As it played, the Oscar-winning actress had a startling realization. There were almost no female characters on screen. The scant ones that appeared seemed painted into the margins, existing only to further the male hero’s storyline. Some time later, she and her daughter watched a children’s movie. After the mother died (“gruesomely, of course”) during the first five minutes of the film, there was only one female character left for the rest of the movie.
“I thought, This is the 21st century,” says Davis. “Surely, we should be showing kids by now that boys and girls share the sandbox equally. But it turned out, that was profoundly not the case.”
This epiphany led the Massachusetts native to found the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a nonprofit research organization she discussed at length at the National Council of Jewish Women’s 125th Opening Luncheon Sept. 23.
Since its 2004 inception, the Los Angeles-based organization has cultivated one of the largest archives of research on gender representation in the media over the last 28 years. The organization has also influenced the gender portrayal on numerous films for children, including Inside Out, Doc McStuffins and Hotel Transylvania. Davis will receive the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award as part of this year’s Oscars’ ceremonies for her work in promoting gender equality.
At the luncheon, Davis shared insights with more than 200 local high school students before speaking to a sold-out crowd of 650 luncheon guests. Here are three highlights from her appearance.
Before Davis founded the institute, she polled friends with children and then entertainment industry professionals to see if they’d noticed the stark disparity onscreen. Most sincerely thought gender inequality on film was a thing of the past. “They said ‘No, at our studio, we’re very passionate about this,’” says Davis. “So how could it possibly be that the people making it couldn’t see what they were doing?”
So Davis dove into data, focusing especially on media aimed at children 11 and younger. She cited a number of her institute’s stunning findings at Monday’s meeting:
- In family-rated films, for every female-speaking character, there are two male-speaking characters.
- In these films, women characters are onscreen and speak only a third of the amount of time male characters due.
- In family films, 81% of the characters who have jobs are male.
- In G-rated films, female characters wore the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as female characters in R-rated movies.
- The range of female to male characters on film has remained the same since 1946.
- Despite women holding 21% of the globe’s political positions, onscreen, the ratio is 10 to 1, male to female.
- STEM careers are made up of 35% women. Onscreen, the ratio is 15 to 1.
For job representation, Davis noted a demoralizing trend. “In other words, however abysmal the numbers are in real life, it’s far worse in fiction, where you can literally make it up!” Her institute found that if the entertainment industry continues to add female characters at the rate it has been over the last 20 years, we’ll achieve parity in 700 years.
“What message are we sending to boys and girls, at a very vulnerable age, if the female characters are one-dimensional, sidelined, narrowly stereotyped, or simply not there at all?” said Davis. “We are teaching them that women and girls are less important than boys and men, and training them to see that women and girls do not take up half the space in the world.”
There’s hope, however. Davis cited her own personal experience with archery as an example of the motivating force of representation in media. After watching archers at the 1996 Summer Olympics, Davis took up the sport, eventually competing in the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials. She also referenced the “CSI effect,” noting the popularity of the crime show correlated with a huge spike in the number of women studying to be forensic scientists. And 2012 saw an increase of almost 103% in the number of young women participating in competitive archery… after that summer saw the release of both Brave and The Hunger Games.
“Girls literally left the theater and bought a bow,” says Davis. “You saw an instant reaction.”
To start, Davis recommends filmmakers try changing half of the names in their scripts to women’s names. If there’s a crowd scene, make sure to note in the script that half of those extras should be female. As for parents, become your children’s “media literacy coach,” and watch films with them to encourage conversation and awareness. “I would say ‘Did you notice there’s only boys playing that game?’ says Davis. ‘Why do you think that is? Do you think girls could do that with boys? And why do you think she’s wearing that if she’s going to go rescue somebody?’” While we may not be able to immediately achieve equality in the real world, Davis notes filmmakers can immediately create a fictional world we can strive towards.
“The motto of our institute is, ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’ And it’s literally true,” said Davis. “Media images are incredibly powerful.”