Geena Davis is something of an over-achiever: member of Mensa, Olympic archer, UN special envoy for women and girls in technology, film producer, writer, former fashion model and mother of three. She also finds time to star in the odd movie and there’s an Oscar on her mantelpiece.
In Sydney to speak about women in media at the All About Women forum at Sydney Opera House yesterday, Davis issued a challenge: “Media can be the cure for the problem it has created,” she said.
She is becoming increasingly recognised for See Jane, formally the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which she launched in 2007 and which brought her to the Australian festival.
Her speech was warm, witty and uplifting – but it didn’t pull any punches. She shared the story about being the tallest kid in school, with her fondest wish “to take up less space”.
Only when the 183cm-tall actor was 36, starring in A League of Their Own and finally appreciative of her own athletic ability, did she feel good about her body.
She also spoke about the lengths she went to to win her Academy Award-nominated role in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, the 1991 movie that she said changed her life.
When the film was released to overwhelming response, it made her realise just how few opportunities there were to see empowered female characters on screen, and it inspired her to found the institute.
Davis said throughout her career she’d consciously chosen roles that empowered women and girls. The 60-year-old acknowledged this was a luxury because she “hasn’t run out of money yet”, and added that if she ever appears as Sean Connery’s comatose wife – “about right, by Hollywood standards” – we should realise she’s broke.
It was when her now 14-year-old daughter was a toddler, and Davis started watching movies with her, that she realised how woeful the depictions of women in family movies really were.
She was particularly struck by just how few speaking characters in these films were female. She took this point to colleagues, but most denied it. They couldn’t see a problem.
In 2008 she sponsored the largest study carried out on gender depictions in family-rated films and children’s television over the past 20 years.
It found that for every female speaking-character, there were 2.5 or three male characters – a figure unchanged since 1946.
The vast majority of those female characters were stereotypical or highly sexualised, with ambitions largely related to romance.
Even crowd scenes were made up of only 17% women.
In 2005 Davis played the first female US president on TV, in the short-lived drama Commander In Chief. She told the audience she was delighted to accept the role – not least because female participation in US government hovered – and continues to hover – about 19%.
She told the audience that number kept jumping out at her in her research: numbers for women in Congress, media, print journalism, engineering, law, the military and more all fall below 20%.
It seemed an uneasy coincidence that the number of female characters in family movies were around the same mark.
So her institute commissioned more research: a global study of gender in film in the world’s 10 biggest markets, including Australia.
The findings were bleak, she said. Of those characters seen to be holding a job, 77.5% were male and 22.5% were female.
Women in leadership and science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) fields were dramatically under-represented in film, and of the 127 characters holding political office, only 12 were women.
When she took these numbers to studio executives, she said they were horrified, with many vowing to do better.
And while there is some way to go, it seems to have had an impact. In follow-up research, 68% said they had changed two or more of their projects; 41% changed four or more.
After hearing about the research, director Mark Osmond made the lead character in his animated film The Little Prince female.
Davis is confident there will be further progress in the next five to 10 years because there is a willingness to make change.
Making the change behind the camera will not be as easy. Research has shown that in the US, there are 4.8 males working behind the scenes for every female, with similar figures in Australia.
She pointed to Glee and American Horror Story director/producer Ryan Murphy who set up the Half foundation in 2016, to have 50% representation both in front of and behind the cameras on all his productions.
To the audience poised for a standing ovation, she said all sectors needed more women to help achieve equality: “On screen, add women; behind the camera, add women; in media, add women; in law and on corporate boards, add women.”