Nº 4 2012 > World Telecommunication and Information Society Award 2012 - Meet the laureates

Geena Davis

Hollywood icon and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

Geena Davis, Hollywood icon and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in MediaGeena Davis, Hollywood icon and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, receiving the 2012 award from Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU Secretar
Geena Davis, Hollywood icon and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Geena Davis, Hollywood icon and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, receiving the 2012 award from Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU Secretary-General

Geena Davis is a Hollywood icon and one of its most respected actors, having appeared in several landmark roles. She is an Academy Award winner who made her feature film debut starring opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”. She went on to star in such films as “The Fly”, “Beetlejuice”, “Earth Girls are Easy”, “Angie”, “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, and “Stuart Little”. She is also a world-class athlete having competed in international events in archery.

Ms Davis is recognized for her tireless advocacy on behalf of women and girls. She is the founder of the non-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate and influence people to ensure gender balance, reduce stereotyping and create a broad mix of female characters for entertainment that targets children aged 11 years and under.

Geena Davis is an official partner of UN Women in a global effort to change the way the media represent women and girls worldwide. She is ITU’s Special Envoy for women and girls in the field of information and communication technology.

Geena Davis shares her life stories

I have appeared on screen as everything from a pirate captain to the President of the United States. The first role I ever played was as a man. As little girls back in the 1960s, my best friend and I play-acted at being brave characters from westerns. Because I was taller, I would often play the father, and she would be my son. And because we were young we never noticed that there were no female characters from movies and television that we wanted to pretend to be.

I have spent most of my adult life advocating for women and girls, and one small way has been in seeking roles that I believed would be constructive for women. I was once in a movie called “Earth girls are easy”, but this was very early on, and I’ve become incredibly serious since then.

Half of the world is invisible

Five years ago, I launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and its programming arm called See Jane. This first came about from watching children’s television and videos and G‑rated (general audience — all ages admitted) movies with my then 2 year old daughter, Alizeh. I was stunned to see that there seemed to be far more male characters than female characters in these entertainments that were aimed at the youngest of children. I checked with my associates and with industry leaders, and no-one seemed to be aware of the serious gender imbalance that we are feeding kids through the images that they see. In partnership with the Annenberg School for communication and the University of Southern California, we sponsored the largest research analysis (performed by Dr Stacey Smith) ever done into the content of movies and children’s television programmes. The results were stunning — even though I knew in my heart what they would likely be.

At the dawn of a new millennium, when 50 per cent of the global population is female, the message being sent to children in their seemingly innocuous kid’s entertainment media, is that women and girls do not take up half the space in the world, and that women and girls have far less value in society than men and boys.

We might assume today that the marginalization and invisibility of female characters would be a relic of the past. Unfortunately, the reality is that gender stereotypes remain deeply entrenched in today’s entertainment, and there has been no significant progress over the past 20 years. Currently, for each female character, there are approximately three male characters. The increase in the number of female characters in G‑rated films during the past two decades is 0.7 per cent. By my calculation, if we keep on adding female characters at this rate, we will achieve parity in 700 years. That is too slow.

Sex symbols and nonentities

Our research also revealed that when female characters do exist in children’s media, the vast majority are highly stereotyped or hypersexualized. The animated female characters in G‑rated movies wear the same type of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R‑rated movies (restricted viewing – children under 17 require an accompanying parent or adult guardian). Additionally, animated female characters, because they can be drawn this way, are highly likely to be shown with a waist so small that it is questionable whether a spinal column could actually fit in there.

The stark gender inequality in media aimed at children is of importance to our discussion of women and girls in ICT, because television and movies can wield enormous influence on young children as they are developing an idea of their role in society and thinking about career choices. Our research shows that females are missing from critical occupational sectors. In a study of all G‑rated films from 2006 to 2009, out of 800 speaking characters 80.5 per cent of the jobs were held by men, and 19.5 per cent of the jobs were held by women. This is in sharp contrast to the real world where women perform 66 per cent of the work. Our research also showed that not one female in these G‑rated movies is depicted in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in the law profession or in politics. There were characters in those careers but all of them were male. All of the criminals were also male, but I am not going to fight for parity in that area.

The aspirations of the female characters were limited almost exclusively to finding romance, and one of the most common female occupations in G‑rated movies was royalty, which is a nice gig if you can get it.

Communicating cultural stereotypes

Studies have shown that the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life, and the more hours a boy watches the more sexist his views become. And because kids tend to watch the same TV shows and movies over and over again, negative stereotypes are repeatedly imprinted on them from a very vulnerable age.

So what message are we sending to boys and girls if there are so few female characters, and if the female characters are one-dimensional, sidelined, stereotyped, hypersexualized, or simply not there at all? Children need to see an abundance of female characters of every kind occupying the space that is rightfully theirs. Seeing women take their full role will enhance awareness of the benefits for the family and community of women’s empowerment, professional training, and non-traditional career choices.

See it and be it

We know that when girls see characters engaged in unstereotyped activities, it can heighten the likelihood that they will pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. In other words, if they see it, they can be it. And if boys can see girl characters engaged in non-traditional occupations, they will come to see it as the norm and not the exception. The media have a strong influence on society, and can have a powerful impact when used towards making a cultural shift. Media can create positive opportunities to overcome social and cultural barriers — that is why I launched the institute. Armed with our research, we partner with the decision-makers and the creators of children’s entertainment in Hollywood to foster a dramatic improvement in the gender balance that our youngest children see.

Change does not happen easily. In my industry, content creators simply do not notice how few female characters there are.

Add women, change everything

In the United States, there is an organization called the White House Project that advocates for more women to hold leadership positions. They released a benchmark report a couple of years ago looking across ten sectors of society to find the percentage of women in positions of leadership and authority. The average was 18 per cent. The motto of the White House Project is “Add women, change everything”, and this concept covers all of our work to empower women and girls. Improving media images is just one facet of empowering women and girls.

The fierce urgency of now

The status of women and girls is already changing, and I believe ICT will lead the way towards equality. All of us, non-governmental organizations, public-private partnerships, along with ITU and other United Nations agencies, must leverage our combined influence to advocate for gender equality. We will embrace what Dr Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now”. We will not wait to see if real gender equality happens in the natural course of time, when all of the evidence tells us that it won’t. Our world can only improve when women and girls are given their right as equal contributors and participants in every area of society.


Celebrating ITU’s 150 Years

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