Geena Davis is changing the entertainment industry for good. Most people recognize her as the no-nonsense baseball player Dottie Hinson in A League of Their Own, the ghost-wife Barbara Maitland in Beetlejuice, or the law-breaking Thelma in Thelma and Louise. While her on-screen roles have solidified her as a female powerhouse, it’s her lesser-known off-screen activities that really make her a force to be reckoned with in the media world.
On March 31 Davis graced Ithaca College to speak about female body image and gender equality in today’s media. The actor is the founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research institute dedicated to gathering statistics on gender representation in film and television. Davis’s mission is not only a public crusade, but a personal mission. As a young girl, Davis was highly affected by the images the media fed her. “My fondest dream was to take up less space in the world,” she said, standing behind the podium at an impressive six feet tall (in flats). Playing sports helped improve Davis’s body image because she finally felt effective. “I could finally do things. It was finally okay to take up space in the world.” (At age 43, she actually became a semifinalist in the Olympics for archery.)
And Davis wanted to take up screen space in a major way. She landed her first role alongside Dustin Hoffman in the critically acclaimed Tootsie and since then has sought out powerful female roles. When she got her big break with Thelma and Louise, a movie following two women who shoot a rapist and engage in a life of vigilantism, the public’s reaction was overwhelming. People were upset. They didn’t like seeing women empowered by violence like men so often are in movies. “It brought home to me in a very powerful way the few opportunities we give women to be inspired by female characters,” she said while being careful not to encourage violence among the women in the audience. “If we don’t do that, we’re cheating women out of the most powerful part of experiencing a movie.”
Upon the birth of her daughter in 2002, Davis started paying attention to how females were portrayed in children’s shows, and she was floored to see there were considerably fewer female characters than male ones. “It occurred to me as a mother in the 21st century that we should be seeing kids share the sandbox equally.” She started bringing up the issue of female underrepresentation in media with her friends and coworkers. “I didn’t meet anyone who said ‘I know what you’re talking about,’ so I knew I needed the numbers.” She found that in family films, males outnumber females 3 to 1. (Check out the sidebar for more stats and facts.)
Now that she has the numbers, Davis presents them to media moguls all over Hollywood to make sure other women have the opportunity to take up screen space too. When media executives see the numbers, they’re just as shocked as she was. “Their jaws are on the ground. They’re stunned.” After working with Davis, 68 percent of her clients reported that her research had influenced two or more of their projects. These results bode well for the future of film and television. “If you see a movie that does right by women, I probably had something to do with it,” she said.
On behalf of females and media consumers everywhere, thank you Geena.
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