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Geena Davis-Reeling in Gender Equality
Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Actress Geena Davis has long contended, “If she can see it, she can be it.”

It means: If girls see a woman playing a fighter pilot or CEO on TV, they think that they, too, can be a fighter pilot or CEO.

But, at the rate we’re currently going, we will not achieve parity for 700 years, Davis told more than a hundred people attending a Grand Dames Brunch and Women’s Leadership Celebration sponsored by Zions Bank Sunday at the Limelight Hotel.

“Fortunately,”  Davis said, “she has a secret weapon that is already prompting change: Statistics.” 

The Academy Award-winning actress founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media after noting that female characters were largely missing from the programs her then-young daughter was watching. Her institute is just now beginning to share the research it commissioned documenting gender inequality in entertainment.

Gender inequality is not just a Hollywood problem, Davis noted. The United States ranks 104th in the world among 190 countries when it comes to female representation in government—right in between Madagascar and Tajikistan. Although women make up more than half the U.S. population, Congress is 80 percent male.

“The New York Times figures if we continue at the rate we’re adding women to government, we will achieve parity in 500 years,” said Davis, whose daughter is now 14.

That doesn’t mean women aren’t every bit as talented as men. In 1970 women comprised only 5 percent of the top five orchestras in the United States. That number grew to 10 percent by 1980.

But, when orchestras began using blind auditions, just as many women were chosen as men. Once candidates were instructed to remove their footwear so the telltale sounds of their shoes couldn’t influence jury members, that is.

“That proves we can achieve parity. You just have to not see or hear us,” Davis said.

“A University of Denver study showed that women average just 20 percent of the leadership positions in business, academic and other sectors. And, no matter how abysmal the numbers are in the real world,  they’re far worse on screen, even though Hollywood claims to mirror society,” Davis said.

Even facial and vocal recognition technology used to analyze moving images determined that when women do play lead characters they speak three times less than their male counterparts.

“Rather strange,” Davis added, considering that films starring female characters make 15 percent more at the box office.”

“Davis said she fears that the underrepresentation of women in films may contribute to the lack of female leadership in other sectors because people infer that women and girls have far less value than males. Studies show that girls’ self-esteem goes down from watching TV while boys’ goes up,” she noted.

“There’s a body of study that says that you internalize that you must be unimportant, if you don’t see characters like you,” she said. “We’re sending a cultural message that women are second-class citizens. We’re saying to the girls and women: You’re less important.”

“Change has to be dramatic and it has to be now,” she added.

Conversely, images can be incredibly powerful in opening young girls to what they could be.

Davis, a semi-finalist to compete in the 2000 Olympics as an archer, noted that the percentage of girls taking up archery skyrocketed in 2012 when “Brave” and “The Hunger Games” came out. Seven of the 10 girls said they took it up because of Princess Merida and Katniss.

The number of females going into forensic science has burgeoned since women began appearing as forensic scientists in shows like “Law and Order.”

When Davis shows her research to Hollywood directors, their jaws drop.

“We had no idea. How did we never think about that?” they respond.

“Fortunately, change is as close as the next movie, the next TV show,” Davis said.

After seeing the stats, the producers of the hit TV show “Empire” rewrote a script calling for a rich white venture capitalist. Oscar winner Marisa Tomei got the role.

And Director and Producer Ryan Murphy, the man behind “Glee” and the new Bette Davis-Joan Crawford drama “Feud,” announced that there must be just as many women as men working on all his projects from now on.

“In most sectors where there’s tremendous gender inequality, you can’t snap your fingers and fix things overnight. The one place you can fix it overnight is on-screen. You can fix it in the time it takes to make the next TV show. So media can be a cure,” Davis said.

Davis’s remarks seemed to resonate with the women in the audience. Former state legislator Wendy Jaquet, who is leading Boise State University students in a project analyzing why there aren’t more women serving as county commissioners, said she had never thought about using the media to advance the cause of women in politics and other sectors of society.

National mountain bike champion Rebecca Rusch, whose film “Blood Road” kicked off the just-ended 2017 Sun Valley Film Festival, said she’s always tried to get girls and women into mountain biking through bike camps, clinics and other events.

“It was great hearing all the research and what it’s discovered,” she said. “There’s a lot of power behind that. And knowing about it will help me stay focused.”


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