November 2011 – Cover Story

Leading Lady Speaking Out for Gender Equality in Film and Television

Story by Christine Giordano
Cover Photo Credit: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media    

It has been 20 years since the release of “Thelma and Louise,” a movie which became both a landmark film for women’s empowerment, and an epiphany to actress Geena Davis (Thelma). It was one of the first movies with two women in the leads, as outlaws gunning their car away from the authorities after an attempted rapist was shot by Louise, played by Susan Sarandon. It was a type of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” but about women, and the actresses were starring in strong roles traditionally reserved for men. At the time, Davis hadn’t known she was making history. But after the movie was released, and every day women started grabbing her by the lapels to tell her how much the film meant to them, she started to understand.

“The idea you could take control of your own life to such an extreme degree, and never give in, I think that was very empowering to people,” she said recently during an interview with Networking® magazine.

She realized that women didn’t have enough opportunities to be inspired by the films they saw. “The media has a great deal of influence in shaping how women and girls are viewed around the world,” she told a group of women at a Newsweek Women and Leadership luncheon. The realization would shape her life for decades to come.
She began seeking roles that were uplifting and empowering to women. Her next huge hit was playing a gifted female sportstar in “A League of Their Own,” a film about the struggles of the first women’s professional baseball league. It was followed by another great response. She let the film inspire her personal life and became a trustee at The Women’s Sports Foundation for the next 10 years. She also launched a website “Geena Takes Aim” that helped remove roadblocks for girls interested in sports by using Title IX, (the Educational Amendment of 1972 that bans sex discrimination in schools, in academics and athletics.) She was inspired to take up a sport herself and actually became so good she became a Women’s Olympics archery team semi-finalist in 1999.
Perhaps it’s her high IQ (she is a Mensa member) leading the way, allowing her to combine her roles with leading lady-success in parallel areas of her life, but her path is always to empower women. Similarly, after playing the first woman president in the ABC hit show “Commander in Chief” in 2005, she got political. In 2007, she launched The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research-based organization that works within the media and entertainment industry to create gender balance and reduce stereotyping. Now she is on the Board of The White House Project, a nonprofit that promotes the next generation of women to lead in politics and business. She was appointed to the California Commission on the Status of Women, and recently helped to launch United Nations Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Davis recently spoke at the 92Y in Manhattan during United Nations Week and was interviewed by Brian Gott, publisher of Variety magazine. The Social Good Conference was presented by the independent online news website Mashable and the United Nations Foundation, and funded in part by Sony Ericsson (see story on the Social Good Conference on page 14).

Aaron Sherinian, vice president of Communications at the UN Foundation introduced Davis to the crowd of some 1700 attendees and 30,000 web watchers saying, “Sometimes you have to mobilize the bigger screens of film and television. Geena Davis is an academy-award-winning and golden-globe-winning actress who is changing the way that gender is discussed in entertainment and media.”

Davis took the stage in her black dress and leopard-patterned heels. She looked like a movie star, but spoke about why Hollywood should open the doors to women playing roles that aren’t just eye candy. She said she’s tired of movies that have the typical shock value – the racecar driver who whips off her helmet and tosses her hair… followed by that all-too-familiar male punch line, Wow, she’s a girl and she can do what we can do.
“When are we going to get over the idea that it’s shocking that women can do things?” she asked the crowd.

Davis was moved to create the Institute when she noticed her two-year-old daughter sitting in front of the television, watching movies that showed hypersexualized women who rarely were doctors, lawyers, or white collar professionals. In fact, their main aspirations in life were to find love and look beautiful. Their main profession was royalty. One would think, that with all of the work we’ve done in toward gender equality, children wouldn’t be fed a steady media diet of media messages that women are non-contenders for serious professions, and only valuable if they’re attractive.

She approached Hollywood executives with her concerns, and was told that sexism in the movies had been rectified long, long ago. It inspired her to launch research that studied gender inequality in the media by studying hundreds of G, PG, and PG13 rated films. Davis reported the some of the results at the Social Good Conference.

“We found that 81% of the characters holding jobs were male,” said Davis, regarding the G-rated films that are consumed by young children. “Of the female characters who had occupations, there were no scientists, lawyers, medical professionals, business people, politicians, basically, very, very few women were holding important types of positions.”
The repercussions of a child watching sexist material at such an impressionable, young age are already known. Children believe what they see.

“ This has a tremendous impact on girls. In fact, we know that the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life,” said Davis. “So, there is clearly a very, very strong message coming through (that boys are picking up too by the way): That girls can’t do as many things as boys can.”

Other studies by her institute show that women account for less than one-third of the speaking roles in G, PG and PG13 films.

“We really are helping to support the idea that women are not as important as men,” said Davis.

“The fact is that 80 percent of the media consumed worldwide is created in the states. So we are the ones who are exporting this negative portrayal of women around the world,” she said.

It doesn’t make much sense to the international scene. As people try to encourage positive self-esteem among women and girls, they are asking why the United States is exporting such negative images of women and housewives.

“The UN is doing so much work to help women…but if the cultural message is continually that women are not equal, then it’s tearing down other efforts. You’re trying to raise them up and at the same time there’s a heavy message that women can’t do a lot of things,” she said.

Her solution is to ask Hollywood executives to add more varied female roles for women of all shapes and sizes.

“We’re saying, add complex, unique and unconventional female characters who are doing a lot of interesting and different kinds of things, and I think that will go a tremendous way toward improving the image of women in all cultures,” she said, noting that Hollywood executives have been receptive to the suggestions, and she expects to see significant changes by 2015.

Similarly, Davis took her message and spoke to the United Nations about the matter. She told an audience of international philanthropists that children aspire to be like the role models they see on television.

“If they see it, they can be it,” she said. “…What we need, across all sectors of society, is to add women. More women in the media… in the realms of academia, business, non-profit, the military… from students in one-room schoolhouses to tenured professors….policy makers, corporate boards. ”

It’s a message she’s prepared to take far and wide. With the help of Twitter, the audience at the Social Good Conference broadcasted her quotes from the stage to thousands of followers.

Said UN’s Sherinian to Networking® after the Social Good conference, “Geena is a great example of someone who is helping all of us put women and girls at the top of the global agenda and helping the UN build opportunities for them around the world.”

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