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Geena Davis's Mission: Tackling Gender Bias On Screen—and Off

Washington, DC

An empty movie theater

December 12, 2019

WHEN GEENA DAVIS WAS NOMINATED FOR BEST ACTRESS in 1991 for her role as Thelma in the ground-breaking female-buddies road film “Thelma & Louise,” she was sure it would mark a turning point for women in Hollywood

"All the headlines were, ‘This is going to change everything.’ There are going to be so many more movies with female stars about women’s issues, and I’m like, ‘Hot dog, can’t wait. Go ahead.’ And then, nothing,” recalled Davis, in conversation with Meredith Levien, Chief Operating Officer of The New York Times Company, at Merrill’s #WomenInvested speaker event last December.

The slow rate of progress in gender equality that followed, on and off screen, inspired Davis to found the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004. Its mission: reducing harmful stereotypes and advocating for more gender-balanced on-screen portrayals. Last year she was awarded an honorary Oscar for her work fighting gender bias in films and TV.

“Anything that you show on screen will have an impact in real life,” explained the actor and activist, pointing to the Institute’s motto: If she can see it, she can be it. “We don't have enough real-life role models for people to say, ‘Wow, I see a lot of examples of women being leaders or CEO's or whatever.’ We must have them in fiction if we want to create change.”

In their wide-ranging conversation, Davis and Levien talked about pay equity, ageism, entrepreneurship and where the equality movement might go from here, among many other topics. Reflecting on progress in her industry, the Academy-Award winner (Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist”) was happy to report that—29 years after “Thelma and Louise”—films starring women are more profitable than those starring men.1 Watch the videos below for highlights.

What’s Next for the Equality Movement?

“I feel like this could be a big tipping point,” actor and activist Geena Davis said, noting the progress made by Times Up, Me Too and other movements helping to create greater equality for women. “It will definitely be ranked among the times when we’ve made big advancements.” But there’s more to be done to establish equality for all.

 

Where does the equality movement go from here?

From The Merrill #WomenInvested Event

Series With

Geena Davis

Actor, Activist and Founder,

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

And Meredith Levien

Chief Operations Officer, The New York Times Company

 

Meredith Levien: I want to start, Geena, by talking about your work as an actor, and then an advocate, and how those two things sort of worked together. I think you started your institute in 2004.

Geena Davis:Yeah.

Meredith Levien  So, a long time ago. Just to be clear for everybody, 15 years before this extraordinary moment we're in. Where do you think the equality story goes next?

Geena Davis:I think the next focus needs to be on intersectionality, you know, that all underrepresented groups get represented. Besides being female or a person of color, if you look at LGBTQ+ and physical or mental disabilities, we found that the percentage of characters in those categories were each less than one percent in entertainments made for kids. Less than one percent? When they're such a big percentage of the population in reality.

And so I think that's where we really have to also turn our attention because it's the same thing. If you see it on screen, it becomes normal and it becomes accepted. Yeah.

Meredith Levien: So related to that, what you can see you can be, I read that you've essentially said, "I'd like to work into my nineties, but there aren't a ton of parts for women in their sixties or beyond that." Is ageism the next great thing that you know, that's going to need to be equalized?.

Geena Davis: I wouldn't mind if there was a lot more focused on ageism. But yeah, it is a problem and we see that in our research how few female characters there are once you get past 40. My personal take on it is it's a lack of imagination. Once you're past the age of being the romantic interest, you're not getting the part of the judge, the sheriff, you know, the landlord, the whatever and that's just a lack of imagination that the default is always male.

But if you stop for one second and looked at it, that's what I advise people to do, go through the script and say, "Who could become female?" And then just change the first name and a cast me! (Laughter)

Meredith Levien:  I love that. I love that.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

This video features a third-party not affiliated with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated ("Merrill") and is for information and educational purposes only. The opinions and views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Merrill or any of its affiliates.

Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated (also referred to as “MLPF&S” or “Merrill”) makes available certain investment products sponsored, managed, distributed or provided by companies that are affiliates of Bank of America Corporation (“BofA Corp.”). MLPF&S is a registered broker-dealer, Member SIPC, and a wholly-owned subsidiary of BofA Corp.

Merrill Private Wealth Management is a division of MLPF&S that offers a broad array of personalized wealth management products and services. Both brokerage and investment advisory services (including financial planning) are offered by the Private Wealth Advisors through MLPF&S. The nature and degree of advice and assistance provided, the fees charged, and client rights and Merrill’s obligations will differ among these services. Investments involve risk, including the possible loss of principal investment.

The banking, credit and trust services sold by Private Wealth Advisors are offered by licensed banks and trust companies, including Bank of America, N.A., Member FDIC, and other affiliated banks.

Bank of America Private Bank is a division of Bank of America, N.A., Member FDIC and a wholly owned subsidiary of BofA Corp.

Investment products:

Are Not FDIC Insured

Are Not Bank Guaranteed

May Lose Value

 

© 2020 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.  

2907454

 

Moving the Needle on Pay

Despite a lot of attention focused on pay, male actors are still being paid substantially more than women, noted Meredith Levien, Chief Operating Officer of The New York Times Company. “The fact that pay inequality is improving at a glacial pace across the different sectors of society—and especially for women of color—is horrifying,” noted Academy Award-winner Geena Davis. “I remain hopeful, but it’s a really stubborn problem.” 

 

Pay equity in Hollywood—and beyond

From The Merrill #WomenInvested Event Series

With Geena Davis

Actor, Activist and Founder,

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

And Meredith Levien

Chief Operations Officer, The New York Times Company

Meredith Levien: I want to talk a little bit about money and that being kind of in the water supply as an issue. There's a lot that's been written about pay equity, particularly in Hollywood, male actors being paid substantially more than women. How do other people relate to that? Does that sort of land in society at large and are we seeing change fast enough elsewhere?

Geena Davis: Oh, well, not nearly fast enough. The fact that pay inequality is so stubbornly not improving or improving at a glacial pace across the different sectors of society is horrifying. And especially for women of color.

I was one of the founding members of Time's Up and a lot of our focus is on pay inequality. And very soon after we launched, we got a letter from women farm workers saying, "We're behind you, we support you." And we were like, "Oh my God, we support you." And so, I remain hopeful, but it's a really stubborn problem.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

This video features a third-party not affiliated with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated ("Merrill") and is for information and educational purposes only. The opinions and views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Merrill or any of its affiliates.

Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated (also referred to as “MLPF&S” or “Merrill”) makes available certain investment products sponsored, managed, distributed or provided by companies that are affiliates of Bank of America Corporation (“BofA Corp.”). MLPF&S is a registered broker-dealer, Member SIPC, and a wholly-owned subsidiary of BofA Corp.

Merrill Private Wealth Management is a division of MLPF&S that offers a broad array of personalized wealth management products and services. Both brokerage and investment advisory services (including financial planning) are offered by the Private Wealth Advisors through MLPF&S. The nature and degree of advice and assistance provided, the fees charged, and client rights and Merrill’s obligations will differ among these services. Investments involve risk, including the possible loss of principal investment.

The banking, credit and trust services sold by Private Wealth Advisors are offered by licensed banks and trust companies, including Bank of America, N.A., Member FDIC, and other affiliated banks.

Bank of America Private Bank is a division of Bank of America, N.A., Member FDIC and a wholly owned subsidiary of BofA Corp.

Investment products:

Are Not FDIC Insured

Are Not Bank Guaranteed

May Lose Value

 

© 2020 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.  

2906207

 

 

Why Equalize?

There’s solid financial incentive to promote better gender balance in films—as in life, said actor Geena Davis, making the case she frequently makes in her role as founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.  “In 2018, films starring women made 38% more at the box office.1 That’s your imperative right there.”

 

Do films starring women make more money?

From The Merrill #WomenInvested Event

Series With

Geena Davis

Actor, Activist and Founder,

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

And Meredith Levien

Chief Operations Officer, The New York Times Company

Speaker 2: When do you think we'll see a character introduce herself as 007 Jamie Bond? Or Tom Clancy's, Jackie Ryan?

Meredith Levien: That's great.

Geena Davis:That's funny. My brother keeps saying I should make a movie Dirty Harriet. l, I think we actually are seeing some really interesting female lead characters currently. I don't know that we need to have literally a Jane Bond, I think we need our own stories but, I want to see women do all kinds of things. I got to play a pirate captain and amnesiac assassin and the parent to a rodent. (Laughter) But yeah, we need to see it and then as we know, it will happen in real life.

When I played the president on television, I had a very short administration, it was only one season. But they did a study afterwards and it showed that people were 58% more likely to vote for a female candidate for president after one season of seeing that show. Imagine if I had lasted for two terms. We would be only seeing female presidents left and right. But also, I want to point out that films starring women for the past several years have made far more money than movies starring men.

So, there's your imperative right there. It's not just that, won't we be better off if you show female characters doing more powerful and important things, but you can actually make more money. In 2018, films starring women made 38% more at the box office.

Meredith Levien: I love that.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

This video features a third-party not affiliated with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated ("Merrill") and is for information and educational purposes only. The opinions and views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Merrill or any of its affiliates.

Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated (also referred to as “MLPF&S” or “Merrill”) makes available certain investment products sponsored, managed, distributed or provided by companies that are affiliates of Bank of America Corporation (“BofA Corp.”). MLPF&S is a registered broker-dealer, Member SIPC, and a wholly-owned subsidiary of BofA Corp.

Merrill Private Wealth Management is a division of MLPF&S that offers a broad array of personalized wealth management products and services. Both brokerage and investment advisory services (including financial planning) are offered by the Private Wealth Advisors through MLPF&S. The nature and degree of advice and assistance provided, the fees charged, and client rights and Merrill’s obligations will differ among these services. Investments involve risk, including the possible loss of principal investment.

 

The banking, credit and trust services sold by Private Wealth Advisors are offered by licensed banks and trust companies, including Bank of America, N.A., Member FDIC, and other affiliated banks.

 

Bank of America Private Bank is a division of Bank of America, N.A., Member FDIC and a wholly owned subsidiary of BofA Corp.

Investment products:

Are Not FDIC Insured

Are Not Bank Guaranteed

May Lose Value

 

© 2020 Bank of America Corporation. All rights reserved.  

2906141

 

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