How Geena Davis continues to fight gender bias in Hollywood
“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
Geena Davis and her family were returning from a dinner party in their small Massachusetts town when her great-uncle Jack, 99, began to drift into the lane of oncoming traffic. Ms Davis was around 8 years old, flanked by her parents in the back seat. Politeness permeated the car, the family, perhaps the era, and no one noticed what was happening, even when another car appeared in the distance, hurtling towards them.
Finally, moments before impact, Ms. Davis’ grandmother gave a sweet suggestion from the passenger seat: “A bit to the right, Jack.” They missed by a few centimeters.
Ms Davis, 67, told this story in her 2022 memoir, ‘Dying of Politeness’, a synthesis of the genially mind-numbing values she had absorbed as a child – and which many other girls are also absorbing: Postpone. Go there to hear yourself. Everything’s good.
Of course, the two-time Academy Award-winning actress ditched that flexibility a long time ago. From “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own” to this year’s coming-of-age drama, “Fairyland,” docility at the rear just wasn’t an option. Indeed, self-control was his thing. (Or one of his things. Few profiles failed to mention his Mensa membership, fluency in Swedish, or Olympic-caliber archery prowess.) But cultivating his own boldness was just the phase. 1.
Next year will mark two decades since the founding of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. When her daughter was a toddler, Ms Davis couldn’t help but notice that male characters vastly outnumbered female characters in children’s TV shows and movies.
“I knew that everything was completely out of balance in the world“, she said recently. But that was the realm of the imagination; why shouldn’t it be 50/50?
It wasn’t just the numbers. How women were portrayed, their aspirations, the way young girls were sexualized: Through children’s programs, Ms. Davis saw a distorted view of reality being transmitted to impressionable minds. Long before “diversity, equity and inclusion” entered the lexicon, she started mentioning this gender schism whenever she had an industry meeting.
“Everybody said, ‘No, no, no – that’s used to be like that, but it’s settled,’” she said. “I started wondering, what if I got the data to prove I was right about this?”
Amid the causes announced by Hollywood, Ms. Davis has made it her mission to discreetly collect data. Exactly how much East this schism? How else is it played? Beyond gender, who else is marginalized? Instead of speeches and ribbons, and with sponsors ranging from Google to Hulu, Ms Davis’ team of researchers began producing receipts.
Ms Davis was not the first to point out the disparities in popular entertainment. But by leveraging her reputation and resources — and blasting technology on the problem — she made concrete a blurry truth and offered offenders a quiet path to redemption. (While the institute initially focused on gender data, its analyzes now extend to race/ethnicity, LGBTQIA+, disability, age over 50, and body type. overweight characters are more than twice as likely to be violent.)
Even prepared for it, the institute’s results are staggering: In the 101 highest-grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2005, only 28% of the speaking characters were women. Even in crowd scenes – even in Animated crowd scenes – male characters vastly outnumber female characters. In the 56 highest-grossing films of 2018, women portrayed in leadership positions were four times more likely than men to be shown naked. (The bodies of 15% of them were filmed in slow motion.) Whereas a century ago women had been fully at the center of the fledgling film industry, they were now a quantifiable, albeit sexy, thought. , afterwards.
“When she started collecting the data, it was pretty amazing,” said Hillary Hallett, professor of American studies at Columbia University and author of “Go West, Young Women!” The rise of early Hollywood. “It was no longer a vague feeling. You couldn’t pretend it was just a feminist rant. It was like, ‘Look at these numbers.‘”
Ms. Davis is by turns reserved and awkward off-screen – a thoughtful responder, an unbridled guffawer. (At one point, she said the word “play” so theatrically that she was afraid it would be hard to spell in this article.) On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, she took a break from illustrating the children’s book she had written, “The Girl Who Was Too Big for the Page.
“I grew up very aware of being the tallest kid — not just the tallest girl — in my class,” she said. “I had this childhood desire to take up less space in the world.”
Over time, she began to look beyond her height – six feet – to the insidious messages reinforcing such insecurity.
“Hollywood creates our cultural narrative — its biases ripple out to the rest of the world,” she said in “This Changes Everything,” the 2018 documentary she produced about gender inequality in the world. Film Industry. The documentary takes its name from the incessant refrain she heard after the success of “Thelma & Louise”, then “A League of Their Own”. Finally the power and profitability of films centered on women had been proven – that changes everything! And then, year after year, nothing.
This is where Ms Davis drove her stake into the ground – an argument over why certain injustices persist and how best to combat them. Where movements like #MeToo and Times Up target deliberate acts of monstrosity, his would be the squishier universe of unconscious bias. Did you carelessly choose this doctor as a man? Hire this straight white director because he shares your experience? Thought Did you diversify your film, just to reinforce old stereotypes? (Fiery Latina, anyone?)
It’s a stubborn optimism that fuels Ms. Davis’ activism — a faith that Hollywood can willingly reform. Today, when she walks into a meeting, she’s armed with her team’s latest research and confident that improvements will follow.
“Our theory of change relies on content creators to do good,” said Madeline Di Donno, president and CEO of the institute. “As Geena says, we are never ashamed or blamed. You have to choose your path, and ours has always been, “We partner with you and want you to do better.”
If a car full of polished Davis can wake up to imminent danger, perhaps the filmmakers can come and see the evil they perpetuate.
“Not everyone is necessarily trying to fuck women or fuck black people,” said Franklin Leonard, film and television producer and founder of Black List, a popular platform for screenplays that haven’t been produced. “But the choices they make definitely have that consequence, regardless of what they think of their intent.”
He added: “It’s not something that people are necessarily aware of. And there is no paper trail – it can only be revealed in the aggregate. Which goes to the value of Geena’s work.
Unique to the institute’s efforts is its partnership with the University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory, which uses software and machine learning to analyze scripts and other media. A tool born out of this collaboration, Spellcheck for Bias, uses AI to analyze scripts for stereotypes and other problematic choices. (Janine Jones-Clark, executive vice president of inclusion for NBCUniversal’s global talent development and inclusion team, recalled a scene from a TV show in which a person of color appeared to act threatening to another character. Once flagged by the software, the scene was redone.)
Still, progress has been mixed. In 2019 and 2020, the institute reported that gender parity for female lead characters was achieved in Nielsen’s 100 highest-grossing family films and top-rated children’s television shows. Nearly 70% of industry leaders familiar with the institute’s research made changes to at least two projects.
But women made up just 18% of directors working on the top 250 films of 2022, up just 1% from 2021, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film; the percentage of major Asian and Asian American female characters fell from 10% in 2021 to less than 7% in 2022. A 2021 McKinsey report showed that 92% of movie executives were white – less diverse than Donald’s cabinet Trump at the time, as Mr. Leonard of the blacklist noted.
“I think the industry is more resistant to change than anyone realizes,” he added. “So I greatly appreciate that anyone – and especially someone with Geena’s experience – is doing the unglamorous thing of trying to change it, of being in the trenches with Excel spreadsheets.”
Ms. Davis did not quit her day job. (Coming soon: a role in “Pussy Island,” a Zoe Kravitz thriller in her directorial debut.) She rides for fairness. (Yes, Thelma is now Disney’s gender consultant for its theme parks and resorts.)
“We are definitely moving in the right direction,” she said. “Bill Gates called himself an impatient optimist, and that’s pretty good for who I am.”