we have a lot of angry people and we clearly have to do the work and find our common humanity to move forward.

Our argument is that we have to do it with all the adults because we're the ones who hold the reins of power right now. We have to think seriously about the ways we're socializing our children. These adults were once children and you can create a pattern, but it requires consciousness. Unfortunately, I feel people are so far down that road of anger and denial and disconnection that it's going to take a really long time if we're ever going to get back into the center of where we all are, which is rational empathy and pragmatism.

I try to look at the progress that has been made. For our kids, the issue of who they can marry is not up for grabs. I took my daughter to see "Loving" and she saw there was a time in this country you couldn't marry a person based on race. In her lifetime, there was a period you couldn't marry a person based on gender. Normal for them is "You will marry the person you love."

I do believe in the possibility of changes in terms of the respect we give to each other. Now after decades of the women's movement, I feel we've entered a new phase of the conversation where it really is about gender and it's not just about "women's problems." What are the ways that men are being held back and hurt by traditional gender roles, whether it's family leave or flex time or sexual assault? The first step is just the naming it.

At the end of the day, it's really about the root of the socialization. The value systems that we raise our kids with start at the very beginning. We have a lot of work today in our country in terms of nonviolent communication with our children and nonviolent socialization and really nurturing our boys' empathy just as we nurture our girls' courage. All of these things you're seeing among older children and adults — that's all a result of socialization that starts at the earliest of ages.

I argue that so much of this is related to that gender hierarchy of patriarchy, of the oppressor and the oppressed, and how we have to dismantle it as a country. It does start with saying it and outing it and being conscious of how we communicate with our children, the relationship we have with them, the dialogue, the constant communication and listening — listening to who they truly are, helping our boys stay true to their emotions just as we help our girls find their inner courage and agency outside of manipulating their own bodies. There's a lot of dismantling and disruption that has to happen.

When you heard throughout this year, "Can you imagine taking orders from her," it's like misogyny in human form. Yeah, I can imagine it. I imagine it all the time.

For our boys in particular it's about partnership. With "Miss Representation," I think, fathers and daughters all over world started to go, "Wow, I didn't realize this. I need to be part of the solution. I need to create a better corporate culture and a better environment in our community that's safer and more respectful to women."

Then with "The Mask You Live In" being born, we saw more men who had been doing this work for a long time but didn't have the platform to have other men hear about it. That was the beauty of it. We walk men and boys through the socialization process that was so familiar to them. I can't tell you how many men have said, "That was me; that was my experience."

The men learned the damages done to them, the masks that they were told to wear to fit in to be a man. But when they're able to unleash that, they learn there's so much more value in partnership. At the end of the day, that is why I'm so excited. This is really about partnership. This is the best of feminine attributes and the best of masculinity and the best of humanity coming together in search of our common humanity. That's the only way forward.

That's what's been so disheartening about the toxicity that's been unleashed in such fervor and abusive language. That demonstrates how far we have to go to bring those people back around to be able to have a conversation. At least we've made it; at least it's out there. OK, we've got our work to do. We really have to focus on those communities that are so angry and so misogynistic and so racist and help them reconnect with their true selves, their empathic selves, their loving selves. We have to find a way in. There's no other way around it.

The opportunity here is to unveil the damage of fearmongering, which the GOP in particular but also the far left have said, and to dismantle the idealogical mindset of individualism where one assumes that in America you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and succeed — and that everybody can pull themselves up.

Part of what's going on is this mentality of scarcity and there's not enough room. All of the people who are angry feel that things are being taken away from them. That's a very patriarchal mindset. It's a very toxic masculinity mindset. It's all about the individual; it's about the individual gain.

We have to come back around to valuing the community and finding connection in community. It can't just be in churches, although that's one place. It's got to be with people of different walks of life and different mindsets. Diversity creates a more valuable conversation and solves problems.

The more diversity you have in the room, the greater the creativity and productivity in terms of problem-solving, success and outcomes. We have this opportunity right now, but we have to disrupt the narrative. It can't be about the individual. It can't about about separation. It has to be about there's room for all of us. There's a lot of damage we have to address — and a lot of healing that's required for all of us.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Feminism Gender Jennifer Siebel Newsom The Representation Project