HomeLearning CenterHow Sexist Is Hollywood? Check Out Geena Davis’s Spreadsheet

How Sexist Is Hollywood? Check Out Geena Davis’s Spreadsheet

This article was originally published by Chris Colin for The New York Times

Geena Davis and her family were returning from dinner in their small Massachusetts town when her great-uncle Jack, 99, began drifting into the oncoming lane of traffic. Ms. Davis was about 8, flanked by her parents in the back seat. Politeness suffused the car, the family, maybe the era, and nobody remarked on what was happening, even when another car appeared in the distance, speeding toward them.

Finally, moments before impact, Ms. Davis’s grandmother issued a gentle suggestion from the passenger seat: “A little to the right, Jack.” They missed by inches.

Ms. Davis, 67, relayed this story in her 2022 memoir, “Dying of Politeness,” an encapsulation of the genially stultifying values that she had absorbed as a child — and that a great many other girls absorb, too: Defer. Go along to get along. Everything’s fine.

Of course the Academy Award-winning actress ditched that pliability long ago. From “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own” to this year’s coming-of-age drama, “Fairyland,” back-seat docility just wasn’t an option. Indeed, self-possession was her thing. (Or one of her things. Few profiles have failed to mention her Mensa membership, her fluency in Swedish or her Olympic-caliber archery prowess.) But cultivating her own audaciousness was only Phase 1.

Next year will mark two decades since the creation of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. When her daughter was a toddler, Ms. Davis couldn’t help noticing that male characters vastly outnumbered female characters in children’s TV and movies.

“I knew everything is completely imbalanced in the world,” she said recently. But this was the realm of make-believe; why shouldn’t it be 50/50?

It wasn’t just the numbers. How the women were represented, their aspirations, the way young girls were sexualized: Across children’s programming, Ms. Davis saw a bewilderingly warped vision of reality being beamed into impressionable minds. Long before “diversity, equity and inclusion” would enter the lexicon, she began mentioning this gender schism whenever she had an industry meeting.

“Everyone said, ‘No, no, no — it used to be like that, but it’s been fixed,’” she said. “I started to wonder, What if I got the data to prove that I’m right about this?”

Amid Hollywood’s trumpeted causes, Ms. Davis made it her mission to quietly harvest data. Exactly how bad is that schism? In what other ways does it play out? Beyond gender, who else is being marginalized? In lieu of speechifying and ribbons, and with sponsors ranging from Google to Hulu, Ms. Davis’s team of researchers began producing receipts.

Ms. Davis wasn’t the first to highlight disparities in popular entertainment. But by leveraging her reputation and resources — and by blasting technology at the problem — she made a hazy truth concrete and offered offenders a discreet path toward redemption. (While the institute first focused on gender data, its analyses now extend to race/ethnicity, L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+, disability, age 50-plus and body type. Random awful finding: Overweight characters are more than twice as likely to be violent.)

Even when braced for it, the institute’s findings are staggering: In the 101 top-grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2005, just 28 percent of speaking characters were female. Even in crowd scenes — even in animated crowd scenes — male characters vastly outnumber female ones. In the 56 top grossing films of 2018, women portrayed in positions of leadership were four times more likely than men to be shown naked. (The bodies of 15 percent of them were filmed in slow motion.) Where a century ago women had been fully central to the budding film industry, they were now a quantifiable, if sexy, afterthought.

“When she started to collect the data, it was kind of incredible,” said Hillary Hallett, a professor of American studies at Columbia University and the author of “Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood.” “This wasn’t a vague feeling anymore. You couldn’t claim this was just some feminist rant. It was like, ‘Look at these numbers.’”

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