Geena Davis On Women In Media: 'Don't Be An Actor'

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"The ratio of male to female characters in movies has been the same since 1946, despite all the times the media has said, 'Well, now things are different. I mean, they said that when Thelma and Louise came out [in 1991]!"

In an interview this week with The Huffington Post Canada, Geena Davis expounded on a cause that's close to her heart — the need for gender equality in the media. She was in Toronto speaking at the Canadian Women's Foundation 2012 Toronto Annual Breakfast.

The creator of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Davis formed the organization in 2004 to help teach people about the need for gender balance, a reduction in stereotypes and the creation of a variety of female characters in films and TV shows for kids 11 and under.

While Davis' organization prefers not to name specific films or television shows that are portraying women "correctly," she does note that the entertainment directed at preschoolers is particularly well done. "People don't even realize what gender the Teletubbies are, but they're perfectly balanced," she says with a laugh.

But that's not necessarily the case for older age groups, and, according to Davis, even more troubling trends have been in evidence as of late.

"This is just my observation, I don't have data to back it up, but it seems like female characters are getting much more sexualized and at a younger age," says Davis. "There's a lot of sexualization in what's made for even very young kids, so that's a disturbing trend."

She also believes the film industry is a difficult world for young women, one that she's not sure she would want to enter today.

"The odds of success and all that are horrible. I have a lot of parents come up to me and say, 'My daughter wants to be an actress, what should I tell her?' And I say, 'If there's anything else she can picture herself doing, don't be an actor. But if it's the only thing she could picture, then you might as well give it a shot.'"

But, Davis admits, being in the industry is one of the only ways to enact change. In her unique position as an Oscar Award-winning actress, she has the ability to go right to the studios and show them the research her Institute has uncovered. And, she says, it's generally well-received.

"The content creators really didn't realize how many women they were leaving out of the world of the movie, and when they learn the statistics, they're stunned and feel like they want to do something about it."

She says her own experience on movie sets has given her a chance to impact how scenes play out, citing an example of a scene in Stuart Little where children were playing with remote controlled boats.

"[The assistant director] would pick a boy and sit him down and give him a remote ... He was putting girls behind each one of them, kind of to be encouraging. And I noticed what he was doing and I said, 'Do you think we could maybe give half of the remotes to girls?' And his reaction was, "Uh, yes!" He just was so angry that he hadn't thought of it himself, but see, nobody does. If you're not very conscious of it, the default will be boys."

But Davis is well aware it's not just about women in the media, but in all walks of life and job descriptions. Based on her own experience playing political characters, she thinks she knows how things can change, but believes we have a long way to go.

"If we added women to Congress [in the U.S.] at the rate that we have been, we'll achieve parity in 500 years," Davis says. "When I did the TV show where I was the President — I only had a one-year administration, unfortunately — they did a study afterward that showed people who were familiar with the show were 68 per cent more likely to vote for a female candidate for president. So if you see it, you can be it, and I think that's what we need to do is just fill entertainment with women who are in leadership positions."

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