Geena Davis Takes Aim at Media Representation of Women, Girls


Geena Davis

Geena Davis speaks Jan. 9 about her life in acting and how it has informed her work as a gender parity advocate at PCMA Convening Leaders 2019. (Jacob Slaton)

The message from the media is that women and girls have far less value than men and boys, said Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis during Wednesday’s Closing Session at Convening Leaders 2019. Women make up 51 percent of the population, yet account for only a fraction of the speaking roles in films. Even when women do have leading roles in movies, they have only one third as much time onscreen as their male counterparts, the actor said.

Davis, who became a feminist icon after she portrayed Thelma in the stereotype-busting film Thelma & Louise, is on a mission to create awareness of the sharp differences in how males and females are depicted — and how often they show up — in popular media.

“Data is the magic key,” in building awareness of the problem, said Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media 15 years ago to study how girls and women are represented in media and entertainment.

Geena Davis

Geena Davis tells one of several funny stories Jan. 9 during her closing keynote at PCMA Convening Leaders 2019. (Jacob Slaton)

Research has demonstrated that just improving the number of female characters playing lead roles in television shows and movies can create change in the real world. “Boys and men always dominated the sport of archery,” said Davis, who herself was a semifinalist in the Olympic trials in the sport. In 2012, the number of girls in archery skyrocketed. That was the year when the movies The Hunger Games and Brave, which both featured female archers as lead characters, were released.

Forensic science is another example of how the fictional world can lead the real world. After shows featuring strong female characters as forensic scientists aired, the number of women studying forensic science exploded, Davis said. “About 75 percent of those studying [forensic science] are women. Because they saw it on TV.”

“If she can see it, she can be it,” is the Institute’s tagline. Using her influence to persuade filmmakers and television producers to create more powerful female characters is one of the fastest ways to create role models for young women, Davis said.

Eventually strong female media images could change the gender balance in other spheres, including academia, politics, and business, where women hold only about 20 percent of leadership roles, she said.

Awareness is the first step. We also must actively address the unconscious bias that underlies gender inequity, Davis said. She called on PCMA members to “become aware of your implicit biases. You must take proactive steps and have policies in place” in order to address gender imbalance.

That applies to creating business events that equally represent male and female genders, Davis told Convene. “You have to be deliberate and set goals. Don’t just take the easy way” and ask the same people who’ve always spoken, she said. The experience “will be richer with more diversity,” she added.

Davis’ rallying cry for gender equality was a strong ending to Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh.

Convene content partner Ascend wrote this story.

Quotes from PCMA Convening Leaders Day 3

Geena Davis

The “map” created by Michelle Boos-Stone of Five Elements Consulting Group charts Geena Davis’s closing keynote at Convening Leaders 2019. (Curt Wagner)