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How Geena Davis Continues to Tackle Gender Bias in Hollywood

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Transforming Spaces is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.


Geena Davis and her family were returning from dinner in a small town in Massachusetts when their 99-year-old great-uncle Jack began to veer into oncoming traffic. Ms. Davis, about eight years old, sat flanked by her parents in her back seat. Politeness was full of cars, families, maybe times, and no one paid attention to what was going on, even when another car appeared in the distance and sped towards them .

Finally, just before the crash, Mr. Davis’ grandmother kindly suggested from the passenger seat, “Move a little right, Jack.” They fell apart by a few inches.

Ms. Davis, 67, told the story in her 2022 memoir, Death of Courtesy. The story encapsulates the gentle, esoteric values ​​that she absorbed as a child, and that many other girls have as well. Postpone. Please get along.all is well.

Of course, the Academy Award-winning actress ditched that flexibility long ago. from “Thelma & Louise” and “own leagueFrom this year’s youth drama “fairyland” There was no option to be submissive in the backseat. Indeed, self-possession was her hallmark. Few profiles don’t mention her archery prowess.) But it was only Phase 1 to cultivate her own audacity.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of its founding. Gender Institute at Geena Davis Media. When her daughter was a toddler, Ms. Davis couldn’t help but notice that there were far more male characters than female characters in children’s television and movies.

“I knew everything was completely unbalanced.” world‘ she said recently. But this was the realm of pretend play. Why not 50/50?

It wasn’t just numbers. how Women’s representations, their aspirations, the ways in which young girls are sexualized, and more. Through children’s programming, Davis saw a bewilderingly distorted vision of reality projected into the sensitive mind. Long before “diversity, equity and inclusion” entered the lexicon, she started mentioning this gender divide at every industry conference.

“Everybody said, ‘No, no, no, that’s it.'” Already used It’s supposed to be, but it’s been fixed,” she said. “I started to wonder what would happen if I had the data to prove my point.”

As Hollywood promotes the cause, Ms. Davis has made it her mission to quietly collect data.just awful teeth That split? In what other ways will it be affected? Beyond gender, who else is marginalized? Instead of speeches and ribbons, with sponsors ranging from Google to Hulu, Davis’ research team began generating receipts.

Ms. Davis is not the first to highlight the disparities in popular entertainment. But she used her reputation and resources, and infused technology into the matter, to flesh out her vague truths and provide criminals with an unobtrusive path to redemption. (The institute initially focused on gender data, but now its analysis extends to race/ethnicity, LGBTQIA+, disability, age over 50, and body type. Random and dismal results. Overweight characters are more than twice as likely to become violent.)

Even with that in mind, the institute’s findings were surprising. Of the 101 top-grossing G-rated movies between 1990 and 2005, only 28% had female characters. Even in the crowd scene — animated Crowd scenes – The number of male characters greatly outnumbers the number of female characters. Among the 56 top-grossing films of 2018, women in leadership positions were four times more likely than men to be shown naked. (15 percent of those bodies were filmed in slow motion.) A century ago women were the complete centerpieces of the up-and-coming film industry, now women are sexy but quantifiable. It became an afterthought.

“When she started collecting the data, it was kind of incredible,” said Hilary Hallett, professor of American studies at Columbia University and author of Go West, Young Women!. The rise of early Hollywood. “This wasn’t a vague sentiment anymore. You can’t argue that this is just a feminist rant. It was like, ‘Look at this number.’.“”

Off screen, Ms. Davis is a taciturn and goofy person who, while thoughtful and responsive, is also an irrepressible laughter. (At one point, she used the word “acting” so theatrically that I feared it would be difficult to spell in this article.) On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, she wrote I took a break from drawing illustrations for children’s books. A girl who was too big for her page. “

“I grew up very conscious of being the tallest kid, not just the tallest girl in my class,” she said. “I have had a desire since childhood to take up less space in the world.”

In time, she began to look beyond her height (6 feet) to insidious messages that reinforce such insecurities.

“Hollywood creates our cultural narrative, and that bias trickles down to the rest of the world,” she said.this changes everythingis her 2018 documentary about gender inequality in the film industry. The documentary takes its name from the refrain she kept hearing after the success of Thelma & Louise and then A League of Their Own. The power and profitability of female-centered films has finally been proven. This changes everything. And every year nothing happens.

It was here that Ms. Davis established herself. Disputes over why certain injustices persist and how best to combat them. #MeToo and out of time Targeting deliberate heinous acts would make her world a more troubling world of unconscious prejudice. Did you unwittingly cast the doctor as a man? Did you hire that straight white director because he has the same background as you? idea Were you diversifying your films just to reinforce old stereotypes? (Fiery Latina, anyone?)

Davis’s activism is driven by a deep-rooted optimism, a belief that Hollywood can reinvent itself. Now she’s at the conference with the team’s latest research, confident that improvements will continue.

“Our theory of change hinges on whether content creators do good things,” said Madeline Di Nonno, chairman and CEO of the Institute. “As Gina puts it, we never shame or blame you. I hope it gets better.”

If the car carrying the polite Mr. and Mrs. Davis can wake up to the impending danger, perhaps the filmmakers will become aware of the evil they perpetuate.

“Not everyone is necessarily trying to frame women or black people,” says film and television producer Franklin Leonard, the group’s founder. blacklist, a popular platform for screenplays that have not yet been produced. “But regardless of what they believe about that intent, the choices they make definitely have such consequences.”

He added: “It’s not something people always know. And it can only be revealed collectively, without a paper trail. That leads to the value of Gina’s work.”

A hallmark of the lab’s efforts is a partnership with the University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory, which uses software and machine learning to analyze scripts and other media. One of his tools that emerged from that collaboration, Spellcheck for Bias, utilizes AI to scan scripts for stereotypes and other problematic choices. (Janine Jones-Clark, executive vice president of inclusion for NBCUniversal’s Global Talent Development and Inclusion team, said that television shows where one person of color appears to be threatening another character. I remembered a scene from the show.The scene was reshot by the software.)

Still, progress has been mixed. In 2019 and 2020, the Institute reported that the 100 highest-grossing family movies and Nielsen’s top-rated children’s TV shows achieved gender parity for female protagonists. Nearly 70% of industry executives familiar with the Institute’s research made changes to at least two projects.

But only 18% of directors working on the top 250 films in 2022 will be women, up just 1% from 2021, according to the Center for Women’s Television Film Studies. The percentage of primary Asian and Asian American female characters has dropped from 10 percent in 2021 to less than 7 percent in 2022. A 2021 McKinsey report found that 92 percent of film executives were white, not as diverse as the then-Donald Trump administration. Blacklist’s Leonard pointed out:

“I think the industry is more resilient to change than most people realize,” he added. “So I’m very grateful to people, especially those with backgrounds like Gina’s, who are using Excel spreadsheets to do the unsophisticated things to change the status quo.”

Davis hasn’t quit his day job. (Coming soon: Her debut thriller, Pussy Island, directed by Zoe Kravitz.) But her performance has much in common with her books, which focus on diversity. . Bentonville Film Festival She started out in Arkansas in 2015, but for fairness, she’s also taken the roller coaster. (Yes, Thelma is now a gender consultant for Disney theme parks and resorts.)

“We are definitely heading in the right direction,” she said. “Bill Gates called himself an impatient optimist, and I think that’s a very good thing.”

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