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Geena Davis Explains How Gender Equality in Media Will Create Social Change

Over the last decade, Academy-Award® winning actress Geena Davis has become a leading advocate for gender equality in the media and entertainment industry. In 2004, she founded The Institute on Gender in Media, the first and only research-based organization working within the industry to engage, educate, and influence content creators, marketers and audiences about the importance of eliminating unconscious bias, highlighting gender balance, challenging stereotypes, creating role models and scripting a wide variety of strong female characters. Her latest project, the documentary “This Changes Everything,” takes an incisive look at the history, empirical evidence, and systemic forces that foster gender discrimination and thus reinforce disparity in our culture. Being released to the public on July 28th, the film features commentary from such luminaries as Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Anita Hill, Rashida Jones, Natalie Portman, Shonda Rhimes, and Jill Soloway.

Q.  Since you began your organization in 2004, have you seen any positive changes regarding gender parity?

Davis: To tell you the truth, I was filled with hope after the very first meeting I had at a major studio, maybe 13 years ago. I had no idea how they would react to hearing how poorly female characters were represented in family entertainment — including what’s made for the youngest of kids. Would they be angry? Would they believe it? The reaction then was the same then as it was in a presentation I did last week: they were utterly stunned. They had no idea that the fictitious worlds they were creating were nearly bereft of female presence. The data does most of the work for us because, obviously, the people making media for kids love kids and want to do right by them! We have yet to leave a meeting without someone saying, “You just changed my project.” So we know it’s working. Turns out there wasn’t a plot in Hollywood to leave out that many intersectional female characters; the problem arises mostly from unconscious gender bias, which we all have, unfortunately.


Q.  What is the “Scully Effect” and how has it influenced women in our society?

Davis: 21st Century Fox partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to assess what’s been called the “Scully Effect.” It’s described as “a phenomenon that saw an influx of women pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers” thanks to the positive representation of Agent Dana Scully – “a pioneering, capable and brilliant female character on TV” – as portrayed by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files, which debuted in 1993. Through a research survey of over 2,000 women across the U.S., age 25 and older, the systematic study looked at the influence of Dana Scully pertaining to STEM, and the findings make us believers.

“In the late 1990s, one name was synonymous with a medical doctor-turned-paranormal detective: Dana Scully. Played by actor Gillian Anderson, Dr. Dana Scully made her mark on millions of fans who tuned in every week to watch The X-Files, a hit science-fiction drama that aired on FOX for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, before returning to TV in 2016. Scully was one of the first multidimensional female characters in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field to be featured on a popular television show and the first to play a leading role. She is known for her objectivity, skepticism, confidence, and brilliance. In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime time television role.”

The primary questions asked through their research are “whether Scully’s character improved women’s perceptions of STEM fields, whether she inspired girls and women to go into a STEM profession, and whether female viewers see Scully as a role model.” The study “found a correlation between women who were familiar with, or fans of, The X-Files and its influence on their career choices.”

Here’s a link to the study:

Q.  What will movie-goers learn from “This Changes Everything” and why is it such an important film to see?

Davis: This is such a powerful and moving film, I hope everyone gets to see it. It’s very eye-opening and also hopeful in presenting ways the change can be made. “Why are we teaching kids something that we try so hard to get rid of later on?” I asked in the film as the crowd cheered. “Why are we training them to have unconscious gender bias from the beginning when we know that it is so hard to get rid of?”

Q.  Do you feel we can achieve gender balance in the media, and do you foresee this happening in the near future?

Davis: Movies and TV are artistic expressions meant to entertain; It’s not my goal to add a specific message. I’m asking you to take out the message in so much of children’s media, even for the youngest kids: that women and girls are less important than men and boys because they do less and there are far less of them. It’s creating unconscious gender bias from the beginning that’s nearly impossible to reverse because we don’t even know we have it. I always say that gender inequality in entertainment can be fixed overnight. It doesn’t have to be done in stages or phases. The next movie or TV show you make can be gender-balanced with diverse females as leads, supporting characters and extras. We can easily create worlds where women are half of the characters and do half of the interesting things.

We also have some exciting things going on! We got a very generous grant from Google to develop a tool to do our research for us, which is called GD-IQ. It’s groundbreaking in that it used voice and facial recognition to not only tell you how many female and diverse characters there are and what they’re like, but also how much they talk and how long they are on screen, down to the millisecond — which of course you can’t do with the human eye. For example, we found in family films that when the lead character is male, he’s onscreen and talks three times as much as when the star is a female. I don’t think anybody would have even guessed that was true until we had this tool.

The other very exciting new tool we have we are calling “Spellcheck for Gender Bias.” This is fantastic because it can read and analyze scripts so you know all about the gender portrayals before you make it, and you have the knowledge you need to make changes before it’s too late. I think these tools are going to be absolute game-changers in the industry for better female representation.

This Q & A was featured in the July 14th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.