She played quirky in “The Accidental Tourist” and presidential in “Commander in Chief.” Harried housewife-on-the-run in “Thelma & Louise,” she celebrated a different sort of rule-breaker in “A League of Their Own.”
Along the way, Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis became something of a modern day Renaissance woman, qualifying for Mensa and taking up archery (and nearly making the U.S. Olympic team) in her early 40s.
Indeed, there didn’t seem to be anything that Davis, who will be a keynote speaker at NSBA’s Annual Conference in April in San Diego, couldn’t accomplish — except, perhaps, shielding her young daughter from the damaging female stereotypes she had so gleefully busted throughout her career.
They were watching television, she and her then-2-year-old, about a decade ago when Davis noticed how few female characters there were in children’s entertainment — and how limited these characters’ roles often were. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has collected the largest body of research on how, and in what way, females are portrayed in the media.
She recently talked with American School Board Journal Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy about gender stereotyping, playing unusual characters, and why she took up archery.
Watching G-rated movies with your daughter really alerted you to the gender imbalance in entertainment media. What did you do then?
At first I just wanted to mention it to people. I didn’t think I was going to make it my life’s mission or anything. But it seemed like nobody was noticing, and when I talked to people in the industry, if I happened to have a meeting with a producer or a studio executive, I’d say, “Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in G-rated movies?” And they would say, “Oh, no. no, no, that’s been fixed.” So it seemed that everybody either didn’t notice or thought it was already fixed.
What did the institute’s research discover?
The results were quite startling. In family film ratings — which would be G, PG, and PG-3 — for every one female character there were three male characters. And if it was a crowd scene or a group scene, only 17 percent of the characters were female, which is kind of mind-boggling. This is both in live action and animated films.
We also looked at the quality of the characters and found that the majority of female characters in these family films were either very narrowly stereotyped or hyper-sexualized. In animated films the female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as in G-rated movies, which is also extremely strange and disturbing.
Why is this important?
We are, in effect, training kids from the beginning not to notice gender imbalance in our society. We’re training them to see worlds where female characters don’t take up half the space. This is all unconscious, of course.
Did you ever find yourself pigeonholed in your film career or asked to play stereotyped roles?
Well, my first role was in the movie “Tootsie.” I spent most of the time in my underwear. The joke was that Dustin [Hoffman’s] character, pretending to be a woman, shared a dressing room with me, and it was very uncomfortable for him. So [the part] was just all about being sexy and whatever.
But, you know, I’ve been very lucky — part of it is by planning and part not — but I’ve always wanted to play unusual characters, characters that aren’t just the girlfriend. Certainly, I was offered those parts, but I really always wanted to say, “Yeah, but what do I do? What do I actually do?” So then, I ended up in kind of unique movies, like “The Fly.” And eventually I got to be a baseball phenomenon, and a fire captain, and a kind of a road warrior in ” Thelma & Louise,” so I feel like I escaped a lot of that from pretty early on.
How did you get into archery?
I know — it seems so random. It was just from watching the Atlanta Olympics on TV. There was a lot of coverage of archery because the American men were doing extremely well. I just was kind of taken with it, and said: “Wow, that’s so beautiful and dramatic. I wonder if I could be good at archery?” I took it up at 41, and two and a half years later I was a semifinalist in the Olympic trials. So that was pretty crazy to find myself at 43 at the Olympic trials.
You said your talks with producers and studio executives have been very positive – that they’ve been genuinely concerned about gender imbalance their works and want to do something to help. Where would you like to see this lead?
Basically, what we’re trying to do is change what kids see from the beginning. The ideal would be that if they could grow up seeing boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally, then that’s the ratio they will come to see as normal and expect in their work environment.
More information about NSBA’s Annual Conference in San Diego April 13 to 15 is available at the Annual Conference website.