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Gender wars: the force awakens

Cheryl Pearl Sucher · 21 July 2016

New Zealand International Film Festival guest Madeline Di Nonno is combating Hollywood sexism as CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

Madeline Di Nonno

Madeline Di Nonno

If She Can See It, She Can Be It: A Conversation with Madeline Di Nonno and Brita McVeigh, Sunday 24 July, The Wintergarden at The Civic, Auckland, and Tuesday 26 July, City Gallery Wellington, free, as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

As a statuesque six-feet-tall actor with the formidable intelligence of a card-carrying member of Mensa and the athleticism of a former alternate on the United States Olympic archery team, Geena Davis has always been a force to be reckoned with. In her 20s and 30s, her acting career was in full flight – from a small part in Tootsie (1982), through an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in The Accidental Tourist (1988), to her iconic role opposite Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise (1991). 

But as Davis approached her 40s, the barrage of offers for leading roles diminished, mirroring  the trajectory of stellar female contemporaries such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close.

Marrying for the fourth time and becoming a mother for the first time at age 46, she started watching lots of children’s television with her young daughter and became alarmed when she realised most of the leading characters were male and they almost always went on the biggest adventures and did the big, fun things.

She also noticed female characters were highly sexualised – like Jasmine in Aladdin whose waist was an inch around. When her daughter kept asking for “a bathing suit like Jasmine”, Davis was perplexed because Jasmine wasn’t swimming. It was just that her clothes were so skimpy they looked like bikinis.

This concerned Davis enough to propel her to see if others were aware of this gender imbalance and stereotyping in children’s programming. She was amazed to find they weren’t.

Remembering the visceral impact Thelma and Louise had on many young women, Davis realised there were few blockbusters that made women come out of the cinema feeling empowered, and she wanted to change that. In a 2006 discussion with Oprah Winfrey, she said “part of our self-esteem comes from how we see ourselves reflected in the culture. And if you’re marginalised or stereotyped, you think you’re not worthy”.

So during this period of career frustration, Davis recalled the mantra that gave her strength: “If I Can See Myself as That Person, I Can Be That Person.” And that – or its variant If She Can See It, She Can Be It –became the mantra of the institute she founded in 2004 as a research arm to collect evidence of gender misrepresentation, stereotyping and imbalance in all media, but especially content created for children below the age of 11.

Geena Davis 2

Geena Davis, right, and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise.

Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, is coming to Auckland and Wellington as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

She says it is not simply the desire to address the imbalance, stereotyping and misrepresentation that led Davis to create her institute with her own money, but the realisation others didn’t notice what was so clear to her. Since the billion-dollar entertainment business generates content based on statistical evidence, she approached academics at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California to scientifically collect data to confirm her suspicions. The idea was to bring Hollywood executives the evidence to see if they could and would take action.

It was slow going. It took years to collect the data and years to present it. The results were disheartening. The research, available on the institute’s website, found that for every single female character in children’s films and animation there were three male protagonists. Only 11% of family films featured girls in speaking parts. And a study of the top 10 film markets around the world revealed only 31% had female characters and 23% had female leads. The numbers behind the camera were even worse. Only 7% were female directors, 20% were female writers and 23% female producers.

Di Nonno, who like Davis is an alumna of Boston University, says she was brought on board to take the organisation to the next level. Her years of experience as one of the pioneers of the marketing group at Universal Home Entertainment and one of the creators of the Hallmark network were deemed necessary to develop the advocacy and educational tools that would further drive the institute’s aim to dramatically increase the representation of females in media as well as reduce the gender stereotyping of both boys and girls.

According to its website, the institute and its programming arm See Jane are fundamentally a “research, educational and advocacy organisation working collaboratively with decision makers and content creators through workshops, training sessions and research-backed content evaluation and recommendations. [Their] community educational outreach aims to inspire and sensitise the next generation of content creators to focus on gender equality and reducing stereotyping in children’s media”.

Star Wars

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens changed everything,” says Madeline Di Nonno.

Asked about specific accomplishments, Di Nonno bursts out that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens changed everything”. With its strong female protagonist, “it has grossed over $2 billion internationally and [producer] Kathleen Kennedy and [director] JJ Abrams recently announced the new Star Wars will have a female protagonist as well”.

When I ask if the needle has moved since the first gender imbalance statistics were recorded by her organisation, she says, “In terms of female representation going from 30% to 50% – are we there yet? No, but there are notable examples. Can films with female protagonists make money? Yes! Ten years ago, Geena was out there all by herself. It took a long time for the knowledge to be actionable. Now this is a conversation we’re having and we need to continue the momentum. Male directors are mentoring and shepherding women and producing films with strong female characters.”

That is not the only good news. After hearing Davis speak, Mark Osborne, director of the forthcoming The Little Prince, inserted not just one but a number of female characters into his film. The forthcoming Equity was made and produced by women and is about female Wall Street traders. Reese Witherspoon and Australian Bruna Papandrea’s production company Pacific Standard has made Gone Girl and Wild and has 26 projects in the works based on middle-grade and adult novels with strong female protagonists.

Although there has been much progress, there is still a great deal to be done, says Di Nonno. But the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has proven as formidable and forthright as its founder.

Discover more

Madeline Di Nonno interviewed on RNZ National's Saturday Morning with Kim Hill.

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Cheryl Pearl Sucher is an American writer who divides her time between Hopewell Township, New Jersey, and Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.