Geena Davis is on a mission. Since launching the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University in 2004, the Academy Award–winning actor and advocate had been commissioning research on the representation of women and girls on screen — especially in children’s media — and sharing the results with decision-makers and content creators in the entertainment industry.
Her assumption was that, once her colleagues saw the statistics, change would surely follow. But gathering the data was slow and cumbersome, and the results didn’t reflect such fine-grained subtleties as how much time women spent actually speaking and appearing on screen.
In 2012, after receiving a $1.2 million grant from Google and working with computer engineers and social scientists, Davis launched the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient, or GD-IQ, a method of using facial and voice recognition technology to analyze movies, TV shows and ads. The software, designed by University of Southern California professor Shrikanth Narayanan and a team of engineers at USC’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory, along with Geena Davis Institute senior research adviser Caroline Heldman, is able to ascertain the number of women relative to men, as well as the amount of screen and speaking time they’re afforded. (The GD-IQ tool can also recognize race; gender-nonconforming characters, as well as those with intellectual and physical differences, are coded manually.)
GD-IQ analysis of leading characters in the 50 most popular children’s television programs in 2018 showed that on-screen gender parity had been achieved, with women accounting for 52 percent of lead or co-lead roles in those shows. Screen time and speaking time had also reached or exceeded equality — 55.3 percent and 50.3 percent, respectively.
Just to make sure, Davis asked institute researchers to conduct research going back 10 years and found that, having reached a 50-50 balance in 2011, the ratio of women to men on screen hadn’t just sustained — it had increased by 10 percent since 2008.
“I was ecstatic,” Davis recalls. “The goal from the very beginning was gender balance in what kids see on screen. To achieve parity for leads in television, in this amount of time, is just ... I was going say beyond what I would hope for, but it’s exactly what I hoped for.”
On Tuesday, at an event at Google’s New York offices, the Geena Davis Institute will release its official report on those findings, as well as more granular information. For example, male and female characters in children’s shows are shown pursuing interests in science, technology, engineering and math at exactly the same rate (albeit in small actual numbers, with only 3.5 percent of kids’ TV characters engaging in STEM activities overall). What’s more, female characters are more likely to be depicted as leaders than male characters (45.5 percent compared to 41.4 percent), and they’re generally portrayed as smarter than their male counterparts.
The STEM statistics are particularly gratifying for Madeline Di Nonno, the chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute, who notes that the organization has been “continuously doing STEM studies” since Barack Obama made it a top priority during his administration.
Di Nonno recalls being commissioned by 21st Century Fox in 2017 to validate the “Scully effect,” wherein Gillian Anderson’s character in “The X-Files” inspired girls and young women to go into scientific fields. “We found that 63 percent of the women who are working in STEM today attribute it to that character,” Di Nonno says.
Davis says her interest in gender and children’s programming was sparked when she began watching preschool shows with her then-2-year-old daughter. “I was absolutely stunned,” she recalls of realizing how lopsided the shows were. There were a few exceptions. “The Teletubbies are actually gender-balanced,” she notes wryly, “but I don’t know if you can tell.”
Right out of the gate in 2004, Davis’s institute commissioned a study of children’s TV shows and movies extending back to 1990. Since then, Davis has met with thousands of network and studio leaders, department heads, directors, writers, showrunners, advertising executives and guild officials, sharing the data she has amassed in the belief that numbers — not shaming or blaming — move the needle.
Brown Johnson, executive vice president and creative director at Sesame Workshop, recalls attending one of Davis’s first meetings, when Johnson was president of animation and preschool at Nickelodeon. One of the Geena Davis Institute’s researchers presented data regarding the amount of dialogue women had, what kinds of jobs they held, and how sexualized they were.
“I just remember being so gobsmacked by the research and saying, ‘I’ve got to do something about this; I’ve got to help,’ ” Johnson recalls. Shortly thereafter, she made sure all of Nickelodeon’s board artists and writers in the animation department attended Davis’s presentations, “because animation historically has been a very male world.”
Nancy Kanter, executive vice president of content and creative strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide, credits Davis with holding the industry accountable “for making bigger and faster changes [and compelling] all of us who work in programming for kids to take a hard look at not only how many girls are seen on screen but, importantly, how they are portrayed. What roles, what attitudes, what body types, what colors and what voices do they use are questions we now ask ourselves every day.”
The latest study results, Davis says, vindicate her belief that data has always been “the magic key.” When she meets with children’s media creators, she says, “their overwhelming reaction is, ‘We’re in this line of work because we care about kids and we thought we were doing right by kids, and this is horrifying.’ These are people who wanted to do the right thing, thought they were, and were very motivated to change.”
Davis and Di Nonno are quick to point out that not everything has been fixed. There are still significant discrepancies in female representation when it comes to supporting and minor characters on kids’ shows (43.1 percent of supporting characters included in the study were female, while 56.9 percent were male), and girls and women are still more prone to being hypersexualized on screen.
One of Di Nonno’s pet peeves is that female characters still aren’t allowed to be as funny as the guys. “Every time I meet with a kids’ content person and they’re developing shows, I say, ‘Make the female characters funny,’ ” she says, adding that too often, strength is confused with self-seriousness. “In the real world, statistics [suggest] that men who are funny are rewarded, while women who are funny are dinged for it.”
Davis says she intends to “double down” on urging the writers, producers, directors and other key executives she meets with to make as much progress with supporting and minor characters as they have with leads. “They’re thinking big, which is good,” she notes, “but I clearly need to really help them refocus on the [larger] population.” Without that focus, she says, a damaging distortion — “that we don’t take up half the space in the world and do half of the interesting and important things” — will be perpetuated.
“That’s why I’m focused on what kids see first,” she explains. “I believe that we are unwittingly training generation after generation to see women and girls as second-class citizens. I believe it impacts every aspect of our society — leadership and promotions and pay and everything.