Archives: Seasons 1-5
Segment | Culture

Geena Davis Fights for Girls and Gender Equality in Hollywood

Val Zavala: Geena Davis is a known for her quirky characters in films like "Beetlejuice," "Thelma and Louise," and "The Accidental Tourist." She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Muriel Pritchett, but it's her role as a mother that's inspired her latest and most important work. While watching children's shows with her daughter eight years ago, she started to notice that there were far fewer female characters than male characters in kids programs.

Geena Davis: I just felt like as a mother, that kids should be seeing boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally.

Zavala: So she started keeping track of children's entertainment and began to talk to her friends about the disparity.

Davis: I found that nobody was noticing that unless I pointed it out to them, like my friends. Even friends with daughters, I'd say, “Did you realize that movie that just came out had only one female character?" And they'd be like, “Oh my god! No, I didn’t notice!”

Zavala: Then she talked to people in the industry.

Davis: It was the same with studio executives that people in the industry, except they would say, "Oh, no, no, that’s not true. That’s been fixed." And I thought, "Nobody's noticing this, or they think it’s been handled, so why don't I get the data.

Zavala: She did just that and commissioned several groundbreaking studies on gender roles in children's film and television. The numbers surprised even her.

Davis: In G and PG movies, for example, only 17 percent of the crowd scenes are female. 17 percent. How do you even leave out that many female characters?

Zavala: And in leading roles in family films, males outnumber females three to one.

Davis: The ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946 in films, so all those periods where people said "Now thing are getting better," it didn't.

Zavala: You can see the disparity in films aimed at children like "Toy Story," "Ice Age," "Up," "The Chipmunks," even "Bambi."

Davis: Geena Davis formed an institute on gender in media and is bringing together hundreds of industry leaders to promote positive portrayals of girls. Her institute found that in family films, powerful positions like CEOs were overwhelmingly played by men. And filmmakers are starting to take notice.

Michelle Murdocca/Producer: It really was an eye opener when I originally saw this data, and I thought, "Oh my, we really need to get some girls in this movie. It was truly unconscious that there weren't that many females in the movie to begin with.

Zavala: There are some encouraging trends. Studies show that children's television is getting betterat portraying girls in leading roles.

Kim Berglund/PBs Kids: And then we have "Word Girl," which is a vocabulary show. She's a super hero, and her super power is vocabulary. And then "SciGirls" is a great show that features real life girls. It’s great to see real girls and real kids in active exploration and discovery of the science concepts.

Zavala: But there are very few female scientists on TV. Even First Lady Michelle Obama highlighted the issue last year in a speech to the National Science Foundation.

Michelle Obama: We have to open doors to everyone. We can't afford to leave anyone out. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math. And it starts with lighting the spark for science and math.

Zavala: Davis believes that starts with what children see at a very early age.

Davis: Kids watch things over and over again, so many hours of TV. I wanted to get in there and change the message that they get from the beginning. If kids see balanced worlds from the beginning, then that's what they grow up to expect seeing.

Zavala: Davis wants to improve not just the quantity, but the quality of female characters on kids shows.

Davis: There's just so few female charachters that have positions of authority, that are playing the important politicians, business leaders, law partners. That's what we want to work on because if kids don't see it, they're not going to think of wanting to become that when they grow up.

Zavala: Many women in male-dominated industries agree.

Debbie Sterling/Engineer: There's "Bob the Builder," "Thomas the Train," Sid the Science Kid," all these male science and engineering characters and really nothing for girls.

Zavala: Engineer Debbie Sterling invented a construction toy for girls.

Sterling: I'm an engineer from Stanford, and I was always bothered by how few women there were in my program, so I decided to do something about it. I'm starting a toy company called Goldiblox to get girls as excited about engineering as much as I do. 89 percent of engineers are male, so we literally live in a man's workd. Yet, 50 percent of the world's population is female. So if we want to live in a better world, we need girls building these things, too.

Zavala: Chris Nee created the show "Doc McStuffins" about a little girl who wants to be a doctor. She wanted to feature a girl who was not just a princess or eye candy.

Chris Mee: I think we need girls who aren't try to bear the burden of being the every girl, that they can be funny and unperfect and smart, the smartest kid in the room and also the one you want to play with. That's when we'll be in a post-feminist kids' TV world where were not thinking about it. They just are great characters.

Zavala: That's the world Geena Davis is striving for. You can see that kind of Hollywood dream come true as her own career progresses. Her first film role was a small part in "Tootsie." More recently, she played a somewhat more prestigious role.

Davis: If they can see it, they can be it. I feel like we're going to see the needle move within the next five years, for the first time, and I think it will be great. I think once we get the ball rolling, then we can accomplish a lot.

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