Hollywood Feminist of the Day: Geena Davis

by Melissa Silverstein on April 6, 2010

in Actresses,Sexism,Statistics

Last night I had the opportunity to see Geena Davis in conversation with Pat Mitchell at the Paley Center for Media in NYC.  They talked through her career but spent the bulk of the time talking about the work she is doing now at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media which is an organization that does research on gender disparities in media for children.  She then takes the research and meets with studios and networks and presents them with the facts in hopes that this will address the disparity.

Some of the things that can be done are simple.  For example Davis mentioned a scene in a film she was shooting (I think it was Stuart Little) where there were boys and girls as extras.  The assistant director positioned all the boys in front with a remote control in their hands and positioned all the girls behind the boys.  Davis noticed the set up and nicely said “can you give half those remotes to the girls?”  The AD looked at the scene he had set up and said of course I can.  It’s not that he meant to make the boys active and the girls passive, it’s just how people think.

While that might seem like a simple solution, most of the gender disparities in media are way more complicated.  What moved me last night was how deep Davis’ commitment to this work is and how well she articulates the issue.  She started this work when she had her daughter and began to notice all gender stereotyping of girls in films and TV as well as their hypersexualization.  She couldn’t believe this was going on and started mentioning it to people and lots of people couldn’t believe that was the case.  So she decided to get some numbers to prove what she knew to be true.

As an actress and Oscar winner herself totally gets the larger context of what goes on for women but felt that she could make a difference starting at the beginning with kids.  That makes perfect sense, kids are less threatening than women.  And the brainwashing and stereotyping does begin the moment the TV goes on and the first book is read.

Here are some of the things to think about that she mentioned:

  • Most female characters have limited aspirations.  Their goals are romance, and the limited career options are entertainer and royalty.
  • The more hours of TV a girl watches the less options she believes she has.  The more hours of TV a boy watches the more sexist he becomes.
  • Female characters in G rated films wear as much sexually revealing clothing as an R rated film.
  • The absence of female characters is impactful.  If they created more female characters in these films then the one girl wouldn’t have to be perfect and all things to all people.  The boy characters are rich and diverse.  Why can’t there be rich and diverse female characters?

Here are some of her points about Hollywood in general and her career:

  • She would love to see Commander in Chief resurrected on a cable station.
  • After Thelma and Louise she realized how few opportunities we give to women to feel empowered when they come out of the movie theatre.
  • After Thelma and Louise people thought there would be more films made like that.  Nothing happened.  After A League of Their Own people thought there would be more female sports films.  Nothing happened.  The next female sports film was Bend it Like Beckham a decade later.
  • The ratio of female to male characters in films has been 1 to 3 since 1946.
  • The worldview of people in Hollywood is that women will watch men and that men won’t watch women.  This is deeply ingrained in their psyches and because we are so used to seeing stories about men, we don’t realize this is an issue.

Some great quotes:

I was attracted to complicated multi-dimensional women in charge of their own destiny.  I wanted to play active parts.  I’ve been fortunate to not just be a witness or the wife.

On Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win:

I’m worried that it will be like The First Wives Club, a one off.

Just because one film is made or one woman wins an award doesn’t mean that Hollywood has changed or is changing.  It’s a good thing we have a woman like Geena Davis who is unafraid to talk about these issues.

Here’s a reminder of how good of an actress she is too.

More information or how to get involved: The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Hazel April 6, 2010 at 10:32 AM

I thoroughly admire Geena Davis. She is doing great work.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist April 6, 2010 at 10:36 AM

that part about the A.D not thinking about ignoring the girls and giving all the remotes to the boys– that’s just sad. that’s why it’s so important for girls and women to speak up out against gender inequity in the media.

like Hazel, I also admire Geena Davis. THELMA & LOUISE and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN will always have a place in my heart!

Melissa Silverstein April 6, 2010 at 10:41 AM

Sabina-

It’s not the job of the girls to speak up. It’s the job of the adults and people are either just oblivious to gender disparities or hostile to women. I think that most just don’t think about it and it doesn’t register but I know there are many who are hostile. We just need to make sure not to blame the girls who have none of the power here.

Anemone April 6, 2010 at 11:06 AM

I’m glad she’s doing this work.

Sandy April 6, 2010 at 11:19 AM

Kudos to Geena Davis for having the guts to speak up! This is exactly what needs to happen, we need to stop staying silent when we see someone engaging in blatant bias that they may not even realize.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist April 6, 2010 at 12:02 PM

Melissa– oh yeah, definitely, I agree with you on that one. I think it’s important for adult women to educate young girls about this stuff, so that girls can realize that if there is gender bias, they will realize that.

I used to never think about how there was a horrible lack of representation of females in the media or how females were stereotyped (even I bought into the female stereotypes) until I began taking feminist and gender studies classes and began reading feminist blogs on the Internet. then my eyes were REALLY opened.

C.K. April 6, 2010 at 12:25 PM

Thanks for this profile – I really admire both her writing and the fantastic work she’s done working towards gender equality in TV and movies.

mangababe April 6, 2010 at 2:32 PM

Thanks for the great recap of the amazing discussion at the Paley Center, Melissa. Geena’s passion for changing the media was truly inspiring.

Valerie Meachum April 6, 2010 at 4:01 PM

I always love your HFotD posts, but this one really struck me for whatever reason. Love Geena Davis.

Kenya April 6, 2010 at 4:08 PM

A favorite Geena Davis movie for me was The Long Kiss Goodnight. The movie was violent but no more violent than your standard action flick. Davis’ character really set herself apart as an action hero. I remember watching it while I interned in college with my roommates and the guys across the hall. During the entire movie they balked about how implausible the plot was because Davis was female. I asked them why Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were any more plausible and they had no answers. They were good guys otherwise. People just don’t realize how much programming we get as children and adults and how we contribute to programming others.

Ci April 6, 2010 at 5:32 PM

Kenya – thanks for reminding me of The Long Kiss Goodnight. I loved that movie as a kid, I watched it so many times. I don’t think I realized then that what I thought was so cool about it was that it had a female hero. And she wasn’t all good either, but complex. How often does that happen?

C.K. April 6, 2010 at 7:33 PM

Um, that should be her *acting*. My brain is hazy today. I shudder to think what crazy mistakes I’ll discover tomorrow when I reread today’s writing progress!

Wellywoodwoman April 7, 2010 at 4:04 AM

I think that Geena Davis and the institute are the greatest. But although some research started in 1946 the problem Geena Davis and others identify goes wider and deeper than film. Jonathan Gotschall, an evolutionary psychologist, did a comprehensive and cross-cultural investigation into feminist claims that female characters are under-represented and depicted negatively in folk- and fairy-tales. And found the same under-representation (3:1) of prominent female character as in film. He also found that the percentage of active male protagonists significantly exceeded that of female protagonists and that there were almost always more references to female than male ‘beauty’.

Melanie April 7, 2010 at 7:23 AM

The more hours of TV a girl watches the less options she believes she has. The more hours of TV a boy watches the more sexist he becomes.

Scary stuff. It doesn’t surprise me in the least, but: scary stuff.

greek chorus April 9, 2010 at 1:43 PM

Kenya,

I too love LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, as well as her pirate movie, CUTTHROAT ISLAND. Interesting you say the guys watching the LONG KISS GOODNIGHT said it wasn’t plausible that she could do these things. Well, two guys working in two video stores told me used the same words when I told them how I liked CUTTHROAT ISLAND — they said that her role as a pirate wasn’t “plausible”. The younger guy thought the movie was a lot of fun to watch, though. The older guy was even less tolerant. I think Geena Davis’ pirate movie pushed their button.

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