Geena Davis doesn’t just play strong women onscreen in films like “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own” — she also helps them succeed in real life, through her Institute on Gender in Media, which is behind some of the most thorough research on the media’s depictions of gender and sex.
Writing in The Hollywood Reporter for its Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue, David shares the research of USC’s Dr. Stacy Smith, who found that for every single female speaking character in family-rated films (i.e., not R-rated), there are three male characters, and that crowd scenes in such films contain only 17 percent female characters. Shockingly, the ratio of male to female characters, according to the study, has stayed the same since 1946.
As Davis puts it, “We are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space. Couldn’t it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society — Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more — stall out at around 17 percent because that’s the ratio we’ve come to see as the norm?”
Thankfully, though, Davis has two quick and easy proposals to increase the number of women in film. Her advice is pointed at screenwriters particularly, and, of course, once you hear it, it seems embarrassingly obvious.
First, Davis suggests, screenwriters should go through any project they’re working on and change several of the characters’ first names to women’s names. “With one stroke,” she writes, “you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch.” As she points out, why can’t the two police officers responding to a house call be women?
Secondly, when setting up a crowd scene, Davis suggests that screenwriters simply write, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” It may seem a little bit forced, but when 83 percent of every crowd in fictional film towns across the world are men, it’s worth reminding production teams that, yes, crowds can have women in them, too.
In a way, Davis’ suggestions sound a little like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ much ballyhooed tautology that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
But Davis is right. Unlike the real world, movies and TV shows are works of fiction. Offscreen, it may take us years to instill in young (and grown!) women that they are just as smart and talented and qualified as men to be directors, doctors, CEOs and physicists. In Hollywood, all it would take is a few strokes on a keyboard.