The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has been named a recipient of a $1.2 million Google Global Impact grant to further its research on gender depiction in entertainment programming for children.
From “Thelma and Louise” to “A League of Their Own,” Geena Davis has been more women in her lifetime than most of us will ever dream of, but stepping into all those different roles has left some lingering side effects for the 56-year-old Academy Award winning actress and Mensa member.
“Playing so many characters that have resonated with women heightened my awareness of how female characters are portrayed—or more frequently not portrayed—in Hollywood,” she says, although in her early years on the screen she was able to shrug off the troubling feeling. But after the birth of daughter Alizeh in 2002, she found herself unable to ignore the disparity for a minute longer.
“Until then I had no idea that there was such a huge gender gap in the programming we’re creating for and showing young children in the United States,” she says. “I was floored. Not only are there far fewer female characters than there are male, but the hyper sexualization of those characters is outrageous.” When she took her theory to the Hollywood community she was shut down: “Directors, producers and studio heads invariably told me that this was a problem that had been fixed long ago.”
But Davis wouldn’t be cowed. Instead, in 2004 she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which in the ensuing eight years has become the leader in research on gender depiction in the media. Thanks to Davis’s existing relationships within the media and entertainment industries the organization has been able to make great strides in educating and influencing players on the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating empowering female characters for entertainment targeting young children.
Jacqueline Fuller, Google’s director of charitable giving and advocacy, which awards the grants, which this year totaled more than $23 million, says that while the search giant has been aware of Davis’s work for years, the latest research from the Institute hit home for Google. “Sometimes in looking for projects and organizations to fund we begin with a problem,” Fuller told me. “We had heard the statistics about family films and the representation of women and were struck by that dearth. As Google has been to interested in encouraging young women to pursue STEM careers it was clear to us that if girls aren’t seeing women portrayed in those professions—as scientists, doctors, computer scientists—it would only compound the problem.”
Davis’s most recent piece of research has proved critical to that issue. Titled “Gender Roles and Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television,” the paper analyzes 11,927 speaking characters in family films, prime-time programming and cable programming for children between 2006 and 2011. The findings are shocking, and speak to the importance of the continuation of advocacy for major changes in programming for kids, girls in particular.
Not only is the gender imbalance alive and well in entertainment targeting children under 11 (just 28% of characters in family feature films are female, 38.9% in prime time and 30.8% in kid’s shows), but what the Institute exposed about the glass ceiling of employment in the media is truly disturbing. Men dominate every sector, comprising 96.6% of family film characters employed in the C-Suite, 100% of chief justices, 95.5% of high level politicians, and 78.1% of doctors. Male actors play 100% of the fictional editors-in-chief in family films. STEM careers are just as glaring. Female actors portray just 26 of the 160 speaking roles where characters are employed in STEM fields.
It’s that final piece of research that aligns the interest of Google with the passion that’s driven Davis for more than a decade. “We really have a long way to go in the work that needs to be done,” she says. “A huge part of the problem of not having enough girls and women going into tech fields is because children aren’t exposed to characters that have these jobs.” The problem isn’t just a women’s issue, she continues. “Girls don’t have characters to aspire to, sure, but boys don’t see these characters either,” she says, “And as a result don’t see women and girls as being competent equals.”
To Google’s delight, Geena Davis has become a self-described “datahead” through her work in media research, and is eager to embrace technology further in the work ahead of her, particularly as the Institute puts the $1.2 million grant to work in 2013.
“Of course we’re thrilled and honored at the award,” she says, “But all of this is about creating tools that will enable us to analyze gender portrayals on screen through software with greater precision and accomplish our goals much more quickly.” Google’s cash, she says, will “profoundly improve [the organization’s] ability to scale up, research more broadly and, most excitingly, help us to expand globally.”
To date the Institute has focused on U.S. films and television programming, which Davis notes comprise over 80% of the media consumed worldwide. (“We are largely the ones responsible for exporting this negative view of women and girls,” she chides). By extending its research around the globe, Davis offers that she might uncover countries that have achieved balance. “How are they doing in England, Scandinavia and India? Maybe there are places where they are creating great content for girls.”
“We had been raising funds for a global study but we would have had to pick and choose where to spend that money,” she says. Google has helped to erase that concern, leaving Davis with nothing but positivity that 2013 will be rich with revealing data—and with luck, progress towards ending the gender gap for women—both onscreen and off.