Geena Davis: Tis the Season ... To Fix Gender in Media Problems


Oscar winner and TV’s former “Commander in Chief” Geena Davis has a free gift idea for members of the media and entertainment community that can benefit every kid this season. Development season, that is.

Here it is: “Go through your scripts and see what characters you can change to female, it’s easier than you think,” Davis told B&C when asked what one thing the industry can do to help right gender imbalances, following her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media all-day, invite-only symposium in L.A. Dec. 15. She pointed out examples of great characters, such as the leads in the movies Alien and Salt, who were changed from male to female “and it works perfectly well. You don’t have to add stuff about mascara and pantyhose. It’s a great, freeing idea I think especially for men writers to realize, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to have some special skills or tricks to write a female character. I just write a character — who can be a man or a woman.’” (See Related: ‘ER’s’ Innes Takes on A Man’s Role in ‘The Event’ — Literally)

Davis founded the Institute in 2004 and commissioned research to explore whether she was right in her impression that gender portrayals in media aimed at kids were out of whack. The results backed up her hunch, and they were shocking, even to the network, studio and guild officials she shared them with. “Nobody realizes, that’s my whole theory,” Davis says. “If that’s all you see since you’re two years old, how are you going to notice? How are you going to be a three-year-old and say, ‘Hey, I don’t see myself fairly represented’?”

The latest study, by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, PhD and Marc Choueiti at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, revealed that 71% of speaking characters were male among 122 top-grossing domestic family films rated G, PG and PG-13 from 2006-09. The Institute’s research also shows gender role stats haven’t much changed in decades.

Davis has targeted kids media partly because the assumption has wrongly been that the inequity wasn’t so bad in media aimed at children: “Everybody knows there are more parts for adult males than women,” she says. Most people don’t realize it’s just as bad if not worse in children’s media.

She also targeted youth as a sort of preventative measure. “If kids see from the beginning, boys and girls sharing the sandbox, wouldn’t they grow up to be more open to each other’s stories and interests?” she says. “I think they could make a big difference.”

The study also showed just 7% of directors, 13% of writers and 20% of producers of these films were female. Yet when there was at least one woman writer, the average number of female roles onscreen jumped up by 10%. The data was a centerpiece for discussion among roundtables of top-level members of the media and entertainment community at the symposium. Naturally, much of the talk went to the idea that more women are needed behind the screen.

“If there’s only 7% female directors, only 13% female writers, everything’s a struggle, everything’s a battle,” she says. “You’re still the ‘other’ over there. If you can reach critical mass in any environment, which is like a third, that’s when they become partners. And, who knows, maybe that’s the reason the percent has stayed so low. A cultural shift will happen when we reach critical mass.”

Davis makes all of her research available at the Institute’s Website,

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