Because of overwhelming public interest, the Clinton Foundation moved Geena Davis's talk on gender stereotypes in media to a ballroom at the Statehouse Convention Center. Even so, every chair was full, with the overflow standing respectfully in the back. Davis is 56. She was most visible as an actor from the '80s to mid '90s, so the crowd was largely middle-aged and beyond. But university students and young professionals were well represented, and several folks had teenage daughters in tow.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media was spawned in 2004, although its roots are in the 1991 film "Thelma and Louise". Davis played Thelma. It was arguably her most popular role ever. "I didn't realize it would change my life. And really, the biggest standout about the film is that it had two good female parts," Davis said.
Afterward, women stopped her everywhere — in the grocery, rolling down windows at traffic lights — to tell her how much they enjoyed the film. Critics were polarized. Some loved the film, while others dismissed it as man-hating. It won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. To Davis, the film's aftermath was "a lesson on the power of media images."
"Ever since, I've thought about women in the audience and what they'll think about the parts I'll play," she said. "But really great parts for women are few and far between ... that I'm able to be so picky means I haven't run out of money yet. If you ever hear that I've signed on to play the kidnapped wife of Sean O'Connery, you'll know I'm broke."
When she started the Institute, which researches stereotyping and educates about the need for balance in media, her daughter was two. "I'd just begun watching children's shows with her," Davis said. "Even in children's programming, there are far fewer female characters, and the ones presented are hypersexualized and stereotyped."
She started alerting studio executives. "They all said, 'oh no, we've fixed that,' and then they'd name a movie with a single female character," Davis added. So she commissioned a study called "Where the Girls Aren't," which found that in G, PG and PG-13 films, there is one female character to ever three males, and this figure remained fairly static over 20 years. The study also showed that in animated features, females wear the same amount of revealing clothing as live characters do in rated R action flicks. And in crowd scenes, only 17 percent of extras are female.
"Seventeen percent is this strange figure," Davis said. There are 17 percent of women in powerful corporate positions, 17 percent of women in the animator's guild, nearly 17 percent of Congress is female, "17 is my percent of body fat," she added.
Davis talked for a little over a half hour. She was casual, confident, smart, witty and accessible. She seemed like someone you'd want to grab a beer with. She gave general (often non-sourced) statistics — girls who watch more TV feel like they have fewer options in life, boys develop sexist attitudes in direct proportion to the number of hours of TV they watch, the U.S. ranks 90th worldwide in female participation in government.
"According to a New York Times Magazine article, if we keep adding women to Congress at the rate we're going, in 500 years we will achieve parity. I say that's too long," she quipped. "I say, let's halve that number. Who's with me? Two-hundred-and-fifty years, let's go!"
Davis said she thinks the issue has been suppressed because, like the studio executives, most people think female stereotyping is no longer an issue. "They think things will improve for the better on their own or that this big change has already taken place," she said. "But the ratio of male to female characters in movies has been the same since 1946 ... we are sending a worldwide message: that boys are more important than girls." In real terms, that looks like "two million females dying worldwide each year, due to inequality and neglect."
She also fielded awkward audience questions. There was the fanboy: "Do you still have that sexy mole? I can't see it. Did you know Brad Pitt was going to be a big star? Did you do your own stunts in 'Long Kiss Goodnight'?"
And the working mom: "How do we have more women out (in the public sphere) and not more kids institutionally (daycare) sidelined?" (To which Davis responded, "Kids are not damaged by daycare.")
And the academic: "Women on TV used to be homemakers and mothers. Now we're rape and murder victims. How do we get around this?"
"My theory is that we need lots and lots of female characters," said Davis. "More characters leads to more diversity, because not every character can be hot and murdered ... so Hollywood should hire more women to write, we should have more women in journalism and more women in business. Hire women, vote for women ... it's important to take up space and let your voice be known."