Geena Davis speaks to UA students on diversity in filmmaking, urges them to be ‘impatient optimists’

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 284 views 

Geena Davis, Hollywood actor and champion for diversity in film, told her parents when she was three she wanted to be a movie star. Her parents we’re hardworking folks, Her dad built their home and her mom grew their food. A movie career was not something they understood.

“They would have been Amish if they had only known about them,” Davis joked as she addressed about 100 students and faculty Thursday (March 10) on the University of Arkansas campus. The speech was to promote the upcoming Bentonville Film Festival.

She said her love for acting took off in a new direction following her role as Thelma in the 1991 action comedy “Thelma & Louise.” After begging for nearly a year Davis said she was finally cast for a co-lead in the movie.

“I read the script but it had already been cast. About two months later I had my agent check again and the film had a new director who already a cast in mind. A few months later Ridley Scott decided to direct it and gave me a shot,” Davis said.

She studied for the part of Louise for nearly a year and when she went to lay our her plans to Scott for the role, he told her Thelma was the role he was thinking she’d play.

“At that point I totally agreed and said that thought has just come to me too, then I just made shit up from there,” Davis said.

On a positive note, Davis said after the success of that film, strangers would come up to her and share how many times they saw that movie and tell her how much they enjoyed seeing women in a thrilling adventure. Davis said at that point she began to notice how few speaking parts, much less leads that women had in the movies.

Several years later while watching children’s programing with her daughter she also noticed there were few women’s roles in those movies too. She began mentioning the lack of gender parity in children’s programing to her friends and anyone else who would listen.

Her passion for more gender parity in filmmaking prompted her to set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to study biases in children’s programing and seek to reverse the stereotypical roles for women and create more gender diversity.

Geena Davis
Geena Davis

“Boys and girls should share the sandbox,” Davis said. “If they can see it, then they can be it.”

The problem, Davis said, is the bias runs so deep in the culture that most people don’t notice it until it is pointed out. She said orchestras were predominantly made of up men until the 1970’s women’s revolution. She said it wasn’t until they started conducting blind auditions behind a curtain and the women took off their high heels before walking on stage that the numbers changed. Just behind the blind curtain more men were still chosen, but after the shoes were removed and judges couldn’t tell the gender more female musicians were chosen. Today, Davis said orchestras have reached parity.

A few years ago the University of Denver conducted a study on the 10 most important sectors of society, such as academia sciences, law, politics, and media. Davis said the study sought to determine the percentages of women holding jobs of authority. Across the board among these 10 sectors, Davis said the average percentage of women holding positions of authority was 20%.

“How is that possible that women just stall out at 20%, but it’s all around us,” Davis said.

The study found:
• 18% of Congress members are women;
• 19% of print journalists are women;
• 17% of Fortune 500 board members are female;
• 17% of cardiac surgeons are women;
• 17% of law partners are female; and
• 17% of military officers are female.

She said in movies made for little kids the crowd village scenes are composed of just 17% women.

“In the fictional worlds being created for kids, whether it’s undersea colonies or forest kingdoms, the population we are showing kids is predominantly male. I don’t how that happens. It seems like you would have to go out of your way to leave out that many women. … What if we are inculturating our kids to see 17% as completely normal,” Davis said.

She said women are making progress in the real world, but since 1946 the movies still have the same few number of women and mostly the same stereotypical or sexualized roles for women as they did back then.

“Surely in the 21st Century we can do better,” Davis said. “In family rated films for every one female speaking role there are three male characters and the many of the female roles are stereotypical with little authority, unless of course you are royalty, which is a nice gig if you can get it.”

Looking at television, Davis the numbers are better. She said the number of females going into forensic science has skyrocketed in recent years because of the CSI television series, reiterating that “if you can see it, you can be it.”

Davis’ trip to Northwest Arkansas was in connection with the Bentonville Film Festival she co-founded with Trevor Drinkwater. This year the Bentonville Film Festival is slated for May 3-8 and expects to draw 100,000 patrons in its second year.

Davis credited Wal-Mart Stores with the idea of having a local film festival that championed diversity. Davis became connected when Drinkwater reached out to her knowing her passion for achieving gender parity in entertainment media.

“We are excited about this year’s festival. It’s the only festival in the world where the winning films are guaranteed distribution. It’s been a little tricky holding the event in a town that doesn’t even have a theater, but we have figured it out. This year the event will be centered around the Bentonville town square. It’s a quaint, American hometown that has fully embraced this festival,” Davis said.

Last year, Davis said they featured 45 films and 85% reached distribution with the help of the partners, AMC, Lifetime Television – or straight to DVD with the help of Wal-Mart. One criteria of the films is that they represent diversity in directing, casting and producing. She said her goal was to get more Hollywood filmmakers to see the competition and then make more films that are gender equitable.

Davis also shared that one of her favorite roles of all time was playing the U.S. President in the television series Commander in Chief. She said it was “dream come true.”

But realistically she also knows the truth is that the United States ranks 100th in terms of the number of women who hold elected office. Davis said if Congress keeps adding women to its ranks at the same pace of the past 20 years, parity would be reached in 500 years. She said reaching parity in filmmaking would take 700 years, joking that she is committed to doing it in half that time.

“We don’t have to wait for a chance to make a difference. It’s okay to be impatient optimists,” Davis said.