In 2005, Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis commissioned Stacy Smith, a researcher at the University of Sourthern California, to study why there were so few women both depicted in and making motion pictures. The study, which was released in 2014, was disturbing to say the least. Smith’s research found that only 30% of characters with speaking parts in movies were not dudes. Even worse, in 2013 and 2014, women were less than 2% of the directors behind the 100 top-grossing films.
Since Davis’s initial hunch that not all was equal in Hollywood, diversity has become a hot topic in the industry. Last year, the ACLU asked state and federal agencies to investigate the matter. The debate was a cover New York Times magazine story in which leading figures like Lena Dunham and Jill Soloway all spoke about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated profession.
Davis, meanwhile, who created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media in 2007, finds herself sitting squarely in the center of the discussion.
At FCLA on Wednesday, the Thelma and Louise star sat down with Fast Co. editorial director Jill Bernstein to talk about her work as a gender equality advocate and how she feels Hollywood is at a “turning point,” even if “the numbers haven’t changed” when it comes to equal representation onscreen.
When asked why Davis decided to start her institute, she said that it was due to her kids. “When my kids were little, I started watching things made for them–G-rated videos and kids shows–and I immediately noticed that there seemed to be far more male characters than female characters,” Davis said. “It made no sense to me.”
When Davis brought this up with producers and TV creators, she was told, “Oh, that’s not true anymore. That’s been fixed.”
Davis would then press them for examples and be told, “There’s Belle.”
“Oh, and there was the teapot,” Davis joked. More seriously, she said, “I realized nobody is noticing what I feel is glaringly obvious.”
One unsettling fact Davis mentioned about how what kids watch affects them is that the more hours of TV a girl watches, she feels she has more limited options. Whereas the more hours of TV a boy watches, the more sexist and empowered he feels.
Another interesting tidbit: due to the number of female forensic scientists on TV, thanks to shows like Bones and CSI, “the number of real-life women forensic scientists has sky-rocketed,” Davis said. “There are colleges scrambling to keep up with demand. It just shows you, if they see it, they can be it.”
After founding her institute, Davis set about educating Hollywood on facts like these, as well as the abysmal numbers, such as the fact that in most crowd scenes in movies, only 17% of the people in the crowd are women.
The response she got was: “Jaws are on the ground,” Davis said. “They had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters.”
Davis said her proselytizing has had some effect: when she met with a big animation studio and mentioned the crowd numbers, “The head of the studio said, ‘What? Is that true? Guys, can we do that? Go to 50-50?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, of course.'”
And Wendy Calhoun, a writer on Empire, changed a character on the show from Rich White Man to Rich White Woman (played by Marisa Tomei) after hearing Davis speak.
The biggest challenge remains Hollywood movie studios. In part that’s because 70% of the box office today is generated overseas, where there is a perception that audiences only want to see male-driven action movies.
Perceptions, Davis said, are the problem. “So much of this is unproven. So much of Hollywood is run on ideas that have no factual basis. There’s this idea, in every fiber of every being in Hollywood, that women will watch men, but men won’t watch women. But it’s not true! It’s not a proven thing. If you have an interesting and fabulous character, boys will watch. Just as men will watch.”
Davis acknowledged that there has been a “tonal shift” over the last few years surrounding the gender-inequality conversation, in that people are now unafraid to speak up–as stars like Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Lawrence, and Natalie Portman have. But she says ultimately there is much more work to be done.
“I feel there’s definitely a chance that this is a turning point,” she says. “But the numbers haven’t changed yet. You always have to keep that in mind. It hasn’t happened yet, if you can’t measure it. The numbers haven’t turned yet. I think they will. I know, I feel very strongly, at least in children’s media, the needle is going to move significantly within five years or so.
“But the ratio of male to female characters in film is exactly the same as it’s been since 1946. It hasn’t happened yet. It’ll be historic when it does.”