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A Movie Legend Takes On Media Disparity (or, OMG we were in the same room as Geena Davis)

April 6, 2010

So not to brag, but WMC Program Coordinator Rachell Arteaga and I were sitting about 10 feet away from Geena Davis last night. Visiting the Paley Center for Media, Davis took part in a 2-hour, in-depth, and totally compelling conversation with the Center's President and CEO, as well as WMC Board Emerita, Pat Mitchell. Davis's staggering film career, including Thelma and Louise, A League of their Own, and her Academy Award-winning role in The Accidental Tourist, defaults her to legend-status, but her comments last night were focused primarily outside of her own career (about which she's modest, taking time to remind the audience of Earth Girls Are Easy). In 2004, Davis founded the the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, which the Women’s Media Center is thrilled to be collaborating with.  The Institute is unique both in its mission – focusing primarily on children and youth – and its style, which Davis described as "sisterly." In other words, the Institute approaches Hollywood not as an adversary but a partner, offering presentations to executives, producers and directors with reports on the state of girls and women in media, as well as the psychological effect of boy-heavy entertainment. Although Davis has consistently played complex women who, as she puts it, "control their own destinies," her consciousness about gender and media didn't arise until the arrival of her first child, Alizeh. Watching children's programming with her daughter, Davis said she began to notice how stereotyped and hyper-sexualized female characters are, even though they're written for (and often portray) little kids. (Davis went on to cite her Institute’s study that found the amount of sexually revealing clothing on female characters in G-rated films was equal to those in R-rated moves.) Davis was prompted to start the Institute after she began mentioning her thoughts to others in the industry, who, almost as a rule, disagreed. Adopting the squint and airy voice of a spaced-out Hollywood executive, Davis impersonated a frequent response to her observations: "I don't think that's true. Didn't we have Belle in Beauty and the Beast? Things are fine." And although some industry bigwigs still tow that line even after hearing Davis's research, most respond thoughtfully.  In fact, Davis said noted that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="350" caption="Davis (right) with Susan Sarandon in "Thelma and Louise""][/caption] The more hours of television a girl watches per day, Davis said, the fewer options she feels she has in her life. Further, the more hours of television a boy watches, the more sexist his perspective becomes. Media disparity has been the norm for so long that it's easy to miss - "it's in the ether," as WMC co-founder Jane Fonda says. Davis discusses children's media similarly: "If you grow up with imbalance in the media, and that's all you've ever seen, you're not aware that that shouldn't be the case." Thelma and Louise, the 1991 thriller starring Davis and Susan Sarandon as women on the lam, had a huge effect on how Davis viewed women's relationship to media. All of a sudden, she said, people were grabbing  her by the collar on the street, exclaiming how important the movie had been to them, how it changed the course of their lives, or, in some cases, how they reenacted the heroines' legendary road trip with their friends. "It's just so rare that women feel really pumped after a movie, you know?" Davis said. Her passion for her work, as well as her visible enthusiasm for the cause of media justice, were contagious. It might not be rare for media nerds like us to feel excited after an evening with a legend talking about gender activism, but yeah, we'd say "pumped" is the word.