Actress Geena Davis is perhaps best remembered in the role of poor, put-upon Thelma, sidekick to Susan Sarendon’s sassy Louise, in Ridley Scott’s 1991 groundbreaking road movie, Thelma & Louise. Although still acting, Ms. Davis has increasingly turned her attention to activism for gender equality, initially in sport and laterally in the media. Interestingly her positive action in support of a more balanced reflection of society in the media sprang from fairly innocuous roots. Back in 2004 Davis was watching television with her young daughter when it struck her that there was a noticeable imbalance in the ratio of male to female characters portrayed in programmes aimed at pre-teens. Not only was there a marked numerical imbalance, it also became apparent that the roles open to female actresses fell into a narrow range of stereotypes: generally sexualised eye-candy. These were programmes directed specifically at children aged under-11, many of them – on both the big screen and the small – viewed by our children too.
Davis became convinced that this insidious form of gender bias was feeding into the reality that females are undervalued in society. “The more TV a girl watches,” Davis concluded, “the more limited she believes her opportunities will be.” This observation ultimately led to the establishment of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the undertaking of a comprehensive research project looking at gender in children’s entertainment at the Annenberg School for Communication of University of Southern California. This study directed by Dr. Stacy Smith and covering four hundred G, PG, PG-13, and R-Rated movie, concluded that for every one female character portrayed, there are almost three males and that girls are given far less screen time.
“The more TV a girl watches,” Davis concluded, “the more limited she believes her opportunities will be.”
The researchers also linked their findings to a resulting undermining of self-esteem amongst young girls and a consequent sexist bias amongst young boys. In response the institute developed a programme, called SEE JANE that works in collaboration with the entertainment industry using research, education and advocacy to dramatically reduce stereotyping and increase the number of female characters included in children’s entertainment.
The approach taken by Geena Davis in tackling gender equality at this fundamental level in the entertainment industry has been recognised and rewarded. In 2009 she received an honorary Doctorate from Bates College, a private liberal arts college located in Lewiston, Maine. Although tangible changes have been affected by the Institute, their task is far from complete. However, it is truly inspiring to see a woman turn an everyday observation into such a laudable and practical programme of action and to learn of a Hollywood legend using their fame to such commendable ends. After all as Geena so straightforwardly puts it, “Kids need to see entertainment where females are valued as much as males.”