London Film Festival: Geena Davis Calls for Gender Equality in Family Entertainment

Geena Davis Speech - H 2015
Jeff Lewis

Geena Davis Speech - H 2015

The actress said research from her own institute showed there was a “powerful negative message” in children's content.

With Suffragette opening the BFI London Film Festival on Wednesday night and the event having been labeled "The Year of the Strong Woman" by organizers, Geena Davis continued the theme of gender equality on day two of the event.

The Oscar winner’s own Institute on Gender in Media teamed up with the festival and the U.K.’s Women in Film and TV organization for a symposium, in which she highlighted research on the gender imbalance in children’s entertainment. Her institute’s findings, she explained, showed that not only were female characters far outnumbered by male characters, but their representation on screen was enforcing stereotypes at a very young age that was sending the wrong “harmful” message to both boys and girls.

“The results are stunning. In a world that is half-female, in the 21st century we are showing a message that women and girls have far less value than men and boys,” she told the crowd at the BFI Southbank center. “In family rated films, for every one speaking female character there were three male characters. The research also shows that when female characters do exist, they are very often stereotyped or hyper-sexualized.”

Davis said in G-rated films in the U.S. animated female characters “wore the same amount of revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.”

She also remarked on the size of the waist of female animated characters. “Can you even fit a spinal column in there?” she said.

But among the main issues she highlighted was the matter of work. “In family rated films, 81 percent of the jobs are held by male characters and the function of the female characters is very often to serve as eye-candy,” she said. “And it’s really bad if you look at the professions. Women hold 21 percent of global political positions, but one of [the] studies showed that of 127 political characters, only 12 of them were female.”

Elsewhere she pointed to the on-screen legal sphere, in which male lawyers outnumber female lawyers 13:1, and science and engineering, where the ratio is 15:1.

“So in other words, no matter how limited the number of women CEOs and law partners and presidents are in the real world, there are far less on screen," Davis said. "In fiction, there are far less than in the real world.”

One group that she said was remarkably well represented was that of female forensic scientists, thanks to the CSI series. “And in real life, the number of women wanting to enter that profession has skyrocketed, something like 75 percent of people studying that now are women," she said. "If they see it, they can be it.”

Davis did acknowledge that it “wasn’t all bad news," and her institute’s research indicated that there had been an increase in female characters over the past 20 years. "If we continue at this rate we will achieve parity in 700 years,” she concluded.

The message from female characters in entertainment, Davis added, was “sinking in.”

“The more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. The more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become,” she said. “So clearly, there’s a powerful negative message in what we’re showing kids, and this is why I chose to focus on what kids see, because it makes sense – let’s not create a problem that has to be solved later.”

Alongside undertaking the research, Davis said that her institute was taking the findings “directly to the creators” and that the universal reaction across every single studio, network, guild and production company was “utter shock.”

“They had no idea they were leaving out that many women,” she said, adding that the presentations had had an immediate effect, with 68 percent of those having heard it saying that it had affected two or more of their projects, and 41 percent saying it had changed four or more projects.

Joked Davis: “So if a movie comes out and it seems to be doing well by women, probably I had something to do with it."