The actor has won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for The Accidental Tourist and a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV series – Drama for her role as the first female US president in Commander in Chief.  But when her daughter was born and she started watching more children’s television, she recognised the depth of the inequality. Horrified, she launched the not-for-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media which campaigns to dramatically increase the percentage of female characters and reduce gender stereotyping in media made for children.

She also works with the United Nations as a special envoy for women and girls and co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival in 2015 to champion women and minorities and to proactively support content creation that reflects the diversity of the world.

Actor and equality activist Geena Davis at The Power of Inclusion Summit in Auckland.

Actor and equality activist Geena Davis at The Power of Inclusion Summit in Auckland.Credit:Fiona Goodall/Getty Images for the New Zealand Film Commission

One of the foundation’s recent surveys in the US and UK revealed that 66per cent of women had actively turned off a televison show because they felt female characters were being negatively stereotyped. One in four of all women had stopped watching a TV show if there weren’t enough female characters, rising to half of US millenials.

Davis – whose motto is “if they can see it, they can be it” – says that if more women are seen on screen as corporate leaders, scientists and politicans, it will make it easier for women to follow in the real world.

“We don’t have enough real female role models to inspire change and to encourage women to be leaders. So we need to see it in fiction in order to see the real cultural change.”

There has been a surge in women entering forensic science as a result of shows such as CSI and Silent Witness. “There is also the Scully effect,” says Davis citing another study that showed  63per cent of women holding jobs in STEM fields were inspired by Gillian Anderson’s character Dana Scully in the television seriesThe X-Files. “That’s one character. Imagine if half the characters were female.” In sport, there was a 105per cent increase in girls taking up archery in 2012, inspired by bow-wielding young leads in The Hunger Games  and the animated movie Brave.

Davis admits that tackling the children’s area was “low-hanging fruit”. Universally, when evidence of imbalance is presented to producers “they are stunned, their jaws are on the ground. It is important to understand that gender bias in kids’ media was not an evil plot. It was unconscious. I chose to focus so laser-like on what kids see as it’s commonsense. We are teaching them that girls and women are less valuable than men and boys. Don’t create a problem we have to fix later on.”

The gender bias in kids’ media was not an evil plot. It was unconscious.

Geena Davis

Working with Google to use the latest voice and face recognition, the foundation has found that in family-rated movies in the US in 2019, male characters made up 67.2per cent of the leads.  Female characters spoke only 36per cent of the time and were on screen for only 39per cent of the time. They were six times more likely to be shown in revealing clothing “in movies made for kids”.

Across the whole industry, in the top 56 highest grossing films of 2018, women shown in leadership positions were more likely to be sexually objectified. “15per cent of them have the camera focusing on their body parts in slow motion, they are twice as likely to be shown as nude or partially nude.”

Davis said that the screen industry has failed to reflect the “admittedly slow but steady progress of women in professions”. Although women hold 21per cent of elected offices around the world in real life, only 10per cent of the characters who were politicians on screen were women. “However abysmal the numbers in real life, it is far worse in fiction where you make it up!”

But, there’s some good news. While the movie industry continues to lag behind, increased awareness in the children’s television arena means that this year, for the first time, the number of female leads and co-leads has reached parity. “I am fairly confident in predicting in the next five years we will also reach parity in movies aimed at kids,” she said.

“We are not asking for something revolutionary or controversial in any way; we are not asking creatives to change the message in their entertainment. We are just asking the entertainment media to reflect the population as it is – 50per cent female and incredibly diverse.”

In real life, 21 per cent of politicans are women, on screen only 10 per cent are. Geena Davis as Commander in Chief Mackenzie Allen.

In real life, 21 per cent of politicans are women, on screen only 10 per cent are. Geena Davis as Commander in Chief Mackenzie Allen.

The foundation is trialling, with Walt Disney, a digital tool called Spellcheck for Bias, aimed at helping creators remedy imbalance effectively. This initiative was greeted with much enthusiasm by filmmakers at the summit. “You shove in script and you find the ratio of male to female characters and how much speaking time they have. It can even discern what kind of words the characters use, how intelligent they are, what is their social ranking, who is above who in the script … all fabulous.” And more effective than just changing half the male characters’ names to female.

“Every sector of society has huge gender disparity, so how long is it going to take to reach parity, no matter how hard we work? We can’t snap our fingers and suddenly half of corporate boards are women, it’s going to take a long time. But there’s one category of gross under-representation of women that can absolutely be fixed overnight and it’s on screen.

Dr Stacy Smith, founder and director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, told the summit that between 2007 and 2018 an analysis of the number of speaking roles for women (even one word!) in the annual list of top grossing films had remained static. Indeed it was similar to the 1940s and ’50s. Last year, only 39 out the top 100 had a female lead or co-lead, only 11 had a woman of colour driving the action and only 11 had a woman lead more than 45-years-old.

Dr Stacy Smith: "It starts at the top."

Dr Stacy Smith: “It starts at the top.”Credit:Michael Bradley/Getty Images for New Zealand Film Commission

“The story is even more dramatic if we look at [the lack of representation] of  LGBTQI, where there has been little movement,” she said. “Over the last five years there was one transgender speaking character across 500 [major] movies. This is simply not acceptable. Sadly this year we saw a four-year low in the percentage of characters with disabilities on screen. This is an area much in need of activism.”

What’s the solution? On the frontline in Hollywood, Smith has urged one simple solution – hire more female directors. Female directors depict more girls and women in the centre of the action, include more racial and ethnic diversity, more women 40 years of age and older, and they hire other women in key production roles.

Although women are in equal numbers to men at the start of their careers,  only 4per cent of the directors of top grossing films are women.

Change in this industry must start at the top, she said. “At studios, CEOS need to set target inclusion goals, create plans to achieve them, measure progress and be transparent to the communities involved.” Production companies hiring screenwriters, crew members, special effects and post production houses, publicists and news organisations must also actively change tack towards active inclusion to reflect the world we live in from inception to the red carpet. “We cannot harness the power of inclusion unless everybody comes to the table.”

Shona Martyn travelled to The Power of Inclusion Summit as a guest of the NZ Film Commission.

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