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Geena Davis: "We Are Enculturating Kids to See Women and Girls as Not Taking Up Half the Space"

by Inkoo Kang
December 13, 2013 10:00 AM
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Geena Davis wrote a must-read essay for The Hollywood Reporter's "Women in Entertainment Power 100" issue, in which she notes that women and girls only make up 17% of all film characters over the last twenty years -- a figure that hasn't budged since 1946. The actress and activist argues that the problem isn't just that female characters are being sidelined by male protagonists, but that "the fictitious villages and jungles and kingdoms and interplanetary civilizations [in the movies] were nearly bereft of female population," even in family films. With that, she observes, "we are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space." 

Then Davis offers two astoundingly simple and obvious solutions to the problem of erasing women from view: 

Step 1: Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. With one stroke you've created some colorful, unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they've had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women -- and it's not a big deal? 

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, "A crowdgathers, which is half female." That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don't gather, I don't know. And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.

These suggestions won't help women directors get more work or immediately create more female-centric narratives -- two things we're in dire need of in Hollywood -- but they will garner more work for journeywoman actresses and create more visibility for women overall. The latter is important for we as movie-goers and as a society to stop thinking of men as the "default" gender, and women as the exception, the "other." 

Once that mental hurdle of men being "normal" and women the "deviation" is overcome, it'll be easier to think of women as "people," rather than "those people." Take, for example, the reversion of Hollywood's high-concept movies to a "genderless" (white) male standard. Why shouldn't a woman fall in love with a computer (Him) or have fantastical daydreams (The Secret Life of Wilma Mitty) or fail at being a folk singer (Inside Lily Davis), to take just a few examples from this month's movies? Were any of these events real, they could happen to anyone. But they always happen to white male characters in in the movies, which means that we're still treating white men, that tiny global minority, as representative of everyone. 

Walk-in roles and crowd scenes including in animated films that are equally distributed by gender won't solve the whole problem, but they'll serve as a visual reminder that women aren't some fringe group in need of token inclusion. We're (a little over) half the human race. We deserve to be seen that way. 

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  • j | December 15, 2013 12:24 PMReply

    there will always be girls out there willing to take on the typical roles offered in movies .Things wont change not everyone is in it for the talent and integrity .

  • | December 13, 2013 11:08 AMReply

    my roomate's mother makes $80 an hour on the computer. She has been without a job for 9 months but last month her pay check was $19253 just working on the computer for a few hours. learn the facts here now

  • No | December 13, 2013 10:48 AMReply

    I find this article plainly stupid and silly. It is a given that a crowd scene of people will include men and women unless it is sex specific: US Army camp during WWII or Women's College, early 1960s. Those places are sex specific to the story. If one had a scene in a church, it'll have men and women not unless, for the story, the menfolk have been wiped out or aren't attending church. A great deal of the above seems to be written by a person who knows very little about scripting.

    The magic seems to be if you just add a dash of girls here and little of womenfolk there in scripts, you get some level of gender equity.

  • de Pizan | December 13, 2013 3:26 PM

    That's just the problem, No. Davis is basing this suggestion on research, where they've studied crowds in films, and generally only 17% of an onscreen crowd is compromised of women. So when there isn't a reason for a sex specific crowd, such as people fleeing from zombies in the streets, a congregation sitting in church, at a train/subway station or whatever else, women aren't represented there like they should be.

  • fdmaiami | December 13, 2013 10:46 AMReply

    I get what she's saying, and I don't know why she and so many other rich white actresses of yesteryear decided this last year was the only time to bring up radical ideas like this, but also, isn't this somewhat similar to Tyler Perry movies that have 90 percent African American people in every job position or aspect of life that more often have been taken up by white people in other films? Sometimes, in real life, there just aren't women in places that are dominantly made up by men and it's not for a bigoted reason. Sometimes it's not always bigotry.

    Also, does anyone remember Starship Troopers? Some grad student blogger should write a piece on how it was a decade and a half before it's time by showing men and women sharing equal parts of the world around them and how they also shared equal parts nudity and sexual aspects of the film, because I just remember all the "meh" reviews, cause back then people were more aware of the world around them and hadn't yet started to associate their favorite TV shows and movies as part of their own real life in the same way as they do today.

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