We become what we see, says actor, activist and archer Geena Davis, which is why casting women in 50 per cent of roles in the parliaments and boardrooms in film and TV would have a powerful effect on gender equality.
“The one category of under-representation of women that can be fixed overnight is on screen. The very next movie, the next TV show, can be gender-balanced," Davis told a packed audience in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at her 2017 appearance at the Sydney Opera House's All About Women Festival on 5 March. "There are few female CEOs in the world but there can be lots of them on TV.”
Instead, Hollywood exacerbated the very real lack of gender equality in the workforce by casting even fewer women in influential occupations - in percentage terms - than exist in the real world.
"No matter how abysmal the numbers are in real life, there are far fewer women in those careers in fiction where they make it up. Where you can do anything you want to. It makes no sense,” she said.
Her own breakthrough role as Thelma in the 1991 American road film Thelma & Louise was a case in point, Davis told the crowd. It changed the course of her life.
“Everybody who worked on that film knew this was an extraordinary script, with two well drawn female characters. But nothing else about it stood out to us. Nothing else about it said to us that people would go and see it. But it exploded in the US," she said. "And it made me recognise how few opportunities there are for women to be inspired by female characters in a movie.”
It was when Davis started watching films and TV with her then two-year old daughter that she noticed the complete imbalance of genders in G-rated content. When she casually brought up the issue with people in the film industry she was told gender equality was no longer a problem. “They would name a movie with one female character, maybe two. That’s when I realised I need the data. And that’s when I became a numbers geek.”
As a result, Davis set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media which collects data on the persistent weighting towards male characters on screen, from lead roles right through to crowd scenes.
“In crowd scenes in kids animated movies, not a lot has changed since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Some movies have as little as 17 per cent female characters. In the fictional worlds being created, whether it’s space colonies or underseas worlds, they are populated with very few female characters."
"What if we are enculturating generation after generation to see groups with few women as the norm?" she said.
Ten years since after she began work on the issue, she's having a demonstrable effect. Almost 70 per cent of entertainment industry executives familiar with her Institute’s work had changed two or more projects and 41 per cent changed four or more projects.
She urged parents to watch TV with their children and provide a running commentary – as much as kids will allow – questioning whether a girl could play a certain character played by a boy, and whether a female character would really dress in a certain way in order to save another character's life.
“Now my twin boys are 12 and if I’m starting to say something to them, even as I start to lean over, they‘ll say 'I notice mum: there’s not enough girls.'”