Every day women and girls are faced with many images in media of what the ideal body looks like and what roles they should play that help shape their self-perceptions.
Actor Geena Davis told a packed audience in the Ezell Center May 24 at a special luncheon and panel discussion about how influential the media is in portraying these images.
After watching children’s television with her daughter, who is now 10, Davis said she began questioning why there were so few strong female roles in children’s programming. She found very little awareness of the issue in the entertainment industry, so she established the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to provide some hard data to Hollywood, she said.
“We need to consider what messages we are sending to our kids at such an impressionable age,” Davis asked. Studies have shown that “the more hours a girl watches of television, the fewer options she believes she has in life. And the more hours a boy watches of television, the more sexist are his views.”
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media sponsored the first comprehensive, long-range study of gender portrayal in family programming, carried out by the Annenberg School of Communication in California. The results showed a three to one dominance of male characters over female characters, with very little change in that ratio going back 20 years.
The existing female characters at that time were often stereotyped or sexualized. Animated girls were often drawn with tiny waists and the most common occupation for women in children’s programming was “royalty,” Davis said.
Davis, who refers to herself as an actor because the definition is “someone who acts” and does not refer to a male, said two of her film projects had a profound influence on her self-identity as a women and the issues women face in our society.
In “A League of Their Own,” Davis played one of the first professional women baseball players, and the decidedly non-athletic actor had to get in shape and learn some sports skills.
“Learning how to play a sport, really made me think about myself and my body. For the first time in my life, I thought it was OK to be tall and OK to take up this room, because I can do good things with my body,” she said.
The film inspired her to work with the Women’s Sports Foundation as a trustee for 10 years.
“Thelma and Louise” also had a major impact on her identity as a woman. During the making of the film, no one involved really expected it to become a phenomenon or raise so many issues about the empowerment of women, she said.
“It was a big lesson for me in the power of media images of females,” she said of the “Thelma and Louise” hoopla. “It made me realize that we give girls so few images that make them feel this way.”
Davis said that media has the power to solve the problem.
“If they see it, they can be it,” she declared, arguing for strong female characters in the media.
As an example of the positive use of media, Davis presented a public service announcement produced by Lipscomb students Jason Michael Fox, Kathryn McKinley, Krysten Turner, Marlee Vogel and Brynn Watkins, that is scheduled to air on Nashville’s NPT and possibly other PBS stations. The spot include young children reacting when they find out that women really can be a race car driver and a pilot.
The video was funded by the Geena Davis Institute and will air on NPT as part of public television’s Women and Girls Lead program, a three-year global program that will air 50 documentaries on public television on women’s issues this coming year.
“We need more women in front of the camera and behind the camera. We need to vote for women and we need to hire women,” Davis told the crowd.
Davis was part of a panel discussion featuring the women who lead many of Nashville’s media companies. Former FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, who co-chairs the Healthy MEdia Commission with Davis, moderated the panel that included Davis; Beth Curley, president and CEO, NPT; Kate Herman, president and publisher, Nashville Business Journal; Carol Hudler, president and publisher, The Tennessean; Deb McDermott, president, Young Broadcasting, LLC; Debbie Turner, president and general manager News Channel 5 Network; and Doreen Wade, vice president and general manager of WSMV.
Proceeds from the event will benefit Davis’ institute, the only research-based organization of its kind working within the media and entertainment industry and the Andrews Institute’s collaboration with Geena Davis and Nashville Public Television (NPT) for a new Citizen Leadership Academy for women and girls.
The Andrews Institute’s new leadership initiative for women and girls is a partnership with NPT and its Women and Girls Lead series, a multi-year public media initiative to focus, educate and connect citizens worldwide in support of the issues facing women and girls. The curriculum will also incorporate the research of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Presenting sponsors for “A League of Their Own” are the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).