Geena Davis calls attention to lack of women in Hollywood


Actress references her own gender disparity studies during lecture


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Photo by Enrico Cabredo |

Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institue on Gender in Media, speaks of the misrepresentation of females in G-rated family movies last night in Kirkpatrick Chapel on the College Avenue campus.


Geena Davis, an Academy Award-winning actress known for roles in films including “Thelma and Louise,” spoke to a crowd of about 200 people last night on gender disparity in the media.

The Institute for Women’s Leadership hosted the lecture to further communicate the goal of advancing women’s leadership in fields such as politics, the arts and the general workforce, said Alison R. Bernstein, director of the IWL.

Davis, who in 2004 founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to change the way females are portrayed in feature films, said she shares the same vision as the IWL, and hopes to educate the public on the obvious gender disparity found in Hollywood.

She first noticed this issue while watching G-rated films with her daughter, which pushed her to lead a study on the number of female characters in family entertainment.

The study, one of the largest ever completed on gender differences in media, showed there was just one female character for every three male characters in G-rated movies, a fact Davis said could be discouraging to parents.

“It occurred to me as a mother that kids should be seeing boys and girls sharing a sandbox together,” she said.

The depiction of the female characters was also investigated, and the project found female characters in G-rated animated movies tended to wear sexually appealing clothes, just like their counterparts in R-rated films, she said.

“The female characters often have a waist so small that you have to wonder where the spinal column even fits,” Davis said.

In the 6,000 family films composing the research sample, Davis said not one depicted a female character in a powerful American political figure. A similar gap is found in many other professional occupations, she said, with males holding 81 percent of all film production jobs.

Davis said she fears Hollywood is teaching a new generation not to notice the disparity, especially since many gender differences are found in films shown to young children on a regular basis.

“We are saying that women and girls don’t take up half the space in the world ... that they are less valuable,” she said.

Yet Davis said she does not believe all male directors and casting directors are purposely creating this gender gap, adding that some men are generally surprised when she showed them the statistics.

“Part of [the movement] is doing this research and educating them,” Davis said. “When we go to the networks, it’s amazing how shocked they are by the data.”

The institute also aims to empower more women to reach “behind-the-scenes” leadership positions in Hollywood. In 2011, women only represented 25 percent of the work force in the top-250 domestic grossing films, according to an event fact sheet.

Women made up a larger percentage of the leadership roles in lower budget documentary films. Thirty-nine percent of all directors in documentary films in 2011 were women, an 11-percent increase from 2008, according to the fact sheet.

Similar increases are not found in the quantity of female characters depicted in feature films, she said.

“The ratio has been the same since 1946,” Davis said. “You can’t say things are changing.”

Davis said women need to understand the bias and take advantage of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.”

She hopes the institute can inspire women to bring the issue to the forefront, and said the key is to put more women on and behind the screen.

“We need to add women, include women, vote for women and hire women,” she said.

University President Robert L. Barchi, who gave an introductory speech at the event, said the event is one of the many praiseworthy initiatives started by the IWL, where his wife Francis recently became a fellow.

“What I have found is that this is an incredible group of very powerful women who understand where they are in the world and where they want to go,” Barchi said. “It’s very impressive, especially to a man.”

Alexandra Tereshonkova, a Class of 2012 University alumnus, said Davis’ history of movie roles shows she has always been conscious of the way women are portrayed in films.

“I saw her growing up in movies such as ‘A League of Their Own,’ which inspired [more] women characters,” she said.

Davis said she first became passionate about the empowerment of women in Hollywood when she played a lead female role in the film “Thelma and Louise.”

“Ever since [‘Thelma and Louise’], I make choices on what roles I am going to play thinking about the women in the audience and what they may feel about my character,” Davis said.

Tereshonkova said she hopes more students make it to future IWL events.

“I think it’s important for everyone to recognize different feminist points of view,” Tereshonkova said.

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