Geena Davis Has Led the Charge for Women in Hollywood. Now She’s Doing the Same for Advertising

Working with brands, agencies and data to analyze female roles in ads

Geena Davis founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media over a decade ago.
Photographed for Adweek by Robert Ascroft. Styling: Linda Medvene Hair: Derek-Peter Williams/Tracey Mattingly Makeup: Debra Ferullo/Tracey Mattingly

Don’t ask Geena Davis about role models. At least, don’t ask her about female role models on screen. The Oscar-winning actress turned gender-equality activist wants more women in movies and on television playing scientists, engineers, lawyers, CEOs—all of the jobs that women have in real life—but please, if you do anything, make those characters interesting.

In Davis’ view, treating female characters solely as role models means they can end up wooden and humorless—which inevitably leads to fewer of them. “Who wants more stiff, strong female characters when what you need is really colorful, flawed, messed-up, interesting female characters—just like male characters are?” says Davis.

Davis has been busy working to better the way women are represented on screen for over a decade with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. She regularly meets with Hollywood executives and now ad agencies like J. Walter Thompson and brands such as Ford to talk about how they can change their own media for the better.

She also just wrapped up the third year of the film festival she co-founded, the Bentonville Film Festival, based in Bentonville, Ark., which works with brands like Coca-Cola and Walmart and highlights stories created by and about women and other diverse voices. And on the particular day that Davis was interviewed by Adweek in mid-May, Google decided to promote its work with Davis’ institute—the tech giant helped create software that measures screen and speaking time for women, which it calls the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient, or GD-IQ—on its search homepage.

Here, Davis shares her thoughts on gender in media, her role on Fox’s TV version of The Exorcist, and if she’d run for public office.

Davis wants more women on screen playing scientists, engineers, lawyers and CEOs.
Robert Ascroft for Adweek

Adweek: When you signed on to do Fox’s The Exorcist last year, were there any negotiations about trying to make sure that the cast or crew was diverse?
Geena Davis: They knew in hiring me what I had been working on and were very aware. There were three important female characters and three male characters [in the cast], so that was nicely gender balanced and they did their absolute best to get female directors. They were very passionately interested in gender and diversity, the creators, so I felt really good about it.

The show was recently renewed. Are you in the next season?
I imagine the story will be moving off of my family.

You’ve been trying to up the female quotient in Hollywood for the last decade. What’s been the response?
When we share the data about on-screen representation of female characters [with people in the industry], how there are so few [and how they] do so little [onscreen], they are shocked. We have yet to leave a meeting where at least one person hasn’t said, “You just changed my project.” So we’re very, very optimistic, and every studio asks us to come back. Now we have the [GD-IQ] tool [to] analyze [their] scripts and pilots and other things. So we feel a very, very positive vibe.

Why share data about the gender gap?
The best use of my personal resources is to try to effect change in a wholesale way. It’s very nice when movies come out starring women; it’s wonderful when they are giant hits at the box office. And it does happen regularly, but there’s never any momentum. I’ve been keenly aware of this since Thelma & Louise when all the press predicted “This changes everything” in capital letters. And then my next movie, A League of Their Own, [the press thought,] “Now this changes everything. Now we’re going to see so many sports movies with women and prove once and for all…” And nothing. Name all the women sports movies since then in the last 25 years. It happens over and over. But it still hasn’t changed; the ratio of male to female characters in film has been the same since 1946.

Are there any examples of films or television shows that you’ve worked with or a direct change that has happened because of something you pointed out?
I was on a panel with Shonda Rhimes that Google sponsored about unconscious gender bias and I was speaking about all my research. I mentioned how few female characters there are in crowd scenes. Nobody does gender diversity better than Shonda Rhimes, nobody. I did Grey’s Anatomy. It is so diverse, so many incredible female characters in all of her shows onscreen and behind the camera. But she told us later she never thought about the crowd scenes. [She] went back and found that sure enough they had far more male actors in the crowd scenes and group scenes. So she changed that on her shows and I feel like I can’t believe it I thought of something that Shonda Rhimes didn’t think of. I must be a genius.

You are often asked about the need for strong female characters in television and film. Does the moniker of “strong” ever annoy you?
I’ll tell you a term that really bothers me is “role models,” “we need female role models.” I do get concerned about the concept that these new female characters that we add need to be strong and role models. There is a phenomenon I think that happens that I’m not fond of, which is that very often there will be a female character, let’s say it’s a group of characters, and they’re maybe saving the world or whatever they’re doing—I’m talking about movies in general, not specifically kids’ things—and yup, there’s a female character who is important and great and incredibly talented and good at what she does and incredibly strong—and utterly humorless in the rest of her personality.

If you think about Thelma & Louise, for example, it is often held up as fabulous feminist movie, which I’m very proud of and it is, but we kill a guy, evade the law, drive drunk, hold up a liquor store, have sex with a stranger and kill ourselves. So it’s not really great role models.

Davis co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas.
Robert Ascroft for Adweek

You played the president of the United States in the ABC drama Commander in Chief. Would you ever run for public office?
Ever since the show I’ve had people say, “Would you run for office?” My standard answer is: If nominated, I will run; if elected, I will serve. I think it was General Sherman who said, “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.” So I’ve changed it around. I certainly would play the character again, that’s for sure.

Tell us about your institute’s partnerships with brands.
The most recent one is with Ford and YouTube. [Ford] realized that women were big consumers of their products and they really wanted to acknowledge that and value their female customers and be very proactive in reaching out to women. We came up with this idea—we have a very strong partnership with YouTube—of creating these inspirational videos with current YouTube stars. The whole #She’sGotDrive [hashtag] really took off. I think it’s a perfect slogan and metaphor. Obviously she’s “got drive”—she drives cars—but she is forging her own destiny creating her own future.

What should agencies and brands be thinking about to try and make sure their advertising is gender balanced?
It’s just very important for every company to realize the potential for unconscious gender bias and take very, very concrete and active steps to counteract it. The other thing that we’re working on with advertisers is the content of their ads, because it’s just like film and TV—unless you can see the data, you won’t realize the aggregate they have there. So we have trained the [GD-IQ] tool now to do film and we have also trained it to do [advertising]. We can view a company’s ads and do an analysis of what they’re doing, how they’re doing, what the females are portrayed like and how much screen time they get, how much speaking time, all of that. We want to be able to work directly with either ad agencies or directly with a company. We’re already working with a couple of companies to look at all their ads. We have also done a study [in partnership with J. Walter Thompson] of the past 10 years of Cannes Lion [film and film craft] winners to look for gender representation in those, and we’re going to reveal it at the Cannes Lion Festival of Creativity this year.

Can you tell us a bit more about this tool?
Well Google—it’s our tool; it’s my institute’s toolGoogle gave us the grant to create the GD-IQ. Between Google’s machine learning technology and USC Viterbi’s audio-visual processing techniques, the GD-IQ became a reality. They wanted to find out how they could help us use technology. Google is a great partner of ours. Very supportive of what we do. And they gave us this big grant to create the software to be able to do the research quicker, more accurately and cheaper and also it can do things that the human eye can’t possibly do. Like we can tell you down to the fraction of a second how long an actor is speaking or onscreen and that’s something that nobody was able to analyze before. So yeah, so they can come to us, companies can come to us and ask us to analyze their ads and we can help them with that definitely. … We’re also training the tool, by the end of the year, it will be able to do race and ethnicity and age and also animation, which is important to us.

Can you name any brand campaigns that you love?
In general that I’m a fan of the brands who have gone out of their way to have campaigns that empower women and girls, that have a message that’s well beyond promoting their brand but rather promoting the empowerment of women and girls because it’s just another example of our motto, ‘If they see it, they can be it.’ Look at the profound impact that Like A Girl had.

Is there anything that you would say to young women or to young actresses who come to you for advice about how they should advocate for themselves?
The best advice could be summed up in an anecdote about working with Susan Sarandon [on Thelma & Louise]. I had wanted originally to play the part of Louise, who’s the more outspoken and dominate half of the team. I actually signed on to play either character in my contract, depending who the other person was. So then they said, “OK, it’s going to be Susan Sarandon and she’s going to play Louise.” I was like, “Fine, fine. I could have played it but I love this. This is perfect.”

The first time I met her was at a meeting with just she and I and [director] Ridley [Scott] and we were going to just go through the script page by page and see if anybody had any notes or thoughts. I had made a few little notes and I carefully planned before the meeting how I was going to approach each little thought that I had… all these incredibly girly apologetic ways that I could bring up these ideas.

So we sit down to start and I swear it was like on page one Susan said, “So my first line here I don’t think this is the perfect line. I think we should either just cut it or maybe put it on page three.” And my jaw hit the floor. I guess I just never had been in the presence of a woman who just says what she thinks. With no “pardon me for saying this” or “I hope you don’t mind” whatsoever. And I look at him and he’s just nodding and they’re going back-and-forth, “Well how about this, how about that?” and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you can actually operate like this in the world and it’s OK?’ Then I had three months or something of daily immersion in the world of saying what you think through watching Susan navigate her life and it was extraordinarily impactful.

It’s the 25th anniversary of A League of Their Own. What are your feelings about the film now?
I think it’s fantastic. When I was shooting The Exorcist on Halloween, everybody—all the women in the cast and the crew—had cooked up a surprise for me, which is they all bought Rockford Peaches outfits and wore them all day on the set. It was the best, funniest thing ever. And I just was with a whole bunch of my [A League of Their Own] cast mates because we had a reunion softball game at my film festival, and maybe about six of my fellow Peaches were there, including Lori Petty. We were talking about how it’s the same as when the movie came out that girls still say–girls and young women–still say in the same numbers, ‘I play sports because of that movie.’ It’s just incredibly, as you can imagine, satisfying to hear that. And who knew movies were going to last this long? But I think kids still routinely, most kids see that movie and boys and girls love it. But girls get inspired to pick up sports so that’s a very meaningful outcome to me.

What specific changes do you want to see in the ad industry?
The most obvious glaring thing I would love to see changed is ads where females are objectified, that are just clearly, “Wow, look how hot this girl is”—whether it’s for beer or food or whatever the product. If we skim off that top layer, I think that’s a big, nice step people can take.

This story first appeared in the June 5, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.