“I didn't intend to make it my life's mission, but it has become that now 15 years later,” Geena Davis tells PEOPLE
As an actress, Geena Davis was keenly aware throughout her career that female representation in film and television was considerably out of proportion to men. But it was being a mom that led her to do something about it.
“I didn’t intend to make it my life’s mission, but it has become that now 15 years later,” Davis, 63, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
When her three children were just a few years old, Davis embarked on a journey to champion real-world-reflective gender balance in the media — as well as for minorities and other underrepresented groups.
Taking note of the films and TV series her then-preschool age kids —daughter Alizeh, now 17, and twin sons Kaiis and Kian, 15, with former husband Reza Jarrahy — were viewing, she recognized just how few women and girls appeared on screen, and how fleeting those moments of representation were.
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“From when they were little, I’ve always watched movies and TV with them and I would often lean over to say, ‘There’s only boys in that scene. Why do you think that is?’” says Davis. “I was bothered by the idea that we were showing kids a very imbalanced world from the beginning…I saw that there were so far fewer female characters than male characters.”
Her desire to investigate the phenomenon led her to found the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media in 2004. Over the ensuing years, the institute has become a powerful voice in compiling and delivering data documenting the gender imbalance to film studios, television networks and content creators — beginning with a focus on children’s entertainment.
“We’ve done the most research ever done on gender depictions in kids’ TV and kids movies covering over a 25-year span,” Davis explains, “The most interesting thing I discovered was that children’s onscreen representations is absolutely the lowest-hanging fruit when you’re talking about gender inequality. It’s the easiest thing to fix, because [the creators] had no idea they were doing it.”
Indeed, Davis’ meetings and presentations revealed that Hollywood creatives were largely practicing an unconscious bias, and were actually shocked to see data that showed them just how underrepresented women were.
“Data was the absolute magic key because people were not aware,” Davis says. “People thought that the problem of gender inequality in kids’ entertainment had been fixed, and they weren’t looking at the worlds that were being created that were often nearly bereft of female presence. “
“The people who make kids entertainment do it because they care about kids and they want to do right by kids, and the data tells them everything,” she continues. “From the very first meeting we took until one we had last week, the reaction is always, ‘What? I can’t believe that. What are we doing? Why are we doing that?’ ”
Gradually, Davis has seen the research her team has assembled have an even greater effect throughout the entertainment industry as she continues to expose and chip away at outdated defaults. “The reaction that we’ve gotten is really meaningful because people are very grateful for the information,” she says. “I didn’t know when we started how they were going to react to [me] coming in and saying, ‘We could do better,’ but everywhere we go they say ‘Please come back…Do more research, bring it to us. We want to see it.’”
“The fabulous thing is that we’re getting results, we’re seeing progress made,” she says, noting that her institute’s research recently revealed that in both children’s film and television, gender parity has been achieved among lead characters for the first time in history.
“The goal is to have the fictitious worlds that are created reflect the real world, which is half female and incredibly diverse,” she says. “So it’s not some weird, outrageous concept to make it so that kids can see people like them on the screen.”
Long before Hollywood started receiving her message, Davis says her efforts were embraced by her kids. “They’re so tuned into this,” she says. “Now if we’re watching a movie and I just start to lean over, they said, ‘I know, Mom. There’s not enough girls in that scene.’ “