News Column

Geena Davis fighting for gender equality in movies

October 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 03--YAKIMA, Wash. -- In family films today, male characters outnumber females 3 to 1, at least. In generic crowd scenes, only 17 percent of the assembled mob is female, even in animated movies. G-rated movies show only about 20 percent of their female characters as having a job.

For Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis, those numbers are unacceptable, so she's working to make things better.

Davis opened this season's Yakima Town Hall speaker series Wednesday with a presentation on achieving gender parity in movies and television aimed at children. That's the focus of the Institute on Gender in Media that she founded in 2007. Speaking to a nearly packed house at the Capitol Theatre, she alternately shocked and charmed the audience with her statistics and witty personality.

"I don't want you to think that it's all bad news," she told them. In the institute's groundbreaking research projects, "We were able to measure, over this 20-year period, an increase in female characters such that if we add them at the rate we have been, we will achieve parity in 700 years."

Then, with a straight face: "My organization is dedicated to cutting that in half."

Davis is perhaps most well-known for her barrier-shattering roles in "A League of Their Own" and "Thelma and Louise," both of which still earn her enthusiastic responses from women who say she changed the way they think about themselves and the options available to them.

After the reception "Thelma and Louise" got after premiering in 1991, Davis realized that women simply were not given enough opportunities to feel empowered and inspired by on-screen female characters. Since then, she's consciously chosen roles that will speak to her female audience -- like "Commander-in-Chief," a short-lived television show in which she played the president of the United States.

"We don't have enough interesting female characters. We're not giving girls enough to aspire to, especially in the films and TV shows that are aimed at young kids," she said in an interview before her presentation.

The female characters that are present in films tend to be very limited in scope; a common profession among G-rated heroines is royalty -- "a nice gig if you can get it," Davis quipped -- and animated female characters in family movies wear clothing that's just as revealing as characters in R-rated movies.

"What message are we sending to boys and girls if the female characters are one-dimensional, stereotyped, sidelined, highly sexualized, or simply not there?" she asked Wednesday. "We are telling them that women and girls are not as important as men and boys."

Davis has achieved success in a wide range of pursuits: She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1988, qualified for the Olympic Trials in archery in 1999 at age 43, is an active member of the high-IQ society Mensa, and has three children, including twin boys she gave birth to at age 48.

"I take everything too far," she said with a laugh. "I have to be careful what I get involved with, because eventually I will want to go to the Olympics in it."

Since her daughter was born in 2002, and then her boys in 2004, Davis has been especially aware of how children's movies and TV are just as limited as adult fare in the way they approach female characters. She sits with her kids and watches shows with them, asking pointed questions about why a girl would wear a sexy outfit if her job is to rescue someone.

"I think it's important for kids to see girls taking up half of the space in the world, and doing (the same amount) of interesting things, as a reflection of real life," she said.

The disparity in film is the same, in many cases, as in real life: Congress is only 18 percent women; only 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women; only 17 percent of military officers are women, and on and on.

That's what launched the institute, along with her newfound passion for speaking with Hollywood studio executives to encourage them to include more female roles and portray more complex female characters.

Often, it's just a matter of being aware. When she first started approaching studio bigwigs to ask if they'd noticed the gender disparity in film, they'd say, "Oh no, that's been fixed," she recalled.

Once she had the data in hand, however, they couldn't ignore the problem. And everyone she talks to has been very open to changing and trying to fix what the media created.

"We can make change like that. We can make life imitate art," she said. Her belief is that if you can see it on TV, you can be it. "We don't have to wait for society to turn things around. We can create the future."

--Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or mrosbach@yakimaherald.com.

--More information on this year's Town Hall series.

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