After years of attempts, Scripps College finally succeeded in bringing Academy Award-winning actor and activist Geena Davis to speak on campus last night. Davis, who is best known for her roles in films such as Thelma and Louise, A League of Their Own, and Stuart Little, founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM), which works to combat the unequal portrayal of women in media through extensive research and education.
“There is clearly an extraordinary gender bias in the media,” Scripps Director of Public Events Karen Fagan said. “Our goal in bringing her here is to educate about that bias and to inspire and motivate the audience to take action that can help resolve that bias.”
Davis shared Fagan’s wish.
“I want you to become an army,” she said during her talk, calling for audience members to become ambassadors for the cause by raising awareness about the issue.
Many students were inspired by the call for equal gender representation in Davis’s speech.
“Looking at someone that has actually made strides toward gender equality in the business was encouraging,” Dahnya Hernandez-Roach PZ ’14 said.
Some students, however, expressed disappointment upon further reflection.
“Her acting skills allowed her to give a very engaging presentation, but she also overlooked many important issues in media representation of women,” Hannah Pivo PO ’14 said.
Clara Shelton PO ’14 agreed.
“I felt that she sort of undid herself during the question-and-answer session because somebody asked a question about how she feels about women like Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling and their work to bring women to the forefront of comedy … she just dismissed the question,” Shelton said.
Throughout her talk, Davis emphasized the importance of recognizing and working to change the ratios of male and female characters within all forms of media, as well as searching out female characters that are complex and unique.
According to research completed by GDIGM, the average proportion of women in the ten biggest work sectors is only 17 percent.
“What if we are enculturating generation after generation to see 17 percent of women as the norm?” Davis asked.
GDIGM is primarily focused on the effect of gender-biased media portrayals on children. Their research indicates that thus far, this portrayal has been a self-perpetuating cycle.
“The ratio of male to female characters in movies has been exactly the same since 1946,” Davis said.
The general reaction to GDIGM’s research has been shock. More than likely, this is because after seven decades, people have been conditioned to see that ratio as normal, so the bias might be partly unconscious.
Davis cited a story where judges attempted to hold gender-blind auditions for their orchestra but were tipped off by the sound of the female musicians’ heels. With shoes on, results were strongly skewed in favor of male musicians. Without shoes, however, the final results were equally split between men and women.
“What message are we sending to young boys and young girls? We’re saying women and girls don’t take up half the space in the world,” Davis said.
In Davis’s opinion, the best way to change bias against women is to change the representations from the source.
“Media itself can be the cure for the problems it’s creating,” Davis said.
This was the point that resonated most with students.
“I thought her conviction that media and art could change certain aspects of society so quickly was inspiring,” Billy Mills PO ’15 said.
To further her point, Davis offered the statistic that people familiar with her role in Commander in Chief, in which she played the first female president, were 68 percent more likely to consider voting for a female president.
In order to involve more women in media, Davis suggested a variety of solutions, ranging from pushing film and television reviewers to comment on gender inequalities to working to increase numbers of women enrolled in film production schools. She also mentioned that male actors and directors could also step up to the challenge through suggesting female characters as their co-stars in a non-confrontational manner.
GDIGM’s biggest anticipated obstacle is implementation. Davis has been happy to see that people are open to the idea of rectifying the inequalities, but she worried that listening may not turn into action.
According to a recent survey of production companies who have heard Davis’s presentation, however, action is apparently already being taken. More than 50 percent of respondents said that the presentation impacted three or more of their projects, indicating that the next five or so years should yield significant increases in female presence in the media.
Though GDIGM is specifically working to better the proportion of female roles, Davis also mentioned changes in male roles as part of the solution.
“One thing we can do is show more male characters in care-taking activities,” Davis said. “We need to look at them as family problems rather than women’s problems.”