Geena Davis Institute Promotes Gender Balance in Kids’ Media
If actress Geena Davis hadn’t shined a light on gender balance in children’s entertainment, it may have been Elmer singing “Let It Go” in Disney’s Frozen — not Elsa.
It began for Davis as a couch epiphany. The Academy Award-winning actor was watching family films with her toddlers more than a decade ago. Viewing DVD after DVD, she realized that few movies and television shows featured strong female characters. Although men and women each comprise half the world’s population, male characters predominated in the fictional world of children’s entertainment.
Research That Spurs Change
It’s a story the “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own” star has shared during visits to several memorable Zions Bank events, including the Sundance Film Festival’s Women’s Leadership Celebration hosted by Zions in January. Davis’ curiosity drove her to research female characters and their roles in G-rated films. To her surprise, no one had previously tracked and quantified this data. That’s when she launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Working with Stacy Smith, Ph.D., and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications, her institute amassed the largest body of research on gender prevalence in family entertainment, spanning more than 20 years. The data, she notes, is striking.
“There has never been another time when women have been as underrepresented onscreen as they are now,” Davis says.
The institute’s research serves as the basis for education and outreach programs that help families, studios, educators and content creators become critical consumers and producers.
“We’ve learned from our U.S. and global research that there is a direct correlation with having a female director or a female writer and seeing more girls and women onscreen,” Davis says. “When you have a female writer attached, the percentage of girls and women onscreen jumps 7.5 percent. When you have a female director attached, the number of girls and women onscreen jumps 6.8 percent.”
If She Can See It, She Can Be It
Families hoping to help their daughters become savvy media consumers can find resources at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media website, seejane.org. The organization’s motto is, “If she can see it, she can be it,” a reminder that when girls see more female characters who are strong leaders — as well as doctors, scientists and other non-princess professions — they can be inspired.
Since its launch eight years ago, the institute has successfully worked with the media and entertainment industry to dramatically improve gender balance, reduce stereotyping and create diverse female characters in entertainment targeting children age 11 and under.
“One of my big new projects was the launch of the Bentonville Film Festival, known as BFF, which exclusively champions women and diversity,” Davis says. The festival is unique because winners receive guaranteed theatrical, TV, home video and digital distribution of their projects. In its inaugural year in 2015, nearly 40,000 people attended. Of the 50 films in competition, 87 percent received distribution.
Davis is happy about the increasing number of writers and directors adding more female roles to their projects. “My final success story is with the new animated version of ‘The Little Prince.’ The director Mark Osborne heard me speak and was truly inspired to add a major female character to this classic story,” she says.
From creating a research organization to starting a film festival, Davis exudes boundless energy. “As I always say, it’s dangerous for me to get involved in new projects because I always take them to extremes,” she says.
Photos by Jared VanLeuven and Brian Nicholson