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Geena Davis visits Rutgers University


NEW BRUNSWICK — Academy Award winner Geena Davis has joined forces with the newly-created Institute for Women’s Leadership Women & Media initiative at Rutgers. The actor, best known for her role in the feminist classic Thelma and Louise, delivered the 2012 Susan and Michael J. Angelides Lecture last night at Kirkpatrick Chapel in New Brunswick. Davis spent the day on campus attending classes and meeting with faculty, administrators and scholars in women’s studies and leadership. She spoke to NJ.com about her own Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and her investment of energy in the Women & Media advisory board.

Davis is a tall and commanding woman, funny, elegant and an entertaining speaker. In the office of Alison R. Burstein, the IWL Director, Davis discussed the genesis of her interest in gender studies. “I was watching television with my daughter, who was 2 at the time, kids’ shows, and I noticed that there was a real dearth of female characters represented in them.” Davis, the mother of three, experienced an epiphany. “I started asking our friends if they had noticed and no one had. But it seemed so obvious to me that a female presence was missing.”

Thelma and Louise was the film that most changed Davis' career . . . and inspired her feminist activism to this day.

Mensa member that she is, Davis realized that having some data about the occurrence of female characters in films, specifically for the under-11 set, would go a long way to helping her get the word out. “Data was the way in. We did our first study for G-rated films and it had a great impact.”

These studies also make her a natural fit for Rutgers' new program. Years ago, she reached out to Alison Bernstein when she was a vice president at the Ford Foundation, who believes that this is the right time to "bring together disparate units at Rutgers to focus on an issue that has great bearing on the media landscape of the future." The School of Communication and Information will be part of this new venture as well. The combined forces of these schools and Davis' star power will bring to fruition important decisive studies.

Davis took her findings to the WGA, the DGA, to studio executives and agents alike. “The studios were shocked to find out that what I had assumed really was true.” The study showed that, for every three male characters in a family film, there is one female represented. “Even in the crowd scenes!” she said, jokingly, a notion she would return to later when she mentioned in her lecture that she thought perhaps the studios felt women characters didn’t like to “gather” in their stories.

As a mother, Davis said she is part of her children’s experience with any medium. “I sit and watch television with them. I keep a running commentary throughout the entire show, asking them “Did you notice there weren’t any girls in that scene? Do you think that what that boy just did a girl could do, too? They are media savvy because I am always pointing out “That’s not really how that happens.””

The Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media (seejane.org) is an advocacy group that helps promote depictions of and leadership by women in media.

Davis feels that parental input and a limit on media exposure can help ensure a good and healthy balance in the way children get information about the world. “My son is never going to say a movie is too gender-biased because children don’t analyze entertainment like that but they will take in what they see.” The Institute’s website quotes Davis’ favorite positive saying liberally, “If she can see it, she can be it.”

Davis’ attention to detail led her to take on what might be considered quirky roles in Hollywood. “I was looking for some depth to convey, something that would be fun to do. That led me to films like “The Fly.”” Davis has steered her illustrious career to strange and sometimes dark places. “It was amazing to see the mass reaction to “Thelma and Louise”, the way people made a connection to the characters.” When asked if it was a burden becoming an iconic face of feminism after that film hit, Davis replied, “No! It was exciting to be part of that.” She mentioned that fans to this day respond to Thelma, "grabbing my clothing and telling me about how much it changed their lives."

She is clearly not averse to risk-taking and those risky roles have led her to make an impact on the industry as both an actress and, most recently, as a policy maker. SeeJane.org is the official name of her advocacy program on images of women in media. The non-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a the only research-based organization of its kind working to educate and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotypes in media and creating a wide variety of female characters for entertainment targeting children 11 and under. “

When she approaches industry professionals with her message, she says she doesn’t make the discussion confrontational. “I tell them, hey! Make whatever you’re going to make but add some female characters. In ‘Transformers’, I thought it was smart that Frances McDormand played the Secretary of State. That role could easily go to someone of either gender.”

Davis used an example from the shooting of “Stuart Little,” a mere mention to the assistant director that girls could manage remote-controlled boats as well as boys brought more girls into the forefront of a crowd sequence. “It was easy to do and didn’t cause any big waves but it put some girls front and center.”

The journey from being a tall gawky girl who “tried to take up less space in the world” to a foremost feminist advocate for children and healthy role models (who has also made the finals for the Olympic archery team) has been quite a ride for Geena Davis. When she mentioned her Golden-Globe-winning performance as the President of the United States in Commander-in-Chief,” her short-lived but critically-acclaimed television series, NJ.com asked Davis if she would ever consider running for a real political office. “Write me in, I tell them!” she laughed, adding that “my life and work now keep me terribly busy so I don’t know if I would want to do that. I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”

SeeJane.org states that “The Institute has commissioned over 12 groundbreaking research studies, and has amassed the largest body of research on gender prevalence in family entertainment, spanning more than 20 years. Our research findings are in high demand by companies and organizations interested in the empowerment of women and girls, and the creation of leadership and entrepreneurship roles. These studies, conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith, Ph.D. and her team at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, reveal decisive and startling evidence of gender inequality and rampant stereotyping in film and television.”

The Institute for Women’s Leadership Consortium sponsored the lecture. Alison Burstein introduced Davis and announced that she would be joining such accomplished media figures like Geraldine Laybourne, the creator of Nickelodeon and Oxygen, on the IWL’s Women and Media advisory team. The crowd cheered as Davis took the stage. “I am thrilled with the reception I’ve received [here],” she exclaimed. “I share a serious passion with the Institute which is to support and advocate for women and girls.”

Her lecture contained examples of studies that Davis’ Institute has completed on topics such as the lack of female characters with science and engineering or political positions in G-rated films in the last twenty years (0.7%). Women in professional roles are not portrayed with any regularity, she said, quipping that “by my calculations, it will take about 700 years to create equity.”

Highly-sexualized images of young girls create increased sexism by boys and limited options for girls. “We are creating yet another generation that will not notice this gender disparity,” she said, “and it’s been the same way since 1946 so you can’t say things are improving. We are not aware of the full extent of this yet,” but Davis made it clear that improving the rates of women in leadership across all sectors of society will improve media representations of women.

“What we need at all levels of society are women. The time for change is now! We are all powerful agents of change.” Davis said she hoped for the day when she would tell her daughter that there was a time when women were not seen as being as valued as men. “And my daughter would look at me and say, “Mom, you are kidding!” Her hope resonated with the enthusiastic crowd, which stayed for another forty-five minutes, asking questions and sharing stories with her about their own experiences with gender-biased media.

At this time, the Women & Media Advisory Board is in its initial phases of organizing. Davis promised that she would be back at Rutgers to make an even greater impact through the work the Board would do. The goal is to examine the overall representation of women in media, their leadership experiences in the industry and the use of technology along gender lines.

She also took pictures after the show and she signed stuff.


I really wish there was more support for her cause. I gotta dedicate this post to andthenwevomit, who taught me that it's totally okay to ship Thor Odinson and Thelma Dickinson together.

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