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
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

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

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

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.