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Davis Institute tackles gender gaps in media

Women's Impact Report 2011

A typical night in the Geena Davis household involves the actress sitting down in front of the television with her daughter and twin boys for some tike-friendly programming. But Davis’ work follows her home as she finds herself asking her kids, “Why is that girl wearing that when she’s going to rescue somebody? Why wasn’t there a girl in that group …” Davis’ kids, familiar with their mom’s crusade, reply with, “Yes, yes, mom … we noticed! Not enough girls …”

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the “Thelma & Louise” star has become a public advocate for gender equality in today’s entertainment. Twenty years after that road trip pic became an instant feminist manifesto of empowerment, Davis champions a change in female media portrayals with her organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

“‘Thelma & Louise’ definitely had a big impact on me,” the actress says. “It really made me realize how few opportunities we give women to feel excited and inspired when coming out of a movie.”

Indeed, as the Institute’s research has shown, gender disparity in today’s media is undeniable. “I’m a big believer in data,” says Davis. “The data shows we’re not making strides.”

Founded in 2004, the Geena Davis Institute has worked with USC’s Dr. Stacy Smith and surveyed G-rated films from the past decade and found that for every three male characters in a film, there is only one female. And when it comes to characters in the workplace, the Institute’s pioneering Occupational Research study revealed that 80.5% of working characters were male, and only 19.5% were female.

Madeline Di Nonno, exec director of the GDI, notes that gaps like these display a dissonance between reality and what’s depicted as “real” scenarios in children’s media, as women actually represent almost half of the workforce in the U.S.

“How do we show children a more realistic view of the world?” she asks. “(Character) occupation in films is in complete contrast to the growth in the real world.” Furthermore, despite governmental worries about girls being under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math classes, “our youngest children are not seeing females with positions in these fields.”

A dearth of females exists behind the cameras as well. In a study spanning more than 1,500 creative execs in the biz, there were five males to every one female. And in categories like directors, writers and producers, females make up only 17% of the work force. This disparity has an exponential affect on content, as Di Nonno says, “If you have a female director or writer, you see an increase in female characters on the screen.”

When asked if the success of recent female-driven pics such as “Bridesmaids” could be signaling a shift in the entertainment biz gender gap, Davis remained wary.

“When ‘Thelma & Louise’ came out, the press predicted a wave of similar movies, but there wasn’t. The predictions happened with ‘A League of Their Own,’ ‘First Wives Club’ and others, but the trend didn’t materialize.”

The Institute’s research brings to light the media’s often unfounded optimism regarding the showbiz gender gap, as the 3:1 on-screen ratio has held steady since 1946, and the number of women behind the camera has even dropped in recent years, according to studies done by San Diego State’s Martha Lauzen.

“This, in my humble opinion, speaks to the fact that this gender imbalance is all we saw as kids,” says Davis. “You just don’t notice it. It has come to where having only one or two female characters looks normal because that’s all we’ve seen.”

The Institute’s strategy for facilitating change is to keep positive, open relationships with the studios.

Our philosophy is not to shame and blame,” says Di Nonno. Instead, the org meets with content creators to discuss ways to integrate a greater breadth of females into the character stratum. “They’ve been incredibly receptive from the beginning.”

Future goals and plans for the Geena Davis Institute include surveying PG-13 and eventually R-rated films, as well as tackling TV and other industries. For now, though, Davis and Di Nonno just hope to see “the needle finally move” when it comes to female portrayals on screen.

Their advice to content creators is simple: “Put it in the script!” Di Nonno continues: “We need the support of the industry to make this happen … we really want the creative community to put a gender lens on when they’re thinking about characters and situations moving forward.”

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