Geena Davis talks to Stephanie Sy

The actor founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which works to improve female representation on screen

Stephanie Sy: You have an entire institute in your name that studies gender roles in the media, what led you to this?

Geena Davis: The final impetus was my daughter. When she was a toddler, I started watching preschool shows and kids' movies with her, and I think because of some of the roles that I played that kind of spoke to women a little bit, I had a heightened awareness of how women are portrayed in the media. I immediately noticed that there seemed to be far fewer female characters than male characters in what was literally made for kids. I couldn't believe it. In the 21st century, I thought surely, we should be showing kids, boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally. I found that nobody else seemed to be noticing.

So your institute set out to actually quantify, to gather the data domestically, and recently, was commissioned with the U.N. to do the first global study on gender roles in popular films in other countries. What were the major findings from this study?

Well, unfortunately the global perspective is not much different from what it is in the United States. We're not doing a good job here in the States. There's far more male characters than female characters. The female characters very often don't have jobs or don't have much to do in the plot — very often either the girlfriend of the star or serving the function of eye candy. 

Merely there for decoration?

Merely there for decoration. Yes, that's right. So the picture's not great in the United States. The whole purpose of doing this study was partly because everybody was saying, "Well, is it the same way around the world?" And partly because we just wanted to know — is anybody doing this better? And we found that it's not really the case.

Is that because Hollywood has sort of an outsize impact on movie industries in other countries?

It could be. We were looking in the global study. We were looking at productions that were exclusively made in that territory. In other words, not what they're watching, because 80 percent of the media consumed globally is made in the United States, but what they — that particular territory was making themselves, and it could very well be. When you consider the amount of media made in the States that's consumed around the world, it could very well be that their own media is impacted by the kinds of media they see. But there's less hypersexuality in many of the countries.

‘It’s incredibly important not to sexualize the female characters in entertainments that are made for very little kids.’

Geena Davis

You did look at what type of work, for example, women did. You seem very passionate about seeing women in roles where they're doing the science, the technology, the engineering and the math [STEM]. It was quite startling, according to this research, what you found.

Yes. It's pretty much like in the United States, very few women are seen — female characters — are seen in those positions. That's one of the main areas, the STEM fields that we want to get more women and girls interested in. We really actually need many more people to pursue those kinds of occupations. But people aren't seeing that to model themselves after. There aren't many real life role models in those fields, and they're not seeing them on television.

Talk about the hypersexuality that you were observing, why was it important for you to look at, for example, how thin the women were. Or how much clothes they were wearing?

Right. Well, I think it's incredibly important not to sexualize the female characters in entertainments that are made for very little kids. There's really not a good reason why you would. One disturbing [thing] we found in the United States research was that in G-rated animated movies, the female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.

In G-rated cartoons?

In G-rated movies, yes, animated movies. So "sexually revealing," when you were doing research, has a very specific meaning. It's revealing something. And it's pervasive. And we wanted to look at that globally, as well. It turned out that female characters were twice as likely to be shown in sexual situations and sexually revealing clothing as male characters.

So who's to blame?

I don't think it's necessarily that we need to assign blame. I think there's a lot of unconscious bias. I think a lot of this is not consciously known, but because in the industry here in the states we haven't uncovered any plot against women in Hollywood.

Right. There's no conspiracy like Hollywood or movie studios putting women in hypersexualized roles.

No. Or leaving them out. They sincerely didn't know that they were missing. This is a very tiny example, but from a movie that I was in, in "Stuart Little" there's a scene with remote control boats. I was watching one day, and the assistant director was taking little boys from the crowd of extras and giving them a remote and having them sit down. One after the other, he gave the remotes to little boys and had them sit down. Then he picked some little girls to stand behind the boys, kind of cheering them on. And I noticed what he was doing, and I said, "Hey, do you think we could give half of the remotes to girls instead?" He was like, "Yes."

Why not?

"Oh, my God, yes." He was so upset that he hadn't thought of it. It seemed so obvious. But that's what's happening, people don't think about it, and that's why we are bringing it to their attention. So next time that person shoots a scene, he's going to think, "Oh, right, I should make sure I'm not putting all men …

Fair enough when it comes to just the sheer number of boy roles versus girl roles. But when it comes to sexuality, which is a big topic in Hollywood, in film and in television, who bears the responsibility for those portrayals?

Again, it's partly influenced by tradition that female characters have been seen for decades now as decorative, that they need to be attractive, they need to be sexy. I think people have sort of come to believe that for a female character to be appealing, she needs to be thin and beautiful and sexy. It's sort of an enculturation that we have to get over this idea that women — female characters — need to be sexy.

I can't tell you how many scenes I've seen where in movies, let's say, there's a bunch of young, smart computer geniuses, and let's get them all together, and these incredibly, incredibly nerdy guys, and then a superhot, blond, gorgeous woman.


You're like, "But …" Well, first of all, why aren't half of them female? And why don't half of them — of the women — look nerdy and weird and strange and all different kinds of ways? It's so narrow, what writers think they can create, as far as women, that there ends up not being more of them, because there's fear about making female characters have flaws or seem unattractive or something.

Stephanie Sy and Geena Davis

You have a two-step remedy, I understand, to adding female characters. Talk about them — one being just changing the names in the scripts to female names?

Right. That's my big pitch when I go to studios. I'm not asking you to make more movies starring a female character. Just put that aside for now. If you do, that's great. Cast me. But in the movies you're already going to make, just before you cast it, just stop and say, "Who can become female?"

So that you can very easily increase the population of female characters by just crossing out a few of the first names and putting a female name instead. Because, you know, unless a character's having sex with somebody else in the movie, most times, it doesn't matter what gender they are. And people aren't thinking of, "Hey, why don't I make the general a woman? And why don't I make the CEO a woman?" And that kind of thing.

Just the fact that you can ask this question, I think, doesn't it show how far, really, we have come as a society? That a woman could convincingly play a general or a president, as you did.

Exactly. I mean, it's thoroughly believable, so all we have to do now is actually do it, instead of always going to default, which is male. So that's one way to very easily increase the percentage of female characters, and the other is because crowd scenes — the world of the movies are so bereft of female presence that the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies is 17 percent.

In any given crowd scene?

In any given crowd scene, in live action or animated, that's the average. It's 17 percent. I don't know I can't explain how that happens, but the other suggestion I give is, have them write in the script, "A crowd gathers — comma — which is half female." And then it will happen on the set.

‘Unless a character's having sex with somebody else in the movie, most times, it doesn’t matter what gender they are.’

Geena Davis

Now, as an actress, you played some untraditional female roles, of course, in "Thelma and Louise," in "A League of Their Own," when you portrayed the president of the United States. Behind the scenes, when you were playing those characters, did you feel as empowered as the character you were playing?

That's an interesting question. Well, "Thelma and Louise" really surprised us. Nobody involved in the movie whatsoever had any idea it would strike a nerve the way it did. It was — what? — 20-something years ago. You may not remember.

No, I remember. It was formative for me.

It was you're right. Not only was there a big positive reaction among largely women, but there was a very negative reaction in some of the editorials and reviews, going, like, "God, this is ruining the world now, because women have guns, so it's all gone to hell."

We should remind people who maybe haven't seen it that Susan Sarandon's character in the movie shoots a man. Because he is threatening your character sexually.

Yes. He'd actually stopped when she shoots him. He stopped, but he said something that just incenses her so much that she kills him. So there is that bit of violence, and then, we kill ourselves at the end, so there's that. But it's so profoundly not a violent movie. The reactions are so over the top, when you think about [it]. There were three people killed, and two of them were us. 

Does it strike you that ironic that there was a character in that film [played by] Brad Pitt who was objectified as a male in ways that, perhaps, your research now observes women being objectified in film?

You know, that's interesting, because when we were shooting the scene in the bedroom with Brad and I — there's a shot of him standing up without his shirt on, and he's got that incredible stomach. And Ridley Scott was personally sprayed Evian on his body to catch the light.

Glistening abs.

Yes, glisten — and I'm over there going, "Hi, I'm the girl in this thing." You just assume that if somebody's going to be shot that way, it's going to be the woman, but it was great, you know? I mean, turn the tables. Why not?

It was recently named one of The Hollywood Reporter's 100 favorite films, and on the cover, you and Susan Sarandon re-create that original selfie you took. Where do you rank that film in importance as far as our culture and as far as your career?

Well, as far as my life, it really changed my life. It was very, very impactful on me because it changed how I looked at future parts that I would play. It resonated so much with women, I realized, "You know, I want to think about what are the women in the audience going to think about the character I played?"

Not that I wanted to play role models, which I kind of don't like that term at all because I think [a] character should be flawed. And certainly we were horrible role models, killing, high, drive drunk, hold up a liquor store, sex with strangers, kill ourselves.

What would be your dream role today? In your age, given your vast repertoire of work, what would be the dream role? I mean, you feel like the president of the United States —

I played the president. Where do ya go from there? Yeah, you don't get much more iconic than that. You know, I don't know. I don't know specifically, but I see something like "Breaking Bad" or something, and I say, "Well, I want a part like that." 

On "Inmates," maybe?

Or "The Wire." I want something really interesting and gritty, you know? That would be fun.

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