Where are all the strong female characters?
That’s what award-winning actress Geena Davis asked herself after watching several television shows and movies with her young daughter. Seeking to answer this question, Davis launched The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2007.
With collaboration from University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, and headed by Dr. Stacy Smith, The Geena Davis Institute conducted “the largest research study ever done on G-rated films and kids’ television programs.” The findings confirmed what Davis suspected: “There were far more male characters than female; the male characters were doing all the interesting things and having the adventures. The female characters were stereotyped, often serving as eye candy.” (To read the full study, click here.)
The results of the study led Davis to ask more questions: “With such disempowering images, then, what message are girls absorbing about themselves? And what message are boys taking in about the worth and importance of girls? In fact, studies show that the more television girls watch, the more limited they consider their options in life; the more boys watch, the more sexist their views become.”
Davis, no stranger to portraying strong women on-screen (including the President of the United States in the TV show Commander in Chief), began to understand the impact of gender roles can have on people after starring in Thelma & Louise.
“The reaction of people [to the movie], especially women, was overwhelming. They’d stop me and talk about how this movie changed their lives. I realized that we give women too few female characters they can really cheer for who have meaning for them.
The next movie I did was ‘A League of Their Own’ where I suddenly had 15-year-old girls coming up and saying, ‘That movie changed my life; I play sports because of that movie.’“
Since concluding the study, Davis has been working hard to promote more strong female representation in the media. “We judge our value by seeing ourselves reflected in culture,” Davis said. “So we’re acculturating the next generation to feel women are lesser [by not representing them].”
She has spoken at conferences and written articles, urging entertainment executives to tell more stories that have women as the main characters and whose goals are not exclusively romantic. She’s also working on an updated version of the study that covers movies from 2006 to 2009, in addition to “interviewing directors, producers, writers to talk about their perception, beliefs, attitudes.“
Davis is relentless in the pursuit of gender equality in the media, especially for children. “Kids need to see entertainment where females are valued as much as males.” She hopes to share with her daughter a day “when gender inequality is no longer a fairytale.“
Gender inequality is unfortunately still a reality, both on-screen and off-screen, but you can take action to help secure equal rights for women by signing the following petitions:
- End Female Genital Cutting in Europe
- End Forced Female Sterilization
- End Violence Against Girls
- Equal Pay for Equal Work