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California’s first ‘first partner’ talks Oscars, equity, toxic masculinity

Jennifer Siebel Newsom speaks following a screening of “Close” at the ODC Theater on Monday, March 7, 2023, in San Francisco. | Noah Berger for The Standard

Like many women, Jennifer Siebel Newsom wears many hats.

In Hollywood, she’s an award-winning filmmaker and documentary producer. In Sacramento, as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s spouse, she’s First Partner of California—a term she chose to counter the “First Lady” construction, which she sees as harmful and gendered. And at home, she’s a mother to four children—including two boys, who, like many young men, struggle with toxic societal expectations.

On Monday night, Siebel Newsom brought some political clout and Hollywood glam to San Francisco, coming out to support one of her favorite Oscar contenders during a special screening of Close, which is nominated for best international feature at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

The event, held at ODC Theater, also doubled as a fundraiser for the Mission-based dance institution

During a post-screening discussion with the film’s director Lukas Dhont, moderated by psychology professor and author Niobe Way, Siebel Newsom touched on the dangers of toxic masculinity in America and the challenges of raising sons in a culture that promotes unhealthy male tropes.

Siebel Newsom, founder of The Representation Project, which advocates for gender equality in media, research and education, also weighed in on the lack of female representation in certain categories at the Oscars—not one woman was nominated for best director at the 2023 Academy Awards. 

Jennifer Siebel Newsom (left), director Lukas Dhont and Professor Niobe Way discuss “Close” during a Q&A following a screening of the movie at the ODC Theater on Monday. | Noah Berger for The Standard

“The Academy needs to look around the room and see all of the talented women that just need a hand,” Siebel Newsom said, “and funding and the opportunity to tell their stories.” 

Siebel Newsom also shouted out Close as a counterpoint to society’s narrow views of masculinity, intimacy and friendship. The foreign-language film follows the unraveling of a friendship between two 13-year-old boys after their schoolmates suggest that the inseparable pair are an item rather than purely platonic pals. The scrutiny ultimately leads to tragedy. The film resonated with Siebel Newsom, not only as a filmmaker but also as a mother of four children, including two sons.

“I have two boys whose friendships are so beautiful and so deep and so raw. And as a mother, I saw that conflict and tension,” Siebel Newsom said. “It's such a beautiful, intimate portrayal of healthy relationships gone obviously awry because of our culture of toxic masculinities.”  

Newsom said that even in her family’s progressive home, she struggles to protect her sons from the toxic masculinity pervading society. Her 2015 documentary The Mask You Live In examined how narrow definitions of masculinity created a “boy crisis” in America by discouraging young men from engaging with their feelings, devaluing genuine friendships, degrading women and resolving conflict through violence.

I feel like we mothers have a responsibility to teach our sons intimacy and love. And, you know, it's challenging at times,” Siebel Newsom said. It breaks my heart that we're constantly socializing our boys with these masks of masculinity that don't just harm them, they harm us as a society.

Through The Mask You Live In, Siebel hoped to shine on light on how young boys could be encouraged to express their emotions, nurture deep relationships and offer a new narrative for how men could connect with others.  

“In all of my male friendships and the men that I'd had close relationships with, I always saw like a sadness or a disconnect,” Siebel Newsom said. They were sad or lonely, or they felt this pressure to conform to this sort of limiting narrative of what it means to be a man.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom (right), "Close" director Lukas Dhont and Professor Niobe Way stand for photos during a screening of “Close” at the ODC Theater on Monday. | Noah Berger for The Standard

While Gavin Newsom has yet to articulate a platform for an eventualif not imminent—presidential run, Siebel Newsom has already charted a course for her forthcoming films and The Representation Project.

Siebel Newsom—whose first documentary film, 2011's Miss Representation, addressed how women and girls are portrayed in the media—told the audience she’s working on what she described as "Miss Representation 2.0." The sequel will look at the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the impact of social media on young girls’ mental health. She's said she's also planning a film about the power of feminine wisdom to address the climate crisis.

She also says that she wants to do a sequel to The Mask You Live In to analyze the reactive and destructive masculinity that continues to harm boys and men.     

“I was hoping to be done making films and not have to have an organization that's educating young people around all these limiting narratives that they're being fed,” she said. “But with progress, then there's that backlash. And so I feel like we have a lot of work to do.”

Editor's Note: The Representation Project gave it's share of the proceeds from the event to the ODC Theater.

Christina Campodonico can be reached at