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Teaching About Gender Stereotypes: An Interview with Jennifer Siebel Newsom


Be a man. Don’t cry. Man up. That’s for girls. That’s not very ladylike. Smile.

What do you hear when you hear these words in your head? What do you feel?

Recently, Education World had a fantastic opportunity to catch up with Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Founder of The Representation Project, a non-profit organization pledged to “inspire individuals and communities to create a world free of limiting stereotypes and social injustices.” Her organization produced the highly-acclaimed film, Miss Representation, a documentary exploring how mainstream media and culture contribute to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence in America. Meanwhile, their more recent project, the award-winning The Mask You Live In, addresses the struggle of boys and young men as they navigate America’s narrow definition of masculinity.

Both films examine the sometimes devastating complexity of the role gender stereotypes and the media play in the development of our youth: power and social dynamics that can’t help but weave themselves through the locker rooms and hallways of our schools. As an educator, you might feel powerless against the leviathan that is our absurdly influential modern media. Students receive far more instructive messaging from their smartphones, computers, televisions, films, and advertisements than you could ever rival within the confines of your classroom. But not all of it is helping them to navigate their world. And facing national, state, and district pressure to align, standardize, and quantify, any educator might be apprehensive about tackling issues like gender, equity, and stereotyping in the classroom when there’s the Common Core State Standards to worry about. Today, Jennifer Siebel Newsom talks about her films, as well as the role of the classroom teacher in recognizing and upending these detrimental stereotypes.

Education World: To start, why is this your story and passion project? How did you come to the place where the messages being fed to our children (and adults for that matter) were something you felt you needed to take action on?

Siebel Newsom: I remember when I started out in entertainment at the ripe old age of 28, I was told by my male agent at the time to lie about my age and take my Stanford MBA off my resume. Well, I didn’t do either—but my confidence was really shaken as I realized that everything I had worked for and done in my life had no value in Hollywood (and remember—the entertainment industry not only informs American cultural values, but exports the lowest common denominator of those values to the rest of the world).

I knew I had to rewrite this story and find my own voice, particularly when I became pregnant with my first child, a girl. I had to do it, not just for my daughter, but for the countless other women who are told they are not enough and that their only value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality.

Education World: Why film?

Siebel Newsom: I have always felt that film is a unique medium that has the ability to reach people deeply, and really transform their understanding of different issues. So to do so, I made the documentary Miss Representation, challenging the media’s limiting portrayals of women and girls and addressing how mainstream media contribute to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.

The response to Miss Representation was powerful, but inevitably wherever I went with the film, there was someone in the audience who would ask, “But what about our boys? Isn’t there a boy crisis going on?” I started digging into the research and what I found was that compared to girls, boys were more likely to binge drink, be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, commit a violent crime, and take their own lives.

I was pregnant with a boy at the time, and not only did I not want my son to be one of these statistics, I didn’t wish those statistics on anyone. And I wanted to understand how he could be part of the larger gender equality solution. And so The Mask You Live In was born.

Education World: What are the challenges to bringing the stereotypes affecting our boys (in The Mask You Live In) to light? How are they similar or different from your experiences working with Miss Representation?

Siebel Newsom: You know, the challenge with The Mask You Live In as opposed to Miss Representation was that The Mask You Live In was really ahead of the curve in terms of discussing issues of masculinity. I think empowering our girls had rightfully been on the radar for many years before I made Miss Representation, and what made that film special was the particular connection it made between leadership, media, and culture and how we were misrepresenting the most powerful women in the world and undermining girls everywhere as a result.

With The Mask You Live In, while of course there were many incredible experts already talking about the issue, many of whom are in the film, the discussion at that point was really only an academic one and not a mainstream cultural conversation. One of my main goals with the film was to spark a national dialogue about healthy masculinity, and how our boys and men need to do the inner work to stay whole and ultimately become a part of the gender equality movement. And I think the film has really been successful in that regard which I am extremely proud of. But it’s always a challenge to be one of the first strong voices in a public conversation—people need more education and awareness, and aren’t as willing to jump in from the get go.

Education World: In your opinion, what has changed in the world so that we can now be so self-aware around gender issues? Why are these concerns being raised across our nation?

Siebel Newsom: It’s interesting. When we first started making our films almost no one was discussing these issues—especially with regard to healthy masculinity as I mentioned above. Now we see and are actively challenging limiting gender stereotypes everywhere from the White House to the sports field to the media at large.

The election was an interesting turning point for that reason. I couldn’t have scripted a presidential race that more aptly illustrates the limiting gender dynamics that my documentaries Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In so clearly expose and that we at The Representation Project are trying to overcome. On the one hand, we were so close to shattering the highest glass ceiling in this country—though in the end we were held back by our society’s double standards for women in power—as revealed in Miss Representation. And, on the other hand, we saw the dark underbelly of misogyny, racism, and toxic masculinity rearing its ugly head—a cultural value system we expose in The Mask You Live In.

I think we are seeing the dangerous effects of toxic masculinity play out in real time around us, and people are realizing that it’s not an issue we can ignore. Therefore, it’s critical we take meaningful action to overcome this status quo and this limiting narrative in our classrooms, media, politics, and beyond.

Education World: What are your recommendations to the English teacher, the Math teacher, the Science teacher who wants to explore and integrate these thematic pieces into their curriculum, but don’t know how to?

Siebel Newsom: Our kids are socialized into limiting gender stereotypes right out of the womb—from their toys, TV programs, everywhere! And this stereotype doesn’t get checked at the classroom door. Just consider that in elementary school, boys and girls are equally interested in STEM classes, but for many girls their confidence drops off in middle school leading them to pursue other interests.

In all other subjects outside of STEM, boys are actually falling behind. To that end, when a boy is socialized to believe that to “Be a Man” means physical dominance, sexual conquest, and economic success, we are discouraging him from pursuing interests that fall outside that narrow definition—like music, theater, literature, and other pursuits that aren’t considered traditionally masculine.

So we need all teachers to challenge these stereotypes in their classrooms by unveiling and deconstructing gendered values in media and culture and help their students develop social-emotional literacy. It’s incumbent upon every one of us to ensure students—regardless of gender, race, class, age, religion, sexual orientation, ability, or circumstance—can fulfill their human potential.

Education World: What would you say to the individual teachers (or districts) that worry about spending class time for this sort of work, especially with new rigor pushes, pressures linking funding to standardized testing, etc.? In other words, why make the time for this sort of curriculum when our system’s values are not quite always aligned?

Siebel Newsom: Education is the elevator to opportunity, preparing our children for the world, so it's critical that we challenge these limiting gender stereotypes in order raise the next generation as whole human beings, not stereotypes.

In my films and curricula, we look at how we, as a culture, value "masculine" traits such as dominance, aggression, and control over “feminine” traits such as empathy, care, and collaboration. This value system has real and far reaching consequences for us all from mental health issues and serious bullying, to the kinds of laws and policies that are enacted in our governments. Helping our kids to overcome this limiting narrative is essential to building a future where everyone can fulfill their human potential.

Education World: Gender is complex. How does the curricula (for both films) stay sensitive to the broader (non-dualistic) spectrum of “gender” being discussed right now? Should educators worry about alienating? Should educators worry about broaching these topics?

Siebel Newsom: I think that our curricula actually create an opportunity to have a safe discussion about these issues, and could ultimately create a more welcoming classroom than you would have if you did not broach the subject at all.

Our films and curricula focus on extreme and limiting gender stereotypes as a social construct, showing how bifurcating gender is part of the problem to begin with. We’re not just expanding the narrative of what it means to be a boy or a girl, but what it means to be a human being. We want everyone to know that they are worthy and beautiful, irrespective of gender, race, class, etc.

The premise is that humans create culture, so we can change it. We have the ability to change our culture one individual, one community, and one classroom at a time. The success of The Representation Project is proof that it’s possible.

Education World: I feel like a lot of teachers, administrators, and/or districts worry about tackling anything that is not directly associated with their Common Core State Standards. Who developed the curriculum itself? Were teachers involved? What was the process?

Siebel Newsom: We conducted nationwide evaluations and discovered that most schools are significantly struggling with bullying and a culture of divisiveness among students and even staff. Often times, there aren’t enough spaces to discuss these types of issues and integrate these discussions into the classroom.

After discovering a need for more resources to foster inclusive and diverse learning environments, we enlisted a team of Stanford educators, who are experts in gender and education, to create curricula that can be easily utilized in any classroom. We’re in the process of getting the curricula Common Core certified. Already, the social-emotional learning components and heavy focus on media literacy in our curricula have sparked the interest of thousands of teachers. Over 10,000 copies of the curricula have been distributed in K–12 schools and universities all over the country, and we are expanding our reach every day.

Education World: Any success stories to share from the curriculum implementation so far (for either the Miss Representation or The Mask You Live In curricula)? How are teachers, administrators, districts receiving this work?

Siebel Newsom: We speak with educators and district leaders on a daily basis who express their gratitude for what the films and curricula have done to improve student behavior, school culture, and so much more. In many cases, educators and health professionals are coming to The Representation Project by professional referrals. Our curricula are able to shift the dynamic of learning by helping educators, of all subjects, address the interpersonal issues that many of their students struggle with.


Take a minute and check out the curriculum for The Mask You Live In here, and get 20% off by using the code TEACHMASK at checkout!

If you’d like to learn more about the Miss Representation curricula, you can check it out here!



Interview conducted by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.