Geena Davis is a walking, talking font of knowledge and outrage about the representation of women in film. Her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has worked tirelessly for 10 years to research, shed light on, and engage conversation about inequality in media and entertainment. And while female equality in Hollywood may look as dim as it did in Congress before the midterm elections (which, was, 19.4 percent in the House and 20 percent in the Senate), Davis—who is planning the fourth year of this spring’s Bentonville Film Festival, which champions women and diversity in media and guarantees distribution for all its winners—isn’t letting the data get her downWomen were so excited to tell me what they thought about [Thelma & Louise]. It showed me how few opportunities there are for women to get inspired by what’s onscreen.The problem is a huge amount of unconscious bias. For every one female speaking role in a live-action family film, there are three male roles. The people creating these entertainments, they aren’t aware of it, because those are the ratios they were raised on. These ratios have been the same since 1946. 1946! And all the time we’re seduced into thinking it’s gotten better, but that’s absolutely not true.With A League of Their Own, there were teenage girls saying to me, “I started playing sports because of that movie.” That was a very powerful one-two punch. The problem is a huge amount of unconscious bias. For every one female speaking role in a live-action family film, there are three male roles. The people creating these entertainments, they aren’t aware of it, because those are the ratios they were raised on. These ratios have been the same since 1946. 1946! And all the time we’re seduced into thinking it’s gotten better, but that’s absolutely not true.
I’ve been working behind the scenes in the industry rather than trying to educate the public. As a colleague, I can go directly to the creators. And once they have the research, they’re appalled.This is my advice, two easy steps: Before you cast, go through names and make them female to really see which characters need to be men. Then the crowd scenes, make those half female. Just by doing those two things, you have more non-stereotypical characters.
Sixty-three percent of creators we talked to said our research had impacted two or more projects. Forty-one percent said it had impacted four or more projects. The director of The Little Prince [Mark Osborne], told me that after hearing the stats, he added a female character. Michelle Murdocca, the producer on Sony’s Hotel Transylvania, heard me talk, and even though they were almost done [with the film], they added more females in the crowd scenes and gave the non-lead females a line or two.
There’s still a huge struggle as far as judging women’s abilities to direct or write or produce. Somebody recently told me that a friend of hers was a producer of a movie for girls. She asked this producer, “Okay, surely you hired a female director?” He said, “Oh, we couldn’t find any who were qualified, but we got a guy who has a daughter.” I mean, what? It’s an entrenched problem. It’s not worse, but we haven’t really been able to measure it getting better yet, either. If you think about all the areas of society—Congress, Fortune 500 companies, partners in private law practices—they all have about 17 percent female representation. Seventeen percent is an unconscious stopping point. I did the math, and it would take 500 years to achieve parity in Congress. But in film, the screen can change overnight.
By Melonie Wang