Geena Davis talks gender inequality in the media in Hariri

At some point in her life, just about every girl dreams of being an actress, lighting up the silver screen in daring and glamorous roles.  But in her presentation in the Hariri building yesterday, Academy-Award winner Geena Davis explained why, in this age, such aspirations are very difficult to achieve.

The McDonough School of Business and the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Initiative welcomed Davis to campus yesterday afternoon as part of the MSB’s Distinguished Leaders Lecture Series.  Davis shared with the audience the work of her non-profit organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which researches why modern cinema features so few women in strong roles and seeks to raise awareness in filmmakers about this disparity.

The Institute has undertaken the largest amount of research that has ever been done on how women are portrayed in films and television.  The findings are often sought out by non-governmental organizations, and companies concerned with female empowerment.

Davis began her mission when she noticed the gender imbalance in the films targeted at her young children.

“I was so horrified at what they were watching,” she said. “ Unconsciously, they’re just taking in this message that girls are less important than boys.”

The Institute has found that female characters generally fit a weak, over-sexualized mold.  “In animated films, most of the female characters have a body type that couldn’t exist in real life… they very often don’t have room for a spinal column!” Davis said.

At 6’1”, Davis does not fit this stereotype of female physicality.  She started her career in modeling in attempt to segue into acting, but was very self-conscious about her height and looks.

“I was so sure that I was not attractive and that I was tricking them somehow, that I knew how to act that my butt looked good,” she said.

When she finally broke into film in the ‘80s, Davis knew that she wanted to portray women who were role models.  “I wanted to play characters that decided their own fate or had something interesting to do or were unique in some way.  I didn’t want to play the girlfriend,” she said.

Davis has taken on many powerful and non-stereotypical roles in her career, such as a baseball player in A League of Their Own and as the first female President on the ABC series Commander-in-Chief, a role for which she received a Golden Globe.  Davis stressed that she prefers being called an actor, not an actress.  “We don’t need a little cute ‘ess’ on the end,” she said.

Davis emphasized in her talk that women not only tend to be invalidated in films, but that there are also fewer of them.  She said that the ratio of men to women in films is 3:1, and that this imbalance extends behind the scenes as well.  Many media sources claim that the disproportion of women and men involved in film is improving, which Davis says is misleading.

“They want to latch onto a story that things are changing,” Davis said.  However, the percentage of women writers, directors, and producers has never risen above 10%, and the number of women in all three positions has gone down this year.

As a member of the film industry, Davis has been able to bring the Institute’s findings to the people in charge.  She says that many producers are unaware of the message they’re sending to audiences, and Davis believes that the reason why no one notices is because we’ve become so used to seeing it. She added that this phenomenon also applies to education, law, politics, and other professions.  “It’s astounding, and incredibly disappointing, that there can still be so many instances where there can be ‘the first woman.’  I mean, isn’t that so last century?” Davis said.

However, Davis said that the entertainment industry is learning and is looking to change.  “We’re pretty confident that when we update the research [in 2015], that the needle will have moved.”

Photo: Lucia He

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