“I have so much passion for acting. It’s my joy in life,” Geena Davis explained while accepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her commitment to ending gender disparity in the media at the 2019 Governors Awards in Hollywood. “I’ve also been passionate about empowering women and girls, in part by seeking roles that I think might resonate with them in some way.”
Those two passions have shaped Davis’ career as a trailblazing actor and activist. In 2004, the Academy-award winning star from seminal feminist works like A League of Their Own, Glow and Thelma & Louise—which Davis described as one of the few films that permitted women “to come out feeling empowered by the female characters”—founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM to analyze and improve intersectional gender representation within the industry.
“Do we really want to stand by the idea,” Davis asked while receiving her honorary Oscar award, “that its fine for female characters to be one-dimensional, narrowly-stereotyped, hyper-sexualized or simply not there?”
GDIGM’s work was inspired by Davis’ own experiences worrying about what her daughter saw on-screen, and today, it specifically aims to foster feminist media creation for children under the age of 11. Since 2004, GDIGM has made progression on that mission and shaped the industry: Experts from the organization have visited sets for productions like Inside Out, Hotel Transylvania, The Little Prince and Monsters University to positively influence gender portrayals. On the red carpet of the Governor’s Awards, Davis cheered: “I’m really excited by our latest research, which shows that now, for the first time, we have reached gender parity in children’s television shows.”
Davis opined about the power of that parity when accepting the Humanitarian Award. “Think about how dramatically different our world would be,” she urged the audience, “if we hadn’t all grown up with these unconscious biases.”
GDIGM has also been radically investing in new ways to combat bias. At the 2019 Power of Inclusion Summit, Davis announced that GDIGM had partnered with Disney to pilot GF-IQ: Spellchecking Bias, a new machine-learning tool that could reveal any unconscious gender or racial biases in film projects before they have entered production.
One of the solutions she highlighted at the Governors Awards was also as easy as a text edit: “The quickest way to reach gender parity,” she declared, “is to go through your script that you’re going to make and cross out a bunch of first names of characters and make them female. With one stroke, you have created some non-stereotyped characters that might turn out to be more interesting now that they’ve had a gender swap.”
It’s an easy fix for a massive problem. “There’s one category of gross gender inequality where the under-representation can change overnight: on-screen,” Davis concluded. “Let’s make this change happen right now.”