This week Miami is having a Women in Leadership Symposium, “Making Our Mark.” The keynote speaker is Geena Davis, so you can bet I jumped all over that registration. In my work on the representation of girls and women in literature and other media, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media has been such a great resource. I loved getting to hear Davis talk about her work and how it stemmed from her film career (you may recall she’s been in A League of Their Own, Thelma & Louise, and played the president on Commander in Chief). The talk was full of a lot of useful information and Davis’s sense of humor kept us laughing. When I saw her in the hallway ready to walk out, I felt like “Hail to the Chief” should be playing, but I was really surprised by her use of self-deprecating humor in making her points. It went beyond the normal “I’ve made it but I’m still humble” schtick to actually making fun of the idea that she’s a role model in the service of her argument.
Davis started by discussing her start in acting and some of the roles she’s done. She joked that if you forget about Earth Girls Are Easy, she’s only played empowered women. In discussing some of her film roles, she gestured toward how they opened her eyes to the importance of media images in a couple of ways.
For her role in A League of Their Own, she had to learn how to play baseball. She remarked that she had always been the tallest person in her class and so she spent a lot of her girlhood feeling gangly and trying not to take up so much space. Even though the girls’ basketball team hounded her, she never played sports. But, she said, learning to play a sport at age 36 dramatically changed her life, giving her more confidence and making it feel okay to take up space in the world.
After that film, Davis got involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation, working with girls and women to make sure that their Title IX rights were protected. She also became more aware of how much media images affect what girls see and think they can do as many, many young women would come up to her and tell her that they played sports because of that movie. She drew attention to the Miami women’s softball team and joked, “You play sports because of me, right?”
The point, though, was the power girls seeing something had on realizing that they could also do or be the same thing. She asked us to “imagine if there were more sports movies that are about girls. Imagine if they were seeing in newspapers coverage of women’s sports that were even a quarter of that given to men’s sports” and joked that women’s sports are given about as much coverage as dog racing and fishing.
As a big fan of baseball movies, I also found her comments about learning to play a “movie sport” really interesting. She recounted how her many homers in A League of Their Own were really just balls being slingshotted over the fence. In fact, when the cameras were on them, they didn’t even hit real baseballs. They hit foam balls that looked very much like the real thing. She said that they would take these hard swings and the ball would make this little puff sound and it was really dissatisfying.
Anyway, after learning to play “movie baseball,” as well as pistol shooting, tae kwon do, and ice skating for other roles, Davis said she wanted to learn a sport the right way and took up archery, in which she eventually made the Olympic trials. She noted that she learned that if she started something new she was probably going to want to go to the Olympics in it, and that tenacity became a recurring theme in the talk.
She next shared a story about how she and her agent hounded directors for over a year trying to get her cast in Thelma & Louise. “Tenacity to a sometimes insane degree has been a huge element of any success I’ve had,” she said.
She said that although everyone involved in the film thought it was well written and directed and acted, they weren’t prepared for the response to the film. While she was sometimes recognized before, now she had people who would grab at her clothes and be really excited about telling her what they thought of the film. “It really brought home to me how few opportunities we have for women to come out of a movie feeling that … inspired and excited about the characters,” she said. “And this is about charters who died.”
From that point forward she really started choosing roles based on what women in the audience would think about the character. One of the points I was most impressed by was that she wasn’t just choosing characters based on whether or not they were role models or virtuous characters, either. (She joked that someone told her that she and a friend acted out Thelma and Louise’s trip and she couldn’t help but think. “Which part? It makes no sense.”) Further, she acknowledged that she can only be so picky about her roles because she can afford to be. She can afford to wait for the right roles: “When you see me playing Sean Connery’s comatose wife…That’s about the right Hollywood age…Anyway, that’s when you’ll know I’m broke.”
On Children’s Media: See Jane Do
The second half of her address more specifically dealt with her work through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. Davis started the organization after she noticed how few female characters there were on the shows her young daughter was young. She joked about how many children’s movies start with the mother dying or having already died, arguing that for us to have gender equality “the fathers have to die also.”
After noticing how few female characters there were, she started asking other mothers if they had noticed as well and then took the issue to studio executives at various levels. Over and over again, she was told, with all sincerity, that the problem had been fixed.
But the problem hasn’t been fixed, not in children’s media and not in real life.
Citing statistics such as the fact that at the current rate of adding women to Congress, it would take 500 years to reach gender parity or that the United States is ranked 90th in the world for women in elected positions, Davis laid out an argument not only for a gender bias in our culture but also that the bias is often unconscious.
For example, she told the story of when orchestras decided to work to include more women in the 1980s and started holding blind auditions. Even after holding auditions with the musician behind a curtain, the musicians hired will still predominantly male. Eventually, someone figured out that the sound of women’s heels on the stage as they entered was sending a subconscious signal of their gender to the judges. When they had women take off their shoes, or walk on carpet immediately their was a 50/50 split between men and women. Davis quipped, “We can reach equality as long as you don’t see us or hear us.”
A study conducted by the University of Denver found that men still dominate many professional fields. Women only make up 19% of Congress, 22% of TV journalism and 19% of print journalism, 16.1% of executives in Fortune 500 companies, 16% of cardiac surgeons, 17% of tenured professors, 17% of the animators guild, 10% of military officers. 17% is also Geena Davis’s body fat and the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies.
Davis articulated a pretty solid link between media representations of women and the representation of women in professional and political spheres. That’s why she started the Institute on Gender and Media, which has done the largest amount of research on gender in film and television, covering 20 years worth of media. From this research, Davis argues that “the message that the media is sending in every possible way is that women and girls are less valuable than men and boys.”
For example, in media for children 11 and younger:
Women are only 1/3 of speaking characters
The majority of female characters are stereotyped or sexualized
In G rated movies, women wear the same amount of revealing clothing as in R rated movies
81% of characters with jobs are male
None of the characters in medicine, politics, or science were female.
All the criminals are male (Of which she said, “And you know what? I don’t care. I’m not wasting my time on that.”)
The ratio of women’s roles to men’s roles has remained stagnant since 1946. Davis noted that at the rate the industry is changing it would take 700 years to reach gender parity and the institute “is dedicated to cutting that in half.”
This imbalance matters, according to Davis because “we’re saying that women and girls don’t take up half the space in the world.” There’s also research that says that for every hour of TV girls watch they think that they have fewer options in life and for every hour that boys watch the believe more sexist ideas. Further, according to Davis, we’re training children not to notice that there’s so much gender inequality, just like the studio executives who were absolutely shocked to find out that women were only 17% of people in their crowd scenes, or so under represented in other ways in their programs.
But pointing out this imbalance seems to be working. In a survey they conducted, the Geena Davis Institute found that of executives who saw the presentation, 68% said it affected two or more projects they worked on and 41% said it affected 4 or more projects.
It may seem like changing the representation of women and girls in film and TV is a superficial change, but Davis argues that it is a relatively easy change that can have a huge impact. While increasing the number of women in STEM fields, politics, etc. will take time and training. To create a film or TV show with strong female characters takes only as long as the production. In fact, there are so many women in forensic science on TV that universities have had to start adding courses to meet the demands of young women going into the field.
The argument of the Geena Davis Institute is just that: if they can see it, they can be it.
What are your thoughts?