Academy Award winner Geena Davis spoke out sharply against the limited opportunities for women in Hollywood at the Motion Picture Association of America on Wednesday night, but stopped short of recommending specific remedies for the long-standing gender gaps behind and in front of the camera.
“I believed that the fate of female actors, where they seem to stop getting so many female parts when they hit 40 would not apply to me because I had been different. But it’s like falling off a cliff,” Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, said of her own experience. “I was averaging about 1 movie a year, and in my forties, I made one movie. And it’s not that I wasn’t offered any parts, but I wasn’t offered those kinds of parts. And I was so inspired to play unique characters and to do different things, that to be the girlfriend of whoever gets to have the exciting adventure didn’t appeal to me. ..If you ever read, at some point, that I’ve signed on to play Sean Connery’s comatose wife, that’s about the right Hollywood age, you’ll know I’m broke.”
In a conversation with Rep. Rosa DeLaura, D-Conn., Davis emphasized that women are underrepresented in almost every facet of Hollywood productions. Just 17 percent of the people in crowd scenes in family films, she said, are women, and the ratio of male to female characters hasn’t changed since 1946.
“Could it be that having that ratio driven into your brain that much affects how you think?” she asked. “There’s a study, in a group if there’s 17 percent women, men think it’s balanced. If there’s 33 percent women, they think there’s more women than men.”
And she cautioned that the economic success of movies created by women and featuring female characters had done little to significantly change Hollywood’s belief that such projects are economically risky or to challenge the industry’s perception that male audiences won’t watch female characters.
“I noticed this phenomenon first after Thelma and Louise came out and all the press said ‘Now this is a big hit and it changes the entire landscape and there are going to be so many female road movies or buddy comedies,’ and there were none,” Davis said. “We never get any momentum going.”
But Davis was reluctant to suggest setting quotas or target goals for either improving the employment of women behind the camera as writers, directors, or producers, even though she said having women in such positions would improve the number and quality of female characters.
“It really is a creative industry and it’s toxic to talk about numbers and quotas because they need to feel a sense of freedom about that,” she said. “But I think that we’re finding ways to encourage them to move along.”
Davis suggested that simply educating movie executives had made a real impact, particularly because so many of them were totally unaware of the dearth of female characters in their own projects.
“We did a survey of everyone who had heard the research [produced by the Geena Davis Institute], and 63 percent of the people said that what they learned had changed two or more of their projects, where they added more female characters, or changed the dialogue, or put more clothes on them,” Davis said. “So we feel like we will, in a few years, be able to change the ratio for the same time since 1946.”