Geena Davis: family films feature one female speaking character to three males

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of covering Geena Davis’s interview with ET Online, in which she discussed her nonprofit organization, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Geena, 59, explained that watching family shows with her three kids, twin boys age 11 and a 13 year-old daughter, helped her notice the lack of girls in children’s media. She started the Institute on Gender in Media to do fact-based research on the statistics behind gender representation on screen. Geena has been trying to educate people behind the scenes on the importance of more equal screen time and appropriate roles for women and girls. In a new essay on The Daily Beast, she goes in depth as to how this issue still exists, how studio execs have been in denial, and how she’s attempted to make changes. You can read her full essay on The Daily Beast and here are some excerpts:

On how no one thought there was a problem at first
The thing is, I didn’t plan then to become a big fat expert. I figured I would just mention it when I had meetings around town and see what people said. But when I asked directors, producers, and studio execs, “Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in G and PG-rated movies?” the response from every single person was, “No, that’s been fixed.”

The statistics are sobering
In what we call family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), for every one female speaking character, there are about three male speaking characters. And get this: the crowd scenes in these movies— live-action and animated—are made up of only 17 percent female characters. Seventeen percent? How does that even happen? The only reason I can think of is that Hollywood writers believe women don’t like to gather.

The roles for women are usually secondary
Of course it’s not just the quantity of female characters that’s shocking—it’s the quality as well. Women hold only 20 percent of the jobs, and it’s extremely rare that they’re a leader in any field. They’re profoundly sexualized, even in G-rated movies, and very often are simply the token female, or serve the function of eye candy. They are not having half of the adventures or doing half of the interesting things that male characters do.

How she was able to make changes
But there’s good news, too: things will change, and very soon. Once I had the data, I started visiting all the studios, networks, guilds, and production companies and presented the research to them in a private, collegial way. The reaction? Their jaws were on the floor. They had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters. Sure, they knew they were making fewer movies with female leads, but the fact that they were creating fictitious worlds nearly bereft of any female presence was big news to them. You might think it’s weird for creators not to realize what’s in their creations (or what’s left out of them), but think about it: they were all raised on the same ratio of male-to-female characters, and absorbed the same unconscious bias we all have.

[From The Daily Beast, headers added]

Geena said that a survey she conducted revealed that 68% of the people who heard her presentation said that it had prompted them to change 2 or more of their projects and that 41% said they had changed 4 or more projects as a result. She wrote that it’s still too early to tell, but that “when the needle does move, after nearly 7 decades of being completely stuck, it will be historic.” At least we’re having these conversations now, as frustrating as it seems that we need to still have them and that people deny there’s even an issue.

I would like to add another form of media in which women are vastly underrepresented, serve as accessories and are unnecessarily sexualized: video games. My son is a gamer and I like to watch and follow the plot as he plays. He’s been playing Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and I’m really disappointed in how that game portrays women. I can understand the lack of female characters in an historical context in which women’s roles were limited (i.e. Assassin’s Creed, can’t wait to see the new one), but in games set in present day this needs to change.

The BFI LUMINOUS gala dinner

BFI London Film Festival - 'Suffragette' - Premiere

BFI London Film Festival - 'Suffragette' - Premiere

photo credit: and Getty Images

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20 Responses to “Geena Davis: family films feature one female speaking character to three males”

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  1. vauvert says:

    Good to see an actress who is doing something about the inequality in film. So often we bemoan how female stars don’t don enough to advance the cause of equality and here is one lady who does. Awesome! (On a side note I really wish she hadn’t done work – she was lovely and I miss her old face. Hopefully as attitudes in HW slowly…. change actresses won’t feel the need to go under the knife in order to extend their career.)

  2. Narek says:

    I’m impressed and hopeful that her research will make a difference in the near future. When I was in art school the Guerilla Girls were asking us if women had to be naked to get into museums.

  3. mia girl says:

    This idea that things have been fixed is a fallacy. In fact, in some particular cases, it’s worse… example: Ridley Scott’s film about Moses, “Exodus Gods and Kings”.

    HBO is airing the film now, so I decided to watch the other night. It is bad on many levels, including the much discussed “whitewashing” of the story. But what surprised me most of all, and pissed me off most of all, was how insignificant all the female characters were. They were all background wives and moms with a few lines here and there. The most shocking thing is comparatively, the 1956 classic “The Ten Commandments” had female characters that were much more prominent and better fleshed out as strong women. That is insane. Sixty years later and our modern re-telling basically put the women in the backdrop.

  4. Naya says:

    Celebitchy, be sure to steel yourself if you ever decide to present your gender concerns about games on ANY forum where male gamers congregate. I personally know someone who was doxxed (had her real identity revealed by the super sleuthing tech geeks who live on those sites). She was terrified for months that someone would decide to physically execute the rape/beating/ murder threats she received. And that’s not even an unusual response from those guys.

    • INeedANap says:

      Yeah, it usually goes something like this:

      “How dare you say gamers are misogynists, you stupid wh*re! I hope you get raped, feminazi!”

      I don’t know how you can play video games on a regular basis and think the representation of women is on par with men, both in quality and quantity.

    • MrsNix says:

      I really believe that female gamers, and there are many of us, will be the community that is able to bring change to that arena.

      You have to realize that when you approach the public online boards in the world of gaming, you’re talking to the 16-21 year-old hacker wannabe (and a few who are the real deal) set that congregates on 4chan. This is a BROAD generalization, but the general tone of these folks is immature, arrogant, and extraordinarily ready to troll. They are the voice you encounter because they are loud and belligerent. They are not, however, a majority of the gaming population.

      Very few of the “normal” or “average” casual gamers spend a lot of time in conversation outside of their own gaming groups and guilds discussing these things.

      By that, I mean that when you go to Reddit or commentary on news articles about gaming or the public gaming forums like Blizzard’s boards…you’re not reaching the people who need to be reached.

      It will be the programmers, the coders, the developers, and the female gamers who change this dynamic, not the internet community at large, I’m afraid.

  5. the_blonde_one says:

    I love her. I love her now, I loved her then, I love her in the future. Plus, she lived my dream of banging Jeff Goldblum.

  6. Ifusayso says:

    Wow. Geena is doing excellent work. We recently watched Inside Out which my 3 year old girl loves. I really loved that for once the main character was a little girl. And the main emotion was a girl as well. That never happens! Unlike “Toy Story” “Up” “Nemo” “Wall-E” “The Lorax” “Lion King” “Cars” “Monsters Inc” etc etc. my daughter loves those films too. But I like to show Inside Out, Frozen, and Little Mermaid as well as Tinker Bell movies and Doc McStuffins. I have two girls and I don’t want them growing up believing they are supporting characters in a mans world.

  7. Tiffany :) says:

    I am so glad her organization is getting some attention! I have been supporting it for a while now. There is a newsletter you can sign up to get which rounds articles on the issue. I really love how she approaches it from a fact-based perspective. It isn’t just a perception that there is in equality, it is fact.

  8. lucy2 says:

    I love her so much for doing this!
    I especially love that she really worked hard and gathered data, and presented all of these people cold, hard facts that they couldn’t dispute. I hope it has a real effect.

  9. tabasco says:

    Oooh!! My sister is an ethnographer, linguist, computer programmer, etc., etc. (I think she’s secretly CIA.) Anyway, so basically she knows a lotta super academic-y types. One person she knows came up with a 3-prong test to serve as a simple test of sorts for determining the likelihood of whether a show/movie is sexist. I’m probably flubbing it, but it’s something like this?

    1. Is there more than one female character?

    2. Do the female characters talk to each other (not just men)?

    3. Do the female characters talk to each other (and not just once in a great while) about things *other* than men? (I’m looking at YOU, Sex and the City, God I hate that show.)

    Try it next time you’re watching whatever, iz interesting.

  10. Emily C. says:

    Your son (and you) should play Bioware games, JRPGs, and Sims games. They aren’t only better than most of the field toward women, they’re about 1000 times better than ANYTHING Hollywood is producing. Even MMORPGs have more positive female representation than Hollywood ever does. World of Warcraft is at the bottom of the barrel there, but I’ve never played any other MMORPG in which at least half of the main characters were not women.

    I am completely impatient whenever someone who doesn’t know a thing about video games, particularly if it’s someone on the Hollywood side, criticizes video games for poor gender representation. Hollywood has nothing like Bioware, which is one of the biggest game companies around. It certainly has nothing like The Sims! We get hardly any foreign movies over here — contrast that with how many Japanese video games sell massively. (There are also lots of Canadian game companies, i.e. Bioware itself.) Nearly every movie is hugely explicitly sexist, and there are no antidotes that are popular. The game industry has problems, but the movie industry is so much worse there’s no honest comparison.

  11. Emma says:

    I’ve played the first 3 Uncharted games through & I thought it was a bit of a feminist statement by the company at the time of the first release.

    The lead characters are 50/50 in gender & every single one has a backstory, personality & are completely capable of taking care of themselves, often save the main character’s life & at least 1 is a playable character. It’s also one of the few games where women wear clothes. Clothes that cover their body no less. Sometimes…they wear layers & baggy pants.

    Uncharted is a man’s story because it’s men who buy that genre of game. But every female character shares traits with the male lead, one is his better half, one is him as a child, one is a darker version of him, etc. He needs every one of them or he dies.

    Sorry for the rant but I really love those first 2 games especially. The first time I played them I felt like someone had finally made a game FOR me.

  12. Lindy says:

    I love her, and I love that she has the data behind her to show the immensity of the problem.

  13. Sparkly says:

    I love Geena! I know I’m a bit late to the post, but I just wanted to chime in in hopes of seeing more stories about her. :)