An Academy Award winning actor and respected Hollywood icon, Geena Davis dedicated her career to making her mark on screen. Now as a mother of a young daughter and twin boys, she’s fostering change behind the scenes and making an important contribution. Through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, she informs the public about the need to increase the number of girls and women in media aimed at young children. “When my daughter Alizeh was 2, we started watching some kids’ shows and G-rated videos together. I began to notice there were a lot more male characters than female ones,” she recalls. “It seemed that this gender disparity was omnipresent in entertainment aimed at the youngest children.”
Geena knows the influence the media can have over young children, having been drawn to the spotlight at a young age. She grew up in Massachusetts and was an avid participant in school plays, eventually studying drama at Boston University. It would be a few years before she’d catapult to stardom, working at first as a model after signing on with an agency in New York. Between gigs, Geena relentlessly auditioned for acting roles, launching her film career with Tootsie in 1982. Just six years later, she won the Oscar for her portrayal of “Muriel Pritchett” in The Accidental Tourist.
This empowering woman has demonstrated a pioneering spirit throughout her career. When offered the opportunity to play the first woman president of the United States in the television series Commander in Chief, she jumped at the chance. “Through playing that part, I met Marie Wilson of The White House Project, who thought that seeing a woman in the Oval Office would help people picture it in real life. As it turned out, a survey done at the time showed that people familiar with the show were much more likely to say they would vote for a female presidential candidate,” she reflects.
Now Geena receives equal praise for her non-profit work to create change. She began raising concerns with studio executives over her observations of female portrayals in the media. “Most said that they certainly were not guilty of favoring male characters. That’s when I realized that in order to make a difference, I would need the data, not just my impression as a viewer,” she explains.
In 2004 Geena created the See Jane program. Together with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, the program commissioned the largest content analyses ever done on G-rated movies and TV shows for kids 11 and under. “The data makes a very strong impression on the people responsible for kids’ media,” Geena asserts. “Most are completely shocked at the level of gender inequality, including the products their companies are producing.”
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media was established in 2007 also to reduce the stereotyping of males and females. Unyielding and tenacious, Geena partnered with UNIFEM, the women’s development fund at the United Nations, to encourage the investigation of issues of grave importance to women and to use a “gender” lens when reporting. “It’s been pointed out that a high percentage of media consumed in foreign markets is created in the US. So it’s crucial that Hollywood show boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally, not only for our own kids but for kids around the world.”
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One of the first studies that prompted Geena to take continuous action, Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV, revealed these key findings. In tracking the portrayals of male and female characters in 101 of the top-grossing G-rated movies from 1990 to 2005,
- Fewer than one out of three (28%) of the speaking characters (both real and animated) are female.
- More than four out of five (83%) of the films’ narrators are male.
- 85.5% of the characters in G-rated films are white, 4.8% are black, and 9.7% are from “other” ethnicities.