Geena Davis on how gender inequality on TV and in movies has a powerful impact on kids
Geena Davis is an Academy Award-winning actor, probably best known for her roles in movies such as "Thelma and Louise," "A League of Their Own" and "The Accidental Tourist."
But in more recent years, she has become an advocate for gender equality in children's entertainment. As founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, she aims to work with content creators to increase the number of girls and women in films and television shows aimed at kids.
She sat down with The Wall Street Journal's Rebecca Blumenstein to discuss her career, the role that changed her life and the problem with the way women are portrayed in G-rated movies. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.
A Life-Changing Role
MS. BLUMENSTEIN: You became known for picking your roles very carefully. Why did you feel so strongly about that at an early point?
MS. DAVIS: It was really for purely selfish reasons, because as an actor I wanted to feel challenged and, you know, play baseball rather than be the girlfriend of the person who plays baseball.
MS. BLUMENSTEIN: The film "Thelma and Louise" has such a strong feminist message. Did you realize that signing up for it?
MS. DAVIS: I don't think any of us involved in the movie had any idea the reaction that it was going to get. It was very unusual because it had two excellent female parts, and I desperately wanted to be in it.
But what happened was when that movie came out, the difference between if somebody recognized me at the cleaners or something before that movie and that weekend that it came out—it was just night and day.
Afterward, I had women holding me by the lapels, so I could hear their story. And that experience really brought home to me how few opportunities we give women to feel like that about a movie. To feel passionately identified with it and feel empowered and thrilled. It's just incredibly rare. And I think everything in my life has been colored since then by that experience.
A Shocking Study
MS. BLUMENSTEIN: You moved on, became a mom and suddenly as an actor you began to develop some different beliefs about the role of media.
MS. DAVIS: Being in the business and having the experiences I had where some movies I did resonated with women or girls—like "A League of Their Own"—I had a heightened sense about women's roles in the media. Then when my daughter—she's 8 now—when she was about 2, I started watching G-rated videos and preschool programs with her.
And I was absolutely floored to see the same kind of gender bias and gender gap in what we're showing little kids. She'd be on my lap and I'd be counting the characters on my fingers and thinking, "This is just not right."
I didn't intend to turn it into a whole institute or a whole new life for myself. But I started mentioning it around Hollywood. If I had a meeting with a studio executive or a producer, I'd say, "Hey, have you ever noticed how few female characters there seem to be in G-rated movies and things for kids?" And they pretty much across the board would say, "No. No, that's not true anymore. That's been fixed."
So that's what made me decide that I would need the facts and not just my impression. We raised some money, and we ended up doing the largest research study ever done on G-rated movies and television shows made for kids 11 and under. And the results were stunning.
What we found was that in G-rated movies, for every one female character, there were three male characters. If it was a group scene, it would change to five to one, male to female.
Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.
And then we looked at aspirations and occupations and things like that. Pretty much the only aspiration for female characters was finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. The No. 1 occupation was royalty. Nice gig, if you can get it. And we found that the majority of female characters in animated movies have a body type that can't exist in real life. So, the question you can think of from all this is: What message are we sending to kids?
Mitigating the Damage
MS. BLUMENSTEIN: Have you done any work on what the impact is?
MS. DAVIS: The whole idea for me was I wanted to take the facts and go back to the people who are creating the media. We go straight to the studios and the producers, the Writers Guild, the Animators Guild, the Casting Directors Guild, and present our research.
The fascinating thing that we found from the beginning was that they were absolutely shocked.
The fact that, in general, all of their movies are so lacking in a female presence is stunning to them. That makes it, obviously, not a conspiracy, not a conscious choice, and leaves them very open to rethinking it and saying, "Now that we know, we're going to make some changes."
And we feel certain that when we update [our research] in 2015 that we will have seen the needle move.
MS. BLUMENSTEIN: What does a parent do? Is there evidence that the more TV and movies that kids watch—does it have an impact on them?
MS. DAVIS: Definitely. They found that the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become.
What we recommend, and what I do with my kids, is watch with them.
They're only allowed to watch TV if I'm there.
And I make a running commentary the whole time to take away the negative impact, asking things such as: "Couldn't a girl have played that part?" And there's reason to believe that this is actually very effective.
MS. BLUMENSTEIN: You did "Commander in Chief" recently. Do you believe playing the female commander in chief has an impact on society?
MS. DAVIS: Negative images can powerfully affect boys and girls, but positive images have the same kind of impact. We know that if girls can see characters doing unstereotyped kinds of occupations and activities, they're much more likely as an adult to pursue unusual and outside-the-box occupations. I really believe that if you can see it, you can be it.
Originally posted at The Wall Street Journal on April 11, 2011