Geena Davis didn’t intend to become the voice of female rights in Hollywood and beyond, but perhaps it was inevitable.
“I have, for most of my adult life, been drawn to causes that empower women and girls,” says the “Thelma & Louise” star. But it wasn’t until nearly 13 years after the release of that seminal women’s empowerment pic that she decided to take real action.
“What happened in 2004 was that my daughter was about 2 years old and I started watching little kids’ programming, like G-rated videos and movies,” says Davis. “And I was floored to see what I perceived to be a huge gender disparity in these things that were aimed at little kids. So I picked up on this right away, but I didn’t intend to make a whole life’s mission out of it!”
But Davis couldn’t get the lack of positive female images — or the fact that often there were no female images at all — out of her head.
“I simply started asking friends if they were noticing. And I’d say, ‘You know in that G-rated movie that just came out, did you notice that there was only one female character in the entire movie?’ And they would not have noticed. No one noticed, until I said something,” she recalls.
“So then I decided that I would see what people in the industry said. So whenever I had a meeting with a producer or a studio head or somebody, I would say, ‘Have you noticed how few female characters there are in G-rated movies?’ And pretty much to a person, they would say, ‘Oh no, no, that’s been fixed.’ This all made me realize that I needed to get data, if I am going to have any impact, because clearly people aren’t recognizing it or think the problem has already been fixed. So that’s what led me to launch this whole thing.”
The result is Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which the actress founded in 2004. “It started by sponsoring the largest research study ever done on G-rated films and television shows made for kids 11 and under, a study done at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, by Dr. Stacy Smith,” says Davis. That first study showed the gender gap hadn’t been fixed at all; in fact, the data her institute collected back in 2006 showed “TV and movies is a world with only 17% female presence in them.”
Using funds gathered from Davis’ own pocket, as well as from “foundations, private donations and philanthropists, all of which fund the organization and the research,” the institute has been crunching and disseminating the numbers to Hollywood decision makers ever since.
Now, eight years since they began, comes the third Annual Symposium on Gender Media, taking place today at the SLS Hote. It’s a gathering that brings together Hollywood decision makers, both male and female, from all the studios, networks and beyond.
The research report to be presented at the symposium is entitled “Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television.” It tracks 11,927 speaking characters for gender roles across family films, primetime broadcast and cable television and children’s TV shows, with results showing “female characters are still sidelined, stereotyped and sexualized in popular entertainment content.” In fact, “less than a third of all onscreen speaking characters coded as girls or women.”
Davis is not deterred by these latest findings, especially since she’s already seeing a change in the visual landscape. Plus, she’s got some powerful allies to “change what kids see from the very beginning.”
Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, plan to be at the symposium.
Tassler has embraced Davis’ imperative. “I feel like the issue of ethnic diversity has been a topic that we’ve all been discussing in film and television for years and years, but it really wasn’t until Geena’s institute set forth a very comprehensive understanding and analysis of what really was going on did we start to address the issue of the portrayal of girls and women in media,” says the CBS exec. “Until the institute was created and the symposium really started, when looking into the way women were portrayed on television, you really had no lens to look at the data. This really provided us with a much more focused lens through which we could incorporate that information into our commitment to diversity and to finding ways to increase and enhance the way women are portrayed on CBS shows.”
Pascal agrees, and says the traditionally barren landscape of girls and women of substance being represented in the media is changing, largely due to Davis’ dedication. “Her studies are important, and the more people know about them the more they’re going to take hold. It’s been really important to all of us,” Pascal says. “I do make sure that everybody here reads everything that comes out of Geena’s group, that people are aware of it. Both men and women. Nobody makes these changes for moral reasons, however. They do it for economic reasons. The future is going to be better. I feel very positive about things changing. And I think when you realize that the ‘Twilight’ movies and ‘The Hunger Games’ are two of the biggest franchises right now, things are changing right now, whether people are paying attention or not. They both star female protagonists. That’s all they need to be. Then it just starts to change on its own.”
As long as there’s a consistent push from Davis’ institute, that is.
“My theory is that if we can change what kids see, if they can see boys and girls sharing the same sandbox equally in the beginning, that will impact how boys view girls and how girls view girls later on in life,” Davis insists. “If the ratio of 50-50 starts to become the norm in what they see, then that will be something that they expect. Then if they go into a board meeting and there’s only one or two women, they actually might say, ‘Hey, where’s the rest of the women?'” As far as that is concerned, I hope we can put ourselves out of business.”