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Geena Davis Institute study shows gender gap in film/TV is prevalent worldwide

Geena Davis is more than an actress, she’s an advocate for gender equality in film and TV. 

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media just released new data showing that women aren’t just getting a short shrift here in the U.S., but in movies all around the world.

The news is grim. Fewer than 31 percent of all speaking parts go to women. American movies feature fewer female characters than movies in South Korea, Russia and China. What’s more, many of those female characters appear either in sexually revealing attire and few have professional jobs. Women make up only 17 percent of roles as background actors — think extras with non-speaking parts — in both animated and live-action family-rated films. 

“Maleficent” and “Frozen” might be doing well at the box office, but the report finds the percentage of female speaking characters in the most popular movies has not meaningfully changed in half a century.

Davis joined The Frame to talk about the study, the surprising data it uncovered and why she's consciously optimistic that her efforts can help Hollywood close the gender gap. 

Interview Highlights:

 

On why so few studio diversity departments take gender into account:

"It's absolutely something that people have not thought about...From the very first studio we went to, the woman that was in charge of diversity had her head in her hands and said, 'Every script that we do at this studio, my staff and I go through and we say, "Who here can become Asian, or Hispanic or African American? Never once have we thought, who here can become female? I have no excuse for why that happens.'" My theory why that happens is because that's the ratio that everybody grew up with, it just looks like the norm when it's been that prevalent."

On what studios can do to improve the male-female ratio:

"It happens every few years, where a movie starring women breaks out and the announcement is made that now everything will change. But the numbers show that nothing does. Yes, I'm optimistic that 'Divergent' and 'Hunger Games' and 'Maleficent' and 'Frozen' and 'Brave' will change things, but I'm not relaying on that. What I say is: Whatever you're already going to make doesn't matter. Whatever it is, just pause before you cast it, look at it and [ask], 'Who can become female here?' Just by doing that, changing a few names, you've tremendously boosted the percentage of female characters." 

On the reactions she's had from studio heads:

"They were stunned...If I was saying you're making less movies with female stars they'd say, 'We know that, and we have reasons why we think we should do that.' But when I say the movies you are making aren't populated with female characters — for example, crowd scenes and group scenes in family rated films are made up of only 17 percent female characters...You would assume that if a crowd gathers, it's going to be half men and women. It's in animated and live action, the same number, 17 percent. They had no idea about that. Everywhere we've gone there's been instant reactions right in the room where they say, 'Well, we can fix that, can't we?'"

On what was most surprising about the report:

"It was very interesting to me that Korea and China seemed to be doing better than [the U.S.]. In Korean films, half of the stars — like the protagonists in the movie — are women, which is so far from what it is in the States...There are definitely countries who are doing better than us, but in general, when you average them all together it's about the same picture all over the world." 

On how she looks back on the choices she made in her career:

"I don't really have second thoughts about any of my choices. What happened was, after I was in 'Thelma & Louise,' it actually was a big turning point in my life because of the reaction the movie got. None of us expected it to strike a nerve the way it did, it was very surprising. But for me it really demonstrated how few opportunities we give women to feel like that about the female characters — to feel excited and empowered by the female characters. Instead of just thinking about roles from the perspective of what's going to be interesting for me to act in, or challenging, I started to think about what are the women in the audience going to think about my character. Not that I wanted to play role models and all, just interesting characters who are in charge of their own fate."

On what can be improved immediately in film and TV to help close the gender gap:

"The number of female characters on screen. The next time somebody makes a movie, the board could be half female, the CEO can be a woman. The very next TV show somebody makes, there can be lots of female characters in [science, technology, engineering and math]. So, in this one particular area, I'm very optimistic, I really do think we can move the needle enough that it's significant within the next five years." 

Read the full report: