Star seeks gender diversity in entertainment for kids

Geena Davis

CHRIS GREENBERG

From "Thelma & Louise" to "Commander in Chief," actress Geena Davis has embodied iconic -- and iconoclastic -- female characters. Davis, 54, whose resume includes an Academy Award, Mensa membership and Olympic-level archery prowess, spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle about her efforts to promote gender diversity in children's entertainment.

Q: What spurred your interest in gender inequality in media?

A: I got a huge education in the power of media images when I was in "Thelma & Louise." The reaction of people, especially women, was overwhelming. They'd stop me and talk about how this movie changed their lives. I realized that we give women too few female characters they can really cheer for who have meaning for them.

The next movie I did was "A League of Their Own," where I suddenly had 15-year-old girls coming up and saying, "That movie changed my life; I play sports because of that movie." That was a huge, one-two punch for me. Ever since then, I've found myself carefully considering how the women watching (my work) would feel about the character. I looked to play characters who were in charge of their own destiny.

Q: How did the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media come into being?

A: That happened as a result of watching kids' entertainment with my then-2-year-old daughter; she's 8 now. I started to watch G-rated videos and TV shows and I was really stunned to see what I perceived to be a big gender disparity. I was thinking, "Why on Earth in the 21st century are we not showing kids sharing the sandbox equally?"

When I mentioned it to people in the industry, the typical reaction was, "I don't think that's true; they've fixed that." I realized to have any impact, I would need data.

(We did) the largest research study ever done on G-rated films and kids' television programs. The results were what I had perceived: There were far more male characters than female; the male characters were doing all the interesting things and having the adventures. The female characters were stereotyped, often serving as eye candy. Since then, we've brought that research to the studios and networks that are creating this content. We work from the inside in a collegial way to encourage improvement.

Q: What do you watch with your children? (Daughter Alizeh is 8; twin sons Kian and Kaiss just turned 6.)

A: We watch pretty much everything. When there's a new G or PG or animated movie, we go to see it.