by Cori Hilsgen
Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis spoke to a large crowd Feb. 25 at the College of St. Benedict and dazzled the audience with her humor to get an important message out about gender equality in the media.
She said she started noticing the role women played in the media nine years ago when her daughter was 2. Davis began asking questions, gathering research and founded the “Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.” The institute, which targets children 11 and younger, works to increase female character representation in children’s media and to reduce female stereotyping in a male-dominated profession.
Davis asked the audience what they thought the statistics were for women not just in leading roles but in crowd scenes. She said in family films there is one female character for every three male characters, and only 17 percent of the characters are females in crowd scenes.
Davis said that meant all the fictitious worlds created – the underseas kingdoms, villages and planetary colonies – are only 17 percent female.
“You think you’d almost have to go out of your way to leave out that many women,” Davis said.
She shared other statistics from the University of Denver about roles of women in different professions, including 18 percent for congress, 22 percent for media, 19 percent for print media, 17 percent for military officers and others.
Davis talked about the role of female orchestra musicians. Until someone had the idea to hold blind auditions and to have participants remove their shoes so they couldn’t be heard walking across the stage, there were only 10 percent female musicians.
She also said the United States ranks 90th in female representation in the legislature and if we keep adding females to congress at that rate we would achieve parity in 500 years.
With the small percentage of women’s roles in media, Davis said the message being sent is women and girls have far less value than men and boys do.
She said the ratio of male to female characters has been the same since 1946. Her work has led her to ask how the media can change what the future looks like by adding more female characters in leadership roles, such as presidents, engineers, corporate leaders, doctors and other important roles. Davis gave the example of how many women now portray forensic scientists in the media and said colleges have had to add forensic science classes because of increased demand.
“If young girls see it they can be it,” Davis said. “The time for change is now. All of us are powerful agents of change.”
Davis was born in Warehem, Mass. She said she had an “unshakeable faith” she would be an actress.
She is most recognized for her roles in “Commander in Chief,” “The Accidental Tourist,” “Thelma and Louise, “A League of Their Own,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Stuart Little.” She won an Academy Award for her performance in “The Accidental Tourist,” and a Golden Globe for her role in “Commander in Chief.”
Davis said she didn’t know she was a good athlete until she played her role in “A League of Their Own.” In her 30s, she discovered she was coordinated and became comfortable in her body. She said she gained confidence from playing sports and went on to become the nation’s 13th-ranked archer. Davis said playing sports also helped her realize women’s sports didn’t get much attention.
Her role in “Thelma and Louise” put her on the cover of “Time” magazine a week after the movie opened. At the time, she wondered what the women in the audience were going to think.
“I didn’t realize how it would change my life,” Davis said.
She said the movie started many conversations with women about women’s roles.
Davis spoke at the college as one of a series of speakers for “The Renaissance Series,” which was established by CSB President MaryAnn Baenninger in 2006 with a goal to bring speakers who show a variety of options available for women and men and encourage them to look at careers that are less traditional to their gender. Speakers for the series are chosen based on their unique points of view on a current topic and their potential to enhance the “intellectual vigor” of the colleges.
Communication and marketing services interim co-director Diane Hageman said Baenninger and staff have developed a list of potential Renaissance Series speakers and felt Davis would be a great fit for the college’s centennial year. She said about 500 people filled the room and 100 more were in a room on the first floor listening to Davis.