The time is now for media to make the future – on-screen and off-screen

By Geena Davis


Geena Davis
Photo courtesy of Geena Davis

Academy and Golden Globe Award-winning actor Geena Davis is a long-standing advocate for increased and diverse representation of women in film and within the entertainment industry. She is the Founder and Chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, working with media and entertainment companies through research, education, and advocacy programmes to improve how girls and women are portrayed on-screen. The Institute released the first-ever global study on female characters in popular films in 2014, with support from UN Women and the Rockefeller Foundation.

What do we learn about women and girls when we turn on the television or go to the movies?  Around the world, female characters in films and television take far less space than male characters. They do less interesting things. They are judged by their appearance.

We all know that women and girls are slightly more than half the human population. But you would not know this from watching films and television, where there are roughly three male characters for every one female.

Less than a quarter of the on-screen global workforce is female—much lower than in the real world. Women are far less likely to be a judge or doctor or in any other professional or leadership position, and women and girls are twice as likely as men and boys to appear in sexualized attire or nude.

These very enlightening and disturbingly bleak findings were part of the first-ever international study on the portrayal of women in films that my institute on Gender and Media commissioned from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism,  and presented last year with the support of UN Women and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Our data are echoed by research on other types of media. The Global Media Monitoring Project found that only a quarter of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news are women. Almost half of the stories uphold gender stereotypes.

Twenty years ago, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, the governments of the world committed to media making a far greater contribution to women’s empowerment, recognizing that films, television, newspapers and now online platforms shape the ways we think—and act.

Yet despite this commitment, we still are far from a balanced representation or portrayal in the media. In fact, our research shows that the ratio of male to female characters in film has been exactly the same since 1946.

My colleagues in film and television used to think that the problem of gender equity had been fixed. But there was no data showing them the real picture. When I brought them the research I commissioned – covering a 20 year span – they were absolutely stunned to learn how bereft of female presence the fictitious worlds they were creating were.

I have stressed how important it is for future generations to have more female characters. We know that girls feel less empowered the more TV they watch, while boy’s views become more sexist. There are important ethical questions concerning stereotypes or hypersexual images to young children. No one thinks it is a positive development that, as one recent study found, girls as young as six are seeing themselves through the male gaze.

There is also an economic argument—research shows that films with more women and girls make more money, and are less likely to fail.

Maybe instead of developing unconscious gender biases and having to fix them, we can start from the beginning, as Beijing recognized, by not perpetuating them at all.

To achieve gender equality, we have to work on many issues—laws, education, representation in government—the list is long. But, media needs to be a particular priority because they have such an enormous impact on the ways that women, men, boys and girls think about their roles and their value to society. We cannot wait even one more year for progress. We know the problem, and we have the evidence confirming it.

Think about this: in all of the sectors of society that still have a huge gender disparity, how long will it take to correct, to reach parity?  We can't snap our fingers and suddenly half of congress is women. But there's one category where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed TOMORROW: on-screen.

In the time it takes to create a television show or to make a movie, we can change what the future looks like. In other words, we don’t have to wait for society to turn things around, we can create the future now, through what people see. Yes, there are woefully few women CEOs in the world, but lots of them can be women on screen. How long will it take to fix the problem of corporate boards being so unequal? Well, they can be half women tomorrow, in films and on TV.

Here’s a simple solution; cast more women in roles written for men. The time is now for media to make the future – where we have done away with gender bias – a reality today, on-screen.

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