At UN, actress Geena Davis takes on media for negative images of women

29 June 2010
Geena Davis

With her ground-breaking roles in such films as Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own, Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis is no stranger to playing strong women on the silver screen.

Off-camera, she is fighting passionately to ensure that women and girls are accurately depicted in the media, warning that they hyper-sexualization and other negative portrayals could roll back hard-won progress in achieving the United Nations-backed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline.

Acknowledging the hard work of the UN and other organizations aimed at promoting economic development and curbing violence against women, “we don’t want to see it undermined by a culture of hyper-sexualization or stereotyping of women in the media because it will… start to take away some of the progress if we’re not taking care of the image of women,” she told the UN News Centre.

“As an actor, I had the good fortune of being in a few movies that resonated particularly with women, and it really was a lesson for me in the power of media images,” said Ms. Davis, who yesterday addressed the opening of the annual high-level segment of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), focusing this year on the empowerment of women and girls.

Some six years ago, while watching television programming and movies targeted at children with her then two-year-old daughter, she noticed a marked disparity in the portrayal of men and women.

“I find that to be disturbing because it means that we’re raising generation after generation of boys and girls to become used to the idea that girls hold a lesser position in our society, that they’re less important, their stories are less interesting,” she stressed.

For more than half a century, the ratio of female to male characters has held constant at 1:3, Ms. Davis said, resulting in many people not noticing or questioning the paucity of women in movies and TV shows.

Her research organization, See Jane, has carried out a large-scale analysis of movies and TV shows aimed at children under the age of 11, finding that between 1990 and 2005, there was no improvement in the ratio of female to male characters.

“So it’s not something that’s getting better or improving,” Ms. Davis said, in spite of isolated cases of popular female characters, such as Dora the Explorer. “The general trend is for things to stay where they are.”

Also the mother of two boys, she said that she calls attention to how women and girls are portrayed in programming, asking her children why they think certain characters are girls and not boys.

“It’s getting to the point now where occasionally I’ll lean over to say, ‘Hey did you notice?’ ” Ms. Davis said, recalling conversations with her now eight-year-old daughter while watching TV and movies.

“Yeah, there’s not enough girls,” her daughter responds. “She’s been very well educated,” Ms. Davis pointed out, laughing.


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