Geena Davis Is Creating Opportunities For Women In Hollywood By Tackling Gender Bias
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Geena Davis, the Academy Award-winning actress best known for her roles in Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own, has spent the last decade working with Hollywood to overcome gender bias.
In 2007 Davis founded the nonprofit The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Since then, she has been working with film and television companies to increase the number of women and girls on screen.
These efforts are beginning to pay off. Davis says their research indicates 68% of the film companies they have worked with have changed two or more of their projects. These changes directly increase opportunities for women in film, as they often include switching male characters to female, increasing the number of female characters in scenes and enhancing female characters’ roles.
Davis says these changes are ultimately good for business. “Our research found that movies with a female lead character made 16% more money at the box office than movies with a male lead. This is not about trying to do the right thing, there is a business imperative too,” says Davis.
While Davis is focused on solving gender bias on screen, she recognizes the need to increase women’s representation behind the camera as well. In this interview, Davis outlines how solving the gender imbalance on screen is a relatively easy fix and one that makes financial sense.
Michelle King: When did you become aware of the issues of gender equality in Hollywood?
Geena Davis: I had a very heightened awareness of women being underrepresented on screen from being in the industry and also being a part of a couple of movies that really resonated with women, particularly Thelma and Louise, being the prime example.
So I did realize that there was gender inequality, and fewer parts for women but was under the impression that things were gradually getting better.
It wasn’t until I had a daughter and started watching little children’s entertainment… that I realized there was a profound gender problem in the TV and movies that are made for, and aimed at, children. I immediately noticed that there seemed to be far more male characters than female characters. This was stunning and made no sense: why on earth in the 21st century would we be showing fictitious worlds bereft of female characters to our children?
King: Why did you start your institute?
Davis: I found that nobody else seemed to be noticing what I noticed. I brought it up constantly in all of my meetings that I would have with directors, producers or studio executives. I would ask them if they ever noticed how few female characters there are in movies that are made for kids and every single person that I asked said, “No, no, no that is not true anymore, that has been fixed."
Very often I would ask people involved in making children’s content. They didn’t see the lack of female presence in their own movies - even though the examples of movies they were using, to demonstrate how gender inequality had been fixed, very often only had one female character - maybe two. But still a world that was nearly empty of female presence.
That is why I started my institute and got the research because I thought: well maybe if I have the actual numbers it would help. Nobody is seeing what I see! But if that's because of unconscious gender bias, then I need the numbers to convince them.
King: How do you convince organizations of the need to change?
Davis: Well I don’t go in and say, “Make more movies starring female characters.” If I said, “Do you realize you are making far less movies with female leads?” They would say, “Yes we know that; we do it because we believe women will watch men but men don’t watch women.”
This is based on something that has never been proven but it is an unwritten law that people live by in the film industry – we don’t make movies starring women because men don’t want to watch them. So I don’t focus on that because they already know they are doing it.
What I do say is, “Do you realize you are making movies with profoundly fewer female characters in the world that you are creating?” And that is the thing they had no idea about and are very eager to change.
King: What about the issue of women’s representation off screen?
Davis: Women behind the camera is a completely different problem. The numbers have been known for decades. There is nobody that doesn’t know that there are profoundly fewer female directors. This is not unconscious bias, this is conscious bias in the case of women directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors.
It is going to take a conscious effort on part of the people hiring the director and crew to make a very deliberate, decision to change that.
King: Why is unconscious bias in children’s entertainment such a key focus?
Davis: Look we all want to figure out how we are going to get more women on boards, more women in political office, more women as CEOs and there is a lot of effort being put into addressing these problems.
But if - generation after generation - we are pumping unconscious gender bias into kids through their entertainment media, then we are creating a problem that we have to try and solve later.
Our newest research shows that when female characters are present, they speak profoundly less and they are on screen profoundly less than male characters; all of this is teaching kids unconscious bias. It is teaching them that women and girls are less valuable to our society than men and boys. They take it in from the very beginning.
Imagine how different our world would be if we could raise our children to be free from unconscious bias!
King: What active steps can organizations take to overcome gender bias?
Davis: I say, whatever you are already going to make, go through and change the names of some of the characters to female and voila! You have probably fixed your gender imbalance and created some characters who likely challenge gender stereotypes because they were written for male characters.
Another way to add more females, since crowd scenes and group scenes are really missing female characters, is to just write in the script: 'A crowd gathers which is half female.' Now you have solved that problem. This is easy to do will make an enormous difference.
Turns out the media are the cure for the problem they are creating. We know the impact media images have. And it is the one sector of gross inequality in our society that can be changed overnight: on screen. The very next movie or TV show someone makes can be gender balanced. And then life will imitate art.