Geena Davis Talks Gender Parity In Film
September 22, 2023
Geena Davis is an American actor, activist, producer and former model. She’s received an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for a British Academy Film Award and a Primetime Emmy Award. In 2019, she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her work fighting gender bias on and off-screen in Hollywood through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In the following discussion, she discusses why it's essential to have more women visible both on the screen and behind the scenes.

What statistics influenced the creation of the Geena Davis Institute?

The numbers show that men outnumber women behind and in front of the camera five to one. Part of its impact is that there are fewer female characters on screen than there would be if women were involved. If there's a woman, writer, director or producer on a project, the number of female characters on the screen goes up by as much as 10%. We could impact those numbers by convincing the people currently in those roles to add more females. Or we could put more women in those decision-making roles, and the numbers will change naturally.

It comes back to the power of the wallet. It makes a difference when women pay attention to and support women filmmakers and women-led shows.

From a macro perspective, are we headed in a direction where you see more women being hired in the entertainment industry?

Over the 20 years we studied the visibility of women in the entertainment industry, there wasn't much change at all. There was a .7% increase in the percentage of female characters, so we haven't thus far been able to measure an improvement. But we have a lot of anecdotal evidence now because we have taken the research directly to the source. We go directly to institutions like Fox and Disney. We go to everybody at the Writers Guild and the Animators Guild, and we share this research privately with them. We don't bust anybody publicly, and it's all confidential. The great thing is they are all shocked. They're floored to discover how these worlds they create have so few women contributing to their design. The overwhelming response that we've got is their desire to make changes.

I had one little experience with that in the movie Stuart Little. There was a remote control toy boat race, and I watched the assistant director hand out remotes. He picked a little boy from the extras and gave him the remote. Then he picked a little girl to stand behind him sort of encouragingly. He went down the line boy, boy, boy, in the front. Girl, girl, girl in the back. I said, "Hey, would it be okay if we give half of the remotes to girls?" And he said, "Yes! Why didn't I think of that?"

That's what the research is helping to do. It is making people realize and question why they do what they do.

Have you witnessed a difference in the employment of women since you have started approaching people within the industry?

There's been a lot of effort to get more female characters and more women employed in the media for a long time. All the guilds have a women's empowerment division whose sole purpose is to get more women employed. Those efforts have been going on since the women's empowerment movement in the 70s, but the numbers haven't really changed.

I see a lot of potential for that change within the next five years because everywhere we go, we get anecdotal evidence of people altering their projects to include more female characters because we made them more aware of the issue.

Do you think television and film are a reflection of consumerism?

So many decisions are made based on what merchandise can be sold with a movie. They'll change the color of something if the marketing people say a different color sells better. We even heard from an animation studio that made TV shows who wanted to add a female character to one of their shows that the buyer said, "What are you doing to us? You're just sucking up space. With a male character, we could sell more action figures." They had to take out the female character because they thought nobody would buy the female action figure. So yeah, they're both impacting each other.

You approach your work in a collegial, collaborative way. Why do you think that works?

After sharing the research with a group, I once jokingly pointed out that I was available as a female character they could hire. In the beginning, I didn't know how they would respond. But it's been great. I think they have been so receptive because I'm taking it to them privately. I'm not urging the public to rise up or boycott. I'm trying to work with them.

Every other year we have a symposium where we release new research and conduct a considerable study of the occupations of all female characters in all movies and all TV that are coming out in the fall. We get 400 to 500 top executives, producers and directors from Hollywood to go into the studios, as well as all the heads of the networks, so the industry is not offended by me.

Films either starring a woman or directed by a woman are equally as profitable as films starring or directed by a man.

One way to take action on many social issues is through consumer spending power. Are there studies that show that films with women leads are more or less profitable?

I'm glad you asked that. A very extensive study was done on this, and films either starring a woman or directed by a woman are equally as profitable as films starring or directed by a man. You have to adjust for the size of the budget. But once you do, the profit is exactly the same.

It comes back to the power of the wallet. It makes a difference when women pay attention to and support women filmmakers and women-led shows.

How do people get involved if they want to make a difference on this issue?

Go to for research and ideas.



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