Geena Davis Addresses Gender Inequality

By | May 2nd, 2015 | News & Views

Actor doesn’t talk about women of color enough

Award-winning actor Geena Davis took the stage in Ithaca College’s Ford Hall March 31 to discuss the portrayal of women in the media. That’s right — actor. Davis said she doesn’t use the term “actress” because “in the dictionary, ‘actor’ means a person who acts,” she told the crowd matter-of-factly after introducing herself.

That Davis acknowledged the impact of gendered terms is indicative of her sharpness, awareness and dedication to improving the portrayal of women in the media. As she stood at the front of the packed auditorium, Davis spoke to the audience about what is wrong with Hollywood’s treatment of women, and why it absolutely must change.

Davis is certainly no rookie to the entertainment industry; she’s had a long and wildly successful acting career, with defining roles in films such as Beetlejuice, The Fly, Thelma & Louise, Stuart Little, A League of their Own, and The Accidental Tourist, for which she won the 1988 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Davis discussed everything from her upbringing in Massachusetts to her beginnings in Hollywood to later founding the Geena Davis Institute in 2007. The Institute is the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industries to educate and influence those behind the camera to reduce gender imbalance and stereotyping in the media.

Throughout her speech, Davis repeatedly emphasized that the ratio of male to female characters in film and television has, shockingly, remained the same since 1946. That’s not only absurd, but it’s inexcusable. While females make up just over 50 percent of the U.S. population, males outnumber them 3 to 1 in family films, according to the Geena Davis Institute.

“If you grow up seeing this wildly imbalanced ratio,” Davis said, “that looks normal.”

The issue is certainly not limited to lead roles, either. Davis lamented that, according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute, in crowd scenes, only 17 percent of characters are female. “That must mean that women don’t gather,” she joked.

With over half the country comprised of females, this is not only an inaccurate representation, but a troubling one. There’s no explanation other than the glaringly obvious.

“Right now, without even realizing it, the message we’re carrying around is girls and women are second-class citizens,” Davis said.

In addition to being significantly underrepresented in the media, women are also victims of hyper-sexualization. Davis told the crowd about a new study that found by age 6, girls are beginning to think of themselves in sexualized terms. She went on to explain the function of females in film is usually to serve as eye candy, and female aspirations in G-rated movies are almost always to find love.

Research conducted by the Geena Davis Institute in 2008 found in popular films rated G, PG, PG-13 and R, 21.3 percent of females wore sexually revealing clothing. The research found females were five times more likely to wear sexually revealing clothes on screen than men. The Institute also found females were three times more likely than men to have a thin figure, with 33.5 percent embodying this image.

One might think when looking solely at G-rated films, these numbers would drastically decrease, but they don’t. In fact, they remain virtually the same. In the same study, the Institute found when narrowing the focus to those films with a G-rating, the amount of females wearing revealing clothing dropped exactly 1 percent, while the amount of female characters portrayed with a thin body type dropped a whopping 0.4 percent. We know G-rated films are made for kids, so exactly what message is Hollywood sending young boys and girls? Basically, that women are here for the viewing pleasure of men. This is detrimental, dangerous and frightening.

On top of being so often sexualized, female characters also tend to be given lesser ambitions than males when it comes to careers. According to a 2012 report from the Institute, only 29.6 percent of characters working as doctors in prime time television were female, while 70.4 percent of the characters holding that position were male. And while 72.2 percent of high-level politicians on TV were male, only 27.8 percent were female. So, not only are we sending children the message that women are less important and are the sexual objects of men, but we’re also telling them women have fewer aspirations than men.

Davis said these troubling messages are precisely why the Institute focuses on entertainment media made for kids 11 and under.
“I wanted to focus on them because I want to fix the problem from the beginning, rather than having to fix the social ills that it causes later,” she said. “If we could show kids — boys and girls — sharing the sandbox equally, taking up the same amount of space, I think it would tremendously impact how they feel about each other when they’re adults.”

The fact that Davis is looking at the big picture here is extremely important. It’s undeniable that the media has the potential to both create and reinforce attitudes of misogyny and gender discrimination in viewers, particularly young ones. Late media scholar George Gerbner, who originally introduced this concept, referred to academically as cultivation theory, stated the stories that “animate our cultural environment” have three functions: to reveal how things work, to describe what things are and to tell us what to do about them.

Therefore, if a 6-year-old boy regularly watches television and movies, which we know portray men as more numerous, aspirational and powerful than women, it’s likely going to affect his understanding of women’s status and roles in the world. He might begin to see women as less than him, as mere background characters in real life.

This sort of gender discrimination and misogyny forms the very basis of rape culture. It fuels male entitlement to female bodies. It’s why men grow up to think it’s okay to catcall women on the street, to grope them on the dance floor, to drug their drinks and take them home barely conscious.

It’s also why the American Association of University Women reported in 2013 that women in the U.S. were being paid 78 percent of what men were paid. And it’s why only 4.6 percent of those holding CEO positions at S&P companies are women, according to the S&P 500 list. Making female characters in the media more numerous and substantial is absolutely key to solving this problem, and it’s comforting to know Davis and the Institute are committed to doing just that.

However, there’s still a considerable obstacle in the way before we can adequately fix the issue. While Davis brought up countless compelling points, there was one important area she didn’t quite delve into: the portrayal of women of color in the media.

Blacks, Asian Americans, Latinos/Latinas and Native Americans are among those most plagued by both underrepresentation and stereotyping in movies and television. And, following the unfortunate trend, the women of these groups are starkly outnumbered by the men.

The fact that Davis did not address the issue of diversity within the portrayal of women in the media is indicative of the fact that the Institute itself has not adequately addressed this issue in its research.

Only one reference to women of color is found in the Institute’s published research — in the report entitled “Gender Roles & Occupations,” which contained a small section that assessed gender imbalance within ethnic groups. It found, of course, that across all ethnicities, men are indeed significantly more numerous in the media than women.

However, one small section is not enough. It does not address how women of different ethnicities are actually portrayed in the media, which is equally important since we know these groups are often subject to extreme stereotyping. The Institute has consistently produced detailed, in-depth reports on the stereotyping of females, but using the blanket term of female both oversimplifies the issue and obscures an integral part of the picture.

The problem is, not all women are treated equally in our society; therefore, when examining how we’re presenting them in film and television, it’s extremely important that we dig deeper. If we’re going to attempt to fix the problematic portrayal of women in the media, we cannot simply group all women together and hope to bring about some miraculous change. If this is the approach we continue to take, it’s likely women of color will be almost entirely left out of any progress we make. And if that’s the case, then we’re not truly making progress.

Of course, it’s not just the Geena Davis Institute that is neglecting to include diversity as a factor in its research; it’s remarkably difficult to find any data at all on the portrayal of women of color in the media, which is both puzzling and profoundly troubling. While there are a meager number of studies on the depiction of minority groups as a whole, research specifically focusing on the women in these groups is virtually nowhere to be found. Not many have seemed to make it a priority to investigate the portrayal of Asian American women, Native American women or Latinas in the media.

Likewise, it’s very difficult to find solid research on the portrayal of black women in the media. And the limited research that is available doesn’t paint a pretty picture. One study conducted by Essence Magazine found respondents were receiving an overwhelmingly negative image of black women from the media they consumed. Based on the portrayals they saw of black women in film and television, respondents put them into the following categories: gold diggers, baby mamas, angry black women, mean black girls and black barbies, among others.

These are startling results, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. More research on both the prevalence and portrayal of women of color in the media is absolutely necessary if we ever want to improve the fairness and equity in Hollywood’s treatment of women. While the burden does not lie solely on the shoulders of the Geena Davis Institute, it certainly has a significant responsibility to expand its research in this direction.

The bottom line is while the Institute’s current research is immensely important, it needs to make ethnicity a central factor in its studies. There is no doubt Davis is an exceedingly brilliant, insightful woman, and the fact that she is using her position to effect important change in the industry is extremely admirable. This oversight certainly does not diminish all of the valid and important points she made; however, if she had brought women of color into the discussion, Davis could have made her good speech a fantastic one.


Kathryn Paquet is a senior TVR major who is still waiting to be cast in a movie. You can email her at kpaquet1@ithaca.edu.

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