How Geena Davis continues to challenge 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 dinner in their small Massachusetts town when their great-uncle Jack, 99, pulled into the oncoming lane. Ms. Davis was about eight years old and sat in the back seat, flanked by her parents. Politeness reigned in the car, in the family, maybe in the era, and no one noticed what was happening even when another car appeared in the distance and sped towards them.

Finally, just before impact, Ms. Davis’ grandmother gently suggested from the passenger seat, “A little to the right, Jack.” They missed by inches.

Ms. Davis, 67, told this story in her 2022 memoir, Dying Out of Politeness, a synopsis of the wonderfully stultifying values ​​she adopted as a child — and which many other girls adopt as well: Postpone. Go along to get along. All is well.

Of course, the two-time Oscar-winning actress gave up that indulgence long ago. Out of “Thelma and Louise” And “A league of its own” on this year’s coming-of-age drama, “fairyland“Docility in the back seat just wasn’t an option.” In fact, self-control was her thing. (Or one of her things. Few profiles have failed to mention her Mensa membership, her fluency in Swedish, or her Olympic-level archery skills.) But cultivating her own boldness was only phase 1.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the founding Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media. When her daughter was a toddler, Ms. Davis found that there were significantly more male characters than female characters in children’s television shows and films.

“I knew that everything in the world was completely out of whack World‘ she said recently. But that was the realm of fantasy; Why shouldn’t it be 50/50?

It wasn’t just the numbers. How the women were portrayed, their desires, the way young girls were sexualized: in the children’s programs, Ms. Davis saw a bewilderingly distorted vision of reality beamed into awe-inspiring minds. Long before “diversity, equity and inclusion” entered the vocabulary, she began speaking about this gender divide at every industry gathering.

“Everyone was like, ‘No, no, no — it needed to be like that, but it’s been fixed,” she said. “I started to wonder: What if I got the data to prove I was right about this?”

Amid the concerns being propagated by Hollywood, Ms. Davis made it her mission to quietly collect data. Exactly how bad Is this schism? In what other way does it play out? Who else is marginalized besides gender? Instead of talking and looping, and with sponsors ranging from Google to Hulu, Ms. Davis’ research team started by creating receipts.

Ms. Davis wasn’t the first to highlight differences in popular entertainment. But by leveraging her reputation and resources — and by using technology to solve the problem — she made a blurry truth concrete and offered offenders a discreet path to redemption. (While the institute initially focused on gender data, its analyzes now extend to race/ethnicity, LGBTQIA+, disability, age 50+, and body type. Incidentally, horrific finding: Obese characters are more than twice as likely to be violent.)

Even if you’re prepared, the Institute’s findings are startling: In the 101 top-grossing adult-rated films from 1990 to 2005, only 28 percent of the speaking characters were female. Even in crowd scenes – even in animated Crowd Scenes – Male characters far outnumber females. In the top 56 films of 2018, women in leadership positions were four times more likely than men to be shown nude. (The bodies of 15 percent of them were filmed in slow motion.) While women had played a central role in the burgeoning film industry a century ago, they were now a quantifiable, if sexy, afterthought.

“Once she started collecting the data, it was kind of incredible,” said Hillary Hallett, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and author of “Go West, Young Women!” The Rise of Early Hollywood.” “It wasn’t a vague one feeling more. It cannot be said that this was just a feminist tirade. It was like, “Look at these numbers.”.‘”

Ms. Davis is alternately reserved and silly off-screen – a thoughtful response, an uninhibited laugh. (At one point, she pronounced the word “drama” so theatrically that she worried it might be difficult to spell in this article.) On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, she took a break from illustrating the children’s book she has written, ” The girl who was too big for the page.”

“I grew up with a lot of confidence in being the tallest kid — not just the tallest girl — in my class,” she said. “Ever since I was a child, I wanted to take up less space in the world.”

Over time, she began to look beyond her six-foot-tall height for the insidious messages that reinforced that insecurity.

“Hollywood creates our cultural narrative – its prejudices permeate the rest of the world,” she said in “That changes everything“, the 2018 documentary she produced about gender inequality in the film industry. The documentary’s name comes from the incessant chorus she kept hearing after the success of Thelma & Louise and later A League of Their Own. Finally the power and viability of women-centric films has been proven – it changes everything! And then, year after year, nothing.

It is here that Ms. Davis planted her stake in an exploration of why certain injustices persist and how best to combat them. Where movements like #Me too And Time is up If she were intentionally targeting monstrous acts, her universe would be the softer universe of unconscious bias. Have you thoughtlessly portrayed this doctor as a man? Are you hiring that straight white director because he shares your background? Thought Diversified your film just to reinforce old clichés? (Fiery Latina, anyone?)

It’s a stubborn optimism that drives Ms. Davis’ activism — a belief that Hollywood can reform at will. Now, when she goes to a meeting, she is armed with the latest research from her team and confident that improvements will follow.

“Our theory of change rests on content creators doing good,” said Madeline Di Donno, president and chief executive officer of the institute. “As Geena says, we never shame and blame. You have to choose your path, and our path has always been, “We work with you and want you to do better.”

When a car full of polite Davises notices the impending danger, maybe filmmakers can see the damage they’re doing.

“Not everyone out there is necessarily trying to screw women or black people,” said Franklin Leonard, a film and television producer and founder of Blacklist, a popular platform for unproduced screenplays. “But the choices they make definitely have that consequence, regardless of what they believe about their intentions.”

He added: “People aren’t necessarily aware of it. And there is no paper trail – it can only be disclosed in its entirety. That underscores 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 resulting from this collaboration, Spellcheck for Bias, uses AI to scan scripts for stereotypes and other problematic decisions. (Janine Jones-Clark, executive vice president of inclusion for NBCUniversal’s global talent development and inclusion team, recalled a scene on a television show where a person of color appeared to be behaving threateningly towards another character. Once flagged by the software re-recorded the scene.)

Still, progress is mixed. In 2019 and 2020, the Institute reported that the 100 highest-grossing family films and Nielsen-rated children’s television shows achieved gender parity for female protagonists. Nearly 70 percent of industry managers familiar with the institute’s research made changes to at least two projects.

However, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women were just 18 percent of the directors who worked on the top 250 films of 2022, up just 1 percent from 2021; the proportion of key female Asian and Asian-American characters fell from 10 percent in 2021 to under 7 percent in 2022. A 2021 McKinsey report showed that 92 percent of film executives were white — less diverse than the cabinet of at the time Donald Trump, as noted by Mr. Leonard of the blacklist.

“I think the industry is more resistant to change than anyone thinks,” he added. “So I’m incredibly grateful to anyone – and especially someone from Geena’s background – who’s doing the non-glamorous things and trying to make a difference by being in the trenches with Excel spreadsheets.”

Ms. Davis has not quit her job. (In brief: a role in Pussy Island, a thriller directed by Zoe Kravitz in her directorial debut.) But acting shares one common denominator with her books: a focus on diversity Bentonville Film Festival She started in Arkansas in 2015 — even the roller coasters she rides for equity. (Yes, Thelma is now Disney’s gender consultant for its theme parks and resorts.)

“We’re definitely on the right track,” she said. “Bill Gates described himself as an impatient optimist, and that feels pretty good to me.”

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