• Academy Award winning actor Geena Davis gave the opening speech at All About Women at the Sydney Opera House addressing gender imbalances in the media. (Prudence Upton)Source: Prudence Upton
It wasn’t until Geena Davis had a daughter of her own that she noticed an alarming trend. While watching children’s TV and films with her toddler, who is now 14, there was a glaringly large absence of female characters.
Emily Nicol

10 Mar 2017 - 11:16 AM  UPDATED 10 Mar 2017 - 3:40 PM

It was a realisation that moved Davis so much that she decided to undertake some serious research, and officially founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The actor and activist, along with her team, pioneered the ‘largest body of research on gender prevalence in family entertainment spanning over 25 years’.

In her insightful speech at the opening session of All About Women at the Sydney Opera House earlier this month, the Academy Award winning actor, Olympian and Mensa member joked that she doesn’t do things in halves. “When I go for something, I want to go all the way!”

“For every female character, there are two-three males, and those females are typically stereotyped or highly sexualised."

In their initial groundbreaking study, the data that was uncovered confirmed what she had noticed: across the board in family entertainment, girls were outnumbered by boys three-to-one.

Davis provided an example. “For every female character, there are two-three males, and those females are typically stereotyped or highly sexualised. And the percentage of females in the majority of ‘crowd scenes’ was only 17 per cent”.

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So why do these stats matter? This lack of representation – what Davis terms ‘symbolic annihilation’, which makes those not represented on screen feel invisible and unimportant – manifests in different ways within society, and can determine what roles women feel the need to fill within the workplace, what challenges we take on and how we perceive beauty, as a start.

Davis spoke to the Sydney audience at length of her own career, saying she has consciously taken on roles that empower women and girls. She acknowledges that these choices were also a luxury, as she had options, quipping that were she ever to appear on our screens “as Sean Connery’s comatose wife, about right by Hollywood standards,” we would know she had run out of money.

Her assertions and belief that what we see on screen is mirrored in real life really take shape when you look at the effect such films as ‘The Hunger Games’ and animated hit ‘Brave’ had on girls. Davis cited the graph example of girls taking up archery around the same time these movies with a strong female lead were released, “participation rates shot up”.

Another example of this effect, she says, can be seen in the amount of women pursuing forensic science, ahead of all other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas of study, with a dramatic increase of demand for the course, which at one point outweighed supply options. Davis thanks popular TV dramas such as ‘CSI’ and ‘Bones’ for the popularity increase. “Maybe if we saw it on screen, we would do these things… Vote for women, negotiate salary, etcetera,” Davis says.

The actress also reflects on the emotional repercussions that female media representation (or lack of) has on children. “We have found that the more hours a girl watches TV for, the less choices she feels she has, and the lower her self- esteem.” For boys however, her institute found, it is the opposite.

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So what can we do? Davis has been making inroads, using her vast connections within Hollywood to sit down with the content creators and show them the cold hard facts. Her preference is to work with them to help change representation on the screen. Davis noted that most people she approached already thought they were doing a great job of presenting a balanced view of society.

“I never shame people. When you point out the numbers, people are horrified. Specifically, when you are talking about things made for kids.”

“We have found that the more hours a girl watches TV for, the less choices she feels she has, and the lower her self- esteem.” 

Slowly but surely the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is having an impact, with research following initial consultations showing that a large percentage of content creators changed two or more of their projects to address the issue of gender imbalance.

While this is promising, there is still much to be done. In the latest round of research, using a sophisticated new automated tool, the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ) to look at screen time and speaking time among male and female leads, the figures overwhelmingly show that 'male characters received two times the amount of screen time as female characters in 2015 (28.5 per cent compared to 16.0 per cent). In 2015, male characters spoke twice as often as female characters in the top box office movies (28.4 per cent compared to 15.4 per cent)'.

“You can reach parity. You just have to not see or hear us.” Davis laughs, adding that in the issue of gender imbalance in these fictional worlds, “media can cure the problem, overnight! We just need to add women: on screen, behind the scenes and as policy makers. Include women.”

For more information and resources on the work of the Geena Davis Institute head here. Love the story? Follow the author here: Facebook and Instagram.

Want to watch sassy movies with strong female characters? Check out SBS's International Women's Day movie collection and it's Top 10 Fearless Females selection on SBS On Demand. 

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