Geena Davis Is My Feminist Hero

Geena Davis is a pretty awesome person. She’s been the first female American president (if only on Commander in Chief) (especially if you don’t count BSG which you shouldn’t because that’s in the future), almost went to the Olympics for archery, and for the past six years has been studying gender equality in media at an institute she founded. And it’s doing things! Also I like her hair.

Six years ago, Davis started an institute to study gender in media in response to the inadequate representation of girls she saw on her kids’ TV shows. In an interview with Ms. while at a panel for the Paley Centre for Media earlier this week, Davis explains:

“My daughter was about 2 (she’s 9 now) and I started watching little kids shows and G-rated videos with her and it really struck me how few female characters there seemed to be. … I started counting the characters while we were watching. I knew there were far fewer parts for women in movies in general, but that we would be showing that to kids was sort of a revelation. … [It] made me realize that if I wanted to actually have an impact I should probably have the numbers … the actual data to show people, and it kind of snowballed into a whole institute.”

Despite the numerous articles calling Davis “Hollywood’s feminist of the day” or similar throwaway titles, Davis and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media are actually doing things. Excellent things.

Geena Davis addressing the UN General Assembly, February 2011. Via the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

This July, Davis, along with Representative Tammy Baldwin and Senator Kay Hagan, also introduced The Healthy Media for Youth Act. If passed, the bill would give support to media literacy programs and research on gender equality in media and would establish a National Taskforce on Women and Girls in the Media to develop standards for positive and balanced representation. In a statement, Davis said:

“I am proud to join with Sen. Hagan and Rep. Baldwin to promote gender equality and positive portrayals of women and girls in the media. What children see affects their attitudes toward male and female roles and impacts the value they place on girls and women in society. The Healthy Media for Youth Act will help ensure we are creating a positive media environment for all our children.”

Last November, Davis testified at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law in support of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a treaty that was first addressed 30 years ago that the US — along with Sudan, Somalia, Iran, and several other countries — has still not ratified.

Davis has also been involved with UN Councils, written letters to the editor, and worked for gender equality nationally and internationally. Probably because the more research the Institute does, the more urgent change starts to seem.

Some of the findings of Institute research (from several studies) include:

+ The aspirations of female characters are limited almost exclusively to finding romance; male characters almost never have “finding romance” as their ultimate goal.
+ The number one occupation of girls and women in media is royalty (not a likely profession for most of us).
+ Female characters in G-rated movies from 1990-2010, wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as female characters in R-rated movies.
+ 83% of narrators in G-rated movies are male.
+ Female characters in kids’ programming are almost four times more likely to be shown in sexy clothes than male characters are (20.7% vs. 5.4%).
+ The more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life; the more hours a boy watches the more sexist his views become.
+ Male characters outnumber female characters by three to one in G-rated films. The ratio drops to two to one in programming aimed at kids under 11.
+ If female characters are added to media programming at the current rate, gender balance won’t occur for 700 years.

Are you feeling like lobbying for something yet?

In her interview with Ms., Davis said, “The media can powerfully affect people positively. For example, girls seeing characters playing [nontraditional] roles will be much more likely to seek unconventional occupations later in life.” But just because it can do something doesn’t mean it is. Some of Davis’ goals include having more female representation as main characters, minor characters, narrators, and in crowd scenes; having more of that representation consist of people of colour; having more female characters with aspirations greater than romance; and having more female characters valued for their “inner character” as opposed to their ability to look good in hot pants (granted, not her words verbatim). None of that seems like a lot to ask for. It’s just great that one more person-slash-up-and-coming research institution is doing the asking.

Profile photo of Carolyn

Carolyn is the NSFW Editor for Autostraddle.com. She is also a freelance copy editor and writer, and her work has appeared in Bitch, The Toast, Xtra!, Jezebel, and other places. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 302 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    THIS. ALL OF THIS.

    Female representation in the media is my pet feminist cause, and I was starting to feel like I was taking crazy pills because none of my friends seem to notice/care as much as I do. Take the movie “Up,” for example–I have to admit, the movie is so fucking cute I can’t stand it, and Dug is one of my favorite animated characters of all time. The only reason it’s not my favorite movie of all time is that there are pretty much zero female characters in the entire film. The kid’s mom is dead, and Kevin the female bird turns out to have the sole purpose in life of caring for her babies. (I know she’s made of rainbows and shit but that doesn’t necessarily correspond with a progressive character.) But when I tried explaining this to my friends they were like “woah Krissy, I think you’re being too sensitive, just STFU and enjoy the movie okay?” But I don’t think I’m being too sensitive, as this study confirms. Why can’t there be a nonsexualized female character in a kids’ film? Why does every storyline have to revolve around male bonding/fatherly love, and why is a female character’s purpose to fall in love with the main male character?

    I could go on and on about how representation is far more abysmal with ethnic minorities and LGBT characters but I’ll just shut up. Please let someone else be as angry as I am about this and then I’ll feel better.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Preach it sista!I had never really given a serious thought to ‘Up’, but I do agree that there is a lack of female characters in animation and I find that bird in ‘Up’slightly scary. Although ‘Tangled’ and hopefully ‘Brave’, which looks quite exciting, will make up for it.

      With TV shows I always pick em according to the ratio of female characters they have or if the female leads have more screen time and solid characters. Except for Mad Men, I love it too much plus 7 out of 9 writers on the show are women.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        Even ‘Tangled’ I can’t really bring myself to like, because it was the worst kind of reaction to a lot of things I’d been looking forward to.

        It came hard on the heels of ‘Princess and the Frog’, which was supposed to herald the return of hand-drawn animation (employing the legions of artists and animators who’ve been trained to work that way but have been fucked over by the rise of CG) and a new era of characters of color in mainstream children’s entertainment. Then Disney screwed over the advertisers and released maybe a quarter of the merchandise it should have and, to absolutely no one’s surprise, didn’t make quite as much money as they’d hoped.

        So we got ‘Tangled’ afterward instead, a CG Rapunzel remake with its title deliberately crafted to de-emphasize the princess’s role in the story (seriously, they’ve said as much in interviews), advertising that bolstered the male love interest’s presence, and a lantern festival based on South Asian celebrations but starring the whitest cast they could manage. Color me pretty damn unimpressed. ‘Brave’ at least doesn’t look like it’s snatching anything from cultures other than the Scots/Irish environment it’s based in but, again, white girl in a CG film.

        Disney and Pixar could be doing SO MUCH BETTER, but god forbid they risk slightly less than astronomical profits by having non-white main characters, plural, with female characters, plural.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          Thing about Tangled though (I haven’t seen it yet because no one wants to watch it with me so I may be wrong) is that even though their reasoning was sexist didn’t they make it so that she was much tougher, more independant and more or less rescued herself at the start of the adventure? Which are all good things. And once the boys have gone to the film because of the advertising they watch the film with the interaction between the boy and girl which is more equal than in the traditional princess movie, and that is more likely to make a lasting impression than the advertising.

          I am with you on the sheer whiteness of the cast. Putting white charactors in a region where there are South Asian customs makes sense if you have them travel there, or if there is a high South Asian population where they are etc is reasonable but it doesn’t sound that way from what you’ve said and whitewashing is never OK. And could we please have some Bechdel test passing kids movies please?

          I am Ok with Brave though because like you said it takes place in a white culture (therefore not apropriating non white cultural things) and I don’t think there are enough respectful representations of Scottish and Irish culture/people out there in media, and attitudes towards the Scots and especially the Irish in a lot of places definitly need to be improved. And it will be good for Scottish and Irish kids living in those places. I mean I get they’re a smaller minority and the problems aren’t as great but they’re still there and this would have made me at least feel a lot better as a child.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          Tangled disappointed me so much. It started off promising a story about the princess, because that’s what the narrator says. “This is the story of a girl named Rapunzel…” or whatever. Maybe the fact that he’s narrating should have been a bigger sign for me not to get my hopes up, but the idea of a story being told by a secondary character is something I’ve always been a fan of. But, it ended up being all about him and what HE did to help her.

          It’s the end that really bothers me, though.

          (SPOILERS AHEAD. DO NOT READ BELOW IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE AND DON’T WANT IT TO BE SPOILED)

          It’s not Rapunzel that cuts her hair. Flynn does it. As I see it, her hair is a huge part of the story. It’s something that makes her a truly unique individual. From what I remember of the town scene, there were little to no blondes besides Rapunzel, and no one else had their hair quite that long (obviously). When Flynn cuts it, he’s taking away that part of her. He took away the choice that she had to cut it herself. And it also took some of the options she might have had later in life. For example, if she had found a way to keep her hair and still get rid of Mother Gothel, she could have wandered around as a healer. Or a flashlight. Either or.

          And she is only able to heal him through her tears. It’s the woman’s emotions that saved the hero. It makes me think, was that the last time she’d be able to use her ability to heal? Was it only because of her love for Flynn that let her use the last bit of her powers?

          (END OF SPOILERS)

          But uh, I might have gotten off topic. I’ve probably over analyzed that scene too much, but I seriously can’t just watch it and accept how it works out. Also, the adorable lizard from the beggining just seemed to kinda fade into the background after 20 minutes or so. That makes me sad because that’s what had me rofling in real life and made my sister give me looks.

          tl;dr: Tangled really had me interested for the first few minutes. Then Fylnn took over the movie and it all just annoyed me from there.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      oh man..”I think youre being too sensitive”…
      GAH! i hear this (or my favorite term “over-exagerating”) all the time when I bring stuff like this up. Hearing these words come out of my female friends mouths is beyond frustrating, confusing to me. I don’t understand how more people don’t pick up on the sexist gender models constantly flashed in their faces. And than as you said this leads to the “am i just being crazy thought”.
      …well apparently not. Thank god.

      “The more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life; the more hours a boy watches the more sexist his views become”

      Apparently a lot of people need to become a bit more “sensitive”

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Moff’s Law: the perfect response to “I can’t understand why you aren’t just enjoying blankety-blank for what it IS, I mean god, it’s just ENTERTAINMENT”

      Excerpt: “So when you go out of your way to suggest that people should be thinking less — that not using one’s capacity for reason is an admirable position to take, and one that should be actively advocated — you are not saying anything particularly intelligent. And unless you live on a parallel version of Earth where too many people are thinking too deeply and critically about the world around them and what’s going on in their own heads, you’re not helping anything”
      http://www.racialicious.com/2009/12/21/and-we-shall-call-this-moffs-law/

      It’s kind of my favorite thing.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Actually, the kid’s mom isn’t dead in UP. She briefly appears at the end of the movie when the kid gets the badge pinned on his shirt. But that doesn’t take away from your point because she is absent from 99% of the movie.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          You know, I think that actually makes it worse. Because if she were dead then she’s be dead, it would be a reason for her not to be present and she’d still be a presence in the kinds psyche and how we say it by being a Dead Mum. This way she’s just not there and kind of irrelevent.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      “But when I tried explaining this to my friends they were like “woah Krissy, I think you’re being too sensitive, just STFU and enjoy the movie okay?””

      What really gets me is that if you DARE suggest that some movie/cartoon/show is lacking in some way, some people will get all bent out of shape and then accuse YOU of being too sensitive. There is, however, nothing wrong with them taking criticism of a Disney cartoon as a personal attack. I don’t understand how that works.

  2. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    My daughter used to watch Baby TV with her little brother. One day, when she was 5, she told me that she didn’t like it anymore. I asked her why. She said, “There’s no girls on Baby TV.” I thought about it and realised that most programs actually did have male protagonists. I suggested one that definitely had a girl *and* boy in it. She looked at me witheringly and said: “Mum, *she’s* just the big sister!” I watched it and she was right. The girl was just there to enable and support her little brother’s adventures. :(

    She really does want to see herself reflected in the media in a positive and active way. And she still has no time for passive female roles.

  3. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    “+ Female characters in G-rated movies from 1990-2010, wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as female characters in R-rated movies.”

    I really thought about this one and decided that it bothers me A LOT.

    Also also also, President Roslin from BSG was technically in the past, you know because the hybrid is the precursor to modern humans, BUT she wasn’t American.

    I’m gonna go back into the nerd cave now.

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Hate to break it to you, but BSG actually takes place far in the past, long before the beginning of human civilization on our planet. This is made very clear at the end of the series.

  5. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Autostraddle does more on a Saturday than most people do all week. Great article on a great topic, and well written. Now I feel an uncontrollable yen to watch Thelma & Louis.

  6. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I recently had a convo with some bro friends at school where we noticed that “you can’t make it in Hollywood unless you’re gorgeous. Or funny. Well, funny and a man.” There are plenty of less attractive comedic actors (Jim Carrey, Steve Carrell), but most Hollywood women seem to be very conventionally attractive. They kinda laughed it off, joked about it, but I just got kinda quiet :(

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    That’s really cool of Geena Davis. IIRC, she’s also a member of Mensa.

    On thing though. I know BSG has a confusing story line, but it’s actually set in the past. At the end of the series they arrive on our Earth in the middle of the Stone Age.

    Yes, I’m a geek.

  8. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is great.
    The fact that she has the evidence to prove that what people, children especially, see on tv really affects their worldview. Its something that people often disregard as invalid, so stats are a great way to entice those same people to do take an interest and help make a change. Thanks so much for sharing.

    ———–({*})————
    For Women.
    For the Love of Women.
    http://www.VulvaLoveLovely.com

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.