Geena Davis: actress, writer, producer, gender equality advocate

by Jess Clackum

Motivated by a lack of female characters and gender stereotypes, especially in children’s media and entertainment, Ms. Davis created the Institute, a one-of-a-kind research-based organization whose mission it is to “engage, educate, and influence the need to dramatically improve, gender balance, reduce stereotyping and create diverse female characters in entertainment targeting children 11 and under.”

In the 12 years since it was founded, the Institute has collected the largest body of research on gender prevalence in entertainment and the results are staggering. For example, though females are approximately half the population of the United States, female characters are outnumbered by males 3-to-1 in family films. Female characters are often shown with unrealistic physical appearances and with less clothing. In the nearly seventy years 1937 - 2005, there were only thirteen female protagonists in animated movies. And while females are not represented in front of the camera in proportion to their population, the same behind the camera as well as the ratio of men to women behind the camera is nearly 5-to-1. Finally, in the three year period 2006 to 2009, there were no female characters in the fields of medical science, business executives, attorneys or politicians in G-rated family films. Generally in these films, the female characters were portrayed as the minority in number when in reality, they make up half the workforce of the United States.

Through its cutting-edge research, education, training and advocacy programs, the Institute has been influential in curbing gender bias within the entertainment industry. Entertainment executives have changed current projects to include more female characters and give female characters more and higher aspirations and occupations, better dialogue, and development. The Institute collaborated with YouTube Kids created a video series focused on teaching kids about gender bias and diversity in the media. The Series, called “Girl Power” includes cartoons and stories, each spotlighting a female heroine. Also the Bentonville Film Festival, founded and co-chaired by Ms. Davis is a one-of-a-kind film festival that supports women and diversity and guarantees the distribution of projects in theaters, television and home entertainment venues for festival winners.

In a guest column in the The Hollywood Reporter on December 11, 2013, titled “Geena Davis’ Two Easy Steps to Make Hollywood Less Sexist”, Ms. Davis wrote:

"Step 1: Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. With one stroke you've created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they've had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it's not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, "A crowd gathers, which is half female." That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don't gather, I don't know.

And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.

Yes, we can and will work to tell more women's stories, listen to more women's voices and write richer female characters and to fix the 5-to-1 ratio of men/women behind the camera. But consider this: In all of the sectors of society that still have a huge gender disparity, how long will it take to correct that? You can't snap your fingers and suddenly half of Congress is women. But there's one category where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed tomorrow: onscreen. In the time it takes to make a movie or create a television show, we can change what the future looks like.

There are woefully few women CEOs in the world, but there can be lots of them in films. We haven't had a woman president yet, but we have on TV. (Full disclosure: One of them was me.) How can we fix the problem of corporate boards being so unequal without quotas? Well, they can be half women instantly, onscreen. How do we encourage a lot more girls to pursue science, technology and engineering careers? By casting droves of women in STEM jobs today in movies and on TV. Hey, it would take me many years to become a real nuclear physicist, but I can play one tomorrow. (Again, in your next movie.)

Here's what I always say: If they can see it, they can be it.”

We at FlyGirls agree! Our scripted miniseries is a project by women, about women. This is a story about bold women who challenged the status quo and refused to accept society's traditional assigned roles to them. They wanted to live their dream, they wanted to fly, and they wanted to do it while helping their nation and the world win a terrible war. Their efforts helped secure victory and their dedication and courage forever inspires future generations of women.

Thank you Ms. Davis for your relentless pursuit of equality and diversity not just in the entertainment industry, but everywhere, and for being a positive role model for young girls, agent of change and inspiration to us all!

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Read more about the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media