by Max Bisantz
photography by John Midgley
I didn’t set out intending to start an institute (The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research facility founded in 2004), but when my daughter was about two I started watching kid things with her – TV shows, or G-rated videos and movies – and I noticed a dearth of female characters.
In Hollywood, it’s lucky if an actor gets one iconic role to be remembered by. For Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Geena Davis, it’s something she seems to have a knack for. Whether it’s her masterful portrayal of Thelma Dickinson in 1991’s Thelma and Louise, her strong willed Dottie in A League of Their Own, or her Oscar winning turn as Muriel in The Accidental Tourist, Davis’s work seems not only to create an impact, but carve a niche into our cultural lexicon. And now, the acclaimed actor, Olympic archery semi-finalist and mother of three has another role she hopes will make its mark: founder of The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
“I’m always saying I need more to do. I find myself much too much spending time playing games on my iPhone,” says the refreshingly candid Davis. “I feel like I could squeeze in so much more.”
Somehow that seems hard to believe. In the past decade, Davis has starred in ABC’s Commander in Chief for which she won a Golden Globe, raised three children, and been a key player in multiple charities, including Women in Sports, USAIDS, and the White House Project. This, of course, is an abbreviated list; a full rehash of Davis’s activities would hardly fit in this article. But of her many accomplishments, the most far-reaching is her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research facility founded in 2004 which has published groundbreaking studies on the industry’s perception on gender. It’s an award-winning endeavor that the seasoned actor never really meant to create.
“I didn’t set out intending to start an institute,” begins Ms. Davis. “But when my daughter was about two I started watching kid things with her – TV shows, or G-rated videos and movies – and I noticed a dearth of female characters.” After asking friends if they had also noticed the discrepancy (they hadn’t) she brought her discovery to industry professionals. Their responses, however, were less than assuring.
“They’d say ‘Oh no, no – that’s been fixed.’ And I’m thinking ‘Hmm. I don’t think it’s been fixed. I don’t see that it’s been fixed,’” she continues, laughing wryly. “Nobody seemed to be picking up on the idea that the worlds that were being created were bereft of female presence. So that’s when I decided, let me just see if I can sponsor some research and get the numbers.”
Research, of course, would be an understatement. Full-blown investigation would be more like it. At Davis’s commission, the USC Annenberg School underwent the largest study ever performed on gender inequality in the media, focusing primarily on family entertainment. The subsequent results were nothing if not shocking.
“For every one female character there’s three male characters – but if it’s a crowd scene only 17% are female, which is nuts,” she says, more college professor than Hollywood star. “It seems like you’d almost have to go out of your way to leave out so many female characters.” And like any good academic, Davis has her own theory as to why this gender discrepancy has gone unnoticed for so long (though it hardly sheds a flattering light on our culture).
“The ratio of male to female characters has been the same from 1946, so all [industry professionals] have ever seen is this big imbalance, so 17% of the world in a movie is female. And so if that looks normal, if that’s all you’ve seen from minute one your whole life, then wouldn’t that imprint on you that that ratio looks normal?”
As she continues to talk about her analytic data, as well as her foundation’s newly commissioned research (a thorough investigation on gender in all forms of media is to be released in 2015, including a study on female character occupations) it’s hard to consider her anything but an enigma. To most people, Davis is an actor, more at home on the silver screen than a USC laboratory. And yet speaking of her research, she assumes the role of Professor Davis, the brainchild behind one of the largest scholarly investigations in recent history. It hardly makes sense, but then again, neither did her Olympic run for women’s archery in 2000 either (“It’s so random, right?” is how Davis views her meteoric rise in the sport.) Of course this disconnect is something that she seems to enjoy, and she’s rather good at it. Her devotion to her work, any work, is truly staggering.
“What we do is go and visit everybody – all the studios, all the networks, guilds, animators guild, writers guilds – and present the research,” she says, speaking of her work at the Institute, which involves a good amount of traveling. “And people are shocked. They are floored. They are absolutely stunned to find out how few female characters there are, which is the good thing really because they want to change it.”
When asked about the effectiveness of her foundation, she remains confident that her work will have a dramatic effect on the future.
“We’ve studied twenty years from 1990-2010 and there was no improvement at all in the numbers of female character from that period. But I think by the time we update our research in 2015, that we will be able to measure a difference for the first time.”
And Davis certainly has good reason to be confident. Few academic findings have ever been able to make a dent in popular culture at large, and yet her foundation has already attracted an astounding amount of attention, something she notes is the cornerstone for change. While other research facilities have churned out finding after finding relating to pop culture and media matters, it’s Davis who has been touring the country, Davis appearing at the UN and lauded in such major publications as the New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. Perhaps it’s the apparent “randomness” of her shift from actor to academic that has attracted press. Perhaps it’s the shocking numbers in her data. But even if her bravura turn as a scholar is surprising, her devotion to the female cause is certainly not.
“I think I was brought to keen awareness of women’s depictions in movies by being in Thelma & Louise,” she relates, citing the iconic film with co-star Susan Sarandon – co-cover of this year’s PowerWomen Issue.
“That just really struck a nerve with women and resonated with them and made me think, ‘Wow, I really need to take into account the women in the audience of whatever movie or TV show I make. What are they going to think about my character?’”
It’s this line of thinking that keeps her working perpetual overtime, continuing to explore even after the director yells cut.
“I’ve always enjoyed trying to do something useful with whatever celebrity I have, and partly my choices have been influenced by the parts that I’ve played. Like A League of their Own is what inspired me to get in touch with the Women in Sports Foundation and I became a trustee for ten years, and Commander in Chief ended up leading to being a board member for the White House Project, which I’m still on.”
And while these forays beyond the camera are certainly impressive, Davis views them almost nonchalantly, an obvious result of a natural curiosity. To her, the Institute was something that simply must be done, much the same way a person must figure out how to work their DVR. It’s the same deceptively simple logic that has always made her acting pop, her quest to understand her characters from an intellectual point of view making her one of the smartest actors of our generation. And while Davis has always had the rare acting talent of making the complicated simple, she seems sets to the do the same when it comes to gender inequality.
“I was making Stuart Little […] and there was a scene with little remote control boats that Stuart ends up being involved with. And the assistant director was setting up the little boys, the kids, who were going to have the remotes. And he would pick an extra boy and give him a remote and then place a girl behind that boy to be sort of cheering him on. And down the line, boy boy boy with the remotes and girl girl girl behind. And I suddenly realized what he was doing and I said ‘Hey, what do you think if you give half of the remotes to the girls?’ And he had such a stunned look on his face and then said ‘Of course! Duh! Yes, why not!’ and went and switched them.” She pauses, for a second, letting the story land. jInnocent mistakes, such as this one, are a huge part of the statistically flawed perception of women in media.
“A big part of our work is just raising awareness,” she admits. “I think it’s sort of a natural tendency to think we’re done. But there is always some more progress we could make.”