Geena Davis [ Bias Networks, Storytelling ] I am here today because I share a very similar passion and mission with the Women’s Foundation — to support, encourage and advocate for women and girls to reach their full potential.
About six years ago I founded my research Institute on Gender in Media because I wanted the data on one very specific thing: how many female characters were there in entertainment media made specifically for kids? Because when my daughter was about two years old I started watching little kid stuff with her and I was absolutely floored to see that, with some exceptions in preschool television, that there were far fewer female characters than male characters in what we’re making for the youngest kids.
First I decided to check with my friends to see if they noticed.
For example, there was only one female character in the movie that had just come out and none of them had noticed — until I pointed it out.
I decided I’d bring it up with people in the industry — if I happen to have a meeting, you know, with a student executive producer whatever. I will ask if they’ve ever noticed how few characters female characters that were in G rated movies and to a person they would say, “no no no no no that’s been fixed”.
It occurred to me as a mother that certainly in the 21st century we should be showing kids — boys and girls — sharing the sandbox equally.
I realized I needed the numbers because no one seems to be noticing how bereft of female presence these entertainment media were.
This took my life in an entirely new direction as a data head. Research has become extremely significant in my life. My Institute has commissioned the largest body of research ever done on gender in film and television — covering a twenty year span — and the results were stunning.
It was conducted at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism by Dr. Stacy Smith and the world view that we are reflecting for children is very unbalanced in family film ratings.
For every one female character there are three male characters.
Of the female characters that did exist, the majority were highly stereotyped, narrowly stereotyped or hyper sexualized.
In G rated animated movies the female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.
Why there’s any sexually revealing clothing in a G rated movie is a very good question.
Also in animated films, because you know you could draw them any way you want, often the female character’s waist is so tiny that you have to wonder could you fit a spinal column in there.
One of the most common occupations for female characters in G rated movies was royalty, which is a nice gig if you can get it.
Our research also showed that females are missing from critical occupational sectors.
We recently completed a comprehensive study of the careers of female characters in popular film and TV and found that, in family films, 81% of the jobs were held by men
If you look at STEM jobs 84% were held by men and there were no female leads or co-leads who had a career in STEM.
Looking specifically at computer science and engineering, the ratio of males to females in that category was 15 to 1.
Our research also showed that, in these in G rated films, not one female was depicted in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in the law profession or in politics.
There were characters who were in those fields but all of them were male.
What message are we sending to boys and girls at a very vulnerable age if the female characters are one-dimensional sidelined hyper sexualized stereotyped or simply not there at all.
We are saying that women and girls are less valuable to society than men and boys. we’re saying women and girls don’t take up half the space in the world and the message is sinking in.
The repetitive viewing patterns of children ensure that they see these negative images over and over and over again and they get imprinted at a very vulnerable age.
So 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.
So clearly an extremely negative message is coming through and by feeding our kids this imbalance, from the very beginning of exposure to media, we are in effect training generation after generation not to notice gender imbalance.
This happened to all of us, by the way, all of us. no matter when you were born you saw exactly the same imbalance in entertainment media because the ratio of male to female characters has been the same since 1946.
Exactly the same.
The fact is, women are seriously underrepresented across nearly all sectors of society but for the most part we don’t notice.
I’m on the board of the White House Project which is a non-profit in the United States that encourages more women to get into leadership positions in politics and business. A couple of years ago we did a benchmark report where we looked at ten sectors of society to find out the percentage of women in positions of authority and it was like business law politics media etc.
Across the board, these ten most important sectors of society, the average percentage of women was 17%.
That percentage is actually all around us.
If you look in the United States 17 % of the Senate seats are held by women. the House of Representatives is 16.8 % women.
Only 17 % of movie narrators are women and the women represent 16.1 % of the boards of Fortune 500 companies.
Women make up 17 % of cardiac surgeons.
Why would the percentage of women in leadership positions stall out across the board at about 17%?
Here’s another figure that might help shed some light on that. In films the percentage of female characters in crowd scenes and group scenes is 17%.
17% of crowd scenes.
You would have to go out of your way to leave out that many women, I would think.
I do have a theory about why that happens. I think Hollywood writers think that women don’t gather. I mean let’s say it’s a movie and a scene in a village and “oh my god something’s going on over there — let’s all go and see” and the women say, “no I’m not going. I’m not really interested in gathering. I have other other stuff to do.”
What if we are in cultivating our kids to see groups with 17 % women as the norm?
Could it be that the percentage of women in leadership in any given field often stagnates at about 5 to 1 because we’ve been trained to see that ratio as completely normal?
All of us we were all raised on TV and movies that had very few female characters and very few that were role models or women that we wanted to grow up to be like.
My best friend and I, every day after school, would play at being characters in westerns. Westerns cowboys. Since I was taller, I would usually be the father and she would be my son.
Because we were young, there weren’t any female, we didn’t realize that it’s strange that we’re not emulating female characters but there weren’t any that we wanted to pretend to be.
There were female characters.
There were a couple of TV shows where the lead character were was female. For example I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, right? Those characters had incredible cool powers. But somehow we never wanted to pretend to be them. If you think about it now, in hindsight, every episode seemed to be about their men wanting them to sit on their special abilities. Not to use them, right?
This happened in several of my marriages.
The invisibility and disempowerment of women cry out for change.
What can we do?
We know what the Canadian Women’s Foundation is doing through their work.
Women and girls are being empowered to live without limits.
The time for change is now.
I would like to introduce to you some very powerful agents of change who are in this room right now. All of you, all of us, are powerful agents of change.
Along with the women’s foundation we can embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King called the fierce urgency of now.
What we need across all the sectors of society is to add women.
We need more women on screen and behind the cameras, in the realms of academia, business law, the military. Add women to the ranks of corporate boards, policymakers, presidents and prime ministers.
Add women, encourage women, include women, vote for women, hire women.
I’m just so happy to be here with all of you today to celebrate the Canadian Women’s foundations leadership in empowering women and girls because I want the day to come soon when I could tell my daughter this story, “you know, once upon a time women and girls were thought to be less important than men and boys.” And she will turn to me with an incredulous look and say, “Mom, are you making this up?”
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Michael Dawes