Geena Davis

Geena Davis says it’s time to take up space

I have a confession to make. I’m new to the feminism scene. I come from a privileged, white, cis-woman background and I’ve never experienced overt sexism - that I’m aware of. I’ve recently faced the music that not everyone has shared this experience. In fact, the more I look for it, the more inequity I find. I want to learn more.

That’s why I was excited to be invited to attend All About Women, a festival hosted by the Sydney Opera House which hosts talks and discussions about ideas that matter to women todayIf answers were to be had, hopefully I would find them there. Some of the speakers we would hear from were Geena Davis (Thelma and Louise) who delivered the initial keynotefollowed by a Q+A with Jessa Crispin (author of Why I’m not a feminist: A feminist Manifesto) and finally a panel made up of a collection of politically active journalists and bloggers including Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

I knew beforehand that the experience of listening to these women talk would be special. I found a seat and sat with my two devices recording – feeling like a journalist reporting on a major historical event. The words said that day may have the power to change the world. I was almost shaking with nerves.

Image: Geena Davis - photo by Prudence Upton
Geena Davis - photo by Prudence Upton

Taking up space in the world

Geena Davis was the first to speak. Her talk was on how women are represented in media - an area she’s an expert in. She created the Geena Davis Institute in 2007.  The Institute is a research-based organization that studies the representation of women in the media. Davis wants to influence young children to create a future world of equity by role modeling it on screen.

She looked so small on stage, but she opened with a story about how she was a tall kid. Her story resonated with me.

“My fondest wish, as a kid, was to take up less space in the world. I was just a big noodle.”  

I laughed so hard when I heard that. It's funny because that's such a familiar feeling, but one no one had put words to for me until now. She went on to talk about how she felt too big and uncoordinated to participate in sports until she was forced to for A League of Their Own and found that she was rather good at it.

“It finally made me feel like it was okay to take up space in the world. To have a body that can do things. To feel good about my body.”

The audience went silent as the realization dawned that Davis wasn’t just telling a story about her childhood. She had realized something important about women – many of us grow up feeling that we somehow take up too much space in the world. I have certainly felt like I’m supposed to be smaller and quieter than I am.

We need to see more women like us

Davis took up archery because she wanted to learn a sport “in the real way and not in the movie version of it.”

She stumbled upon another interesting realization – she saw first hand how much power TV and movies have over people’s lives. “It turns out that I was not the only person inspired to take up archery by seeing it on TV or on screen. In 2012, both The Hunger Games and Brave came out. My archery coach… was looking at a graph of participation in archery for men, women, girls, and boys, and in 2012 the graph for girls’ participation in archery shot up within that one year. It raised 105%... 7 out of 10 girls said they took up archery because of Merida from Brave or Katniss from The Hunger Games.”

Okay, well that’s common sense. Girls imitate their role models. But something else was going on here.

Davis concluded that “media images are incredibly powerful, and powerful instantly.” Film and television is this amazing opportunity to stir up girls’ imaginations. Watching somebody like you doing something exciting on screen is incredibly inspiring. Unfortunately, we just don’t get to see many like Katniss or Merida.

Actually, we hardly even get to see women in speaking roles. Davis said, “in family-rated films, for every one female speaking character, there are 2 ½ - 3 male characters… In G-rated movies, the female characters wear the same amount of sexual or revealing clothing as women in R-rated movies.”  And generally on screen, women’s “aspirations are limited, almost entirely, to finding romance.” So we have two problems here – women don’t have an equal voice, and those that do are often using that voice to reinforce stereotypes.

This has got to be screwing with our perception of women, right? Think about the number of girls influenced by Katniss and Merida. Surely our children are also influenced by a lack of examples?

Hell, yes they are. Get this: “The more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. Boys’ self-esteem goes up from watching TV, girls’ goes down.” There’s a term for this called ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is basically when you believe you are unimportant because you haven’t been represented.

I told my sister about this stat straight after the event. We both looked at her baby girl – a seven-month-old in a pink bow.

“Okay,” she said, “So, we’ll get her watching Kim Possible? What else is there?”

I wonder if I had seen more awesome women on screen when I was a child, would I have had more ambitious dreams? I’ve always considered myself a leader, but I never thought I would lead outside of a school or church context. I am a teacher.

When I talk to people about how much I love organizing groups and pushing them toward a goal, I find myself constantly apologizing. "Sorry"I say, "but I’d like to have a go at running a department". And then I wait with bated breath to hear the response. I feel desperate for their encouragement, like they need to validate my ability to be a leader.

Why are we stuck at 17 percent?

Davis realized that not only are there too few inspiring women on screen, but there are too few women of any kind on screen.

She brought up the issue among her friends and then casually among her colleagues, “did you notice in that movie that just came out, that after the mother dies gruesomely in the first five minutes, there’s only one female character in the rest of the movie?” She discovered that all of her friends and screen colleagues sincerely believed that they had achieved gender equality on screen – even the people writing the scripts believed they were presenting as many women as men.

The problem here is not that people don’t like women characters. The problem is that our world has been raised on the belief that there’s just something more interesting or more powerful about men characters. In children's television, studies found that in crowd scenes, there as few as 17% women characters. Davis said that “not a lot has changed since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

This blew my mind. Why has this happened? There is no cost whatsoever to drawing as many women as men in a crowd. Davis goes on to explain that in many professional circles, women are represented in professional roles approximately 17% of the time.

“Why do we always stall out at that ratio? The profound amount of media that we have consumed has trained us to see that as a normal ratio.”

Davis might have had much more to say after she made this point. I wouldn’t know, because something hit me that prevented me from hearing another word.

I’ve recently finished the first draft of my first novel. In my book, there are only three women who have anything to say, and two of them are only around for the first quarter of the book.

There’s no good reason for there to be so few women. Sitting in the audience, I started making a list of all the men characters who could as easily have been women. There were three.

Then I asked myself why I had chosen for them to be male. And the answer horrified me.

One of the characters is a scientist, and I think I just unconsciously thought, it’d just be more believable if he was a man. The other two were men for no reason at all. I just believed that there was some indefinable thing that made men better.

Louder, stronger, more powerful

Image: Jessa Crispin - photo by Prudence Upton
Jessa Crispin - photo by Prudence Upton

Fortunately, I was able to pull myself back together again in time for the next segment of the talk – a backstage Q&A with Jessa Crispin followed by a discussion with Yassmin Abdel-Magied and others.

Now, if you haven’t heard of Crispin, you should know that she’s published a controversial book this year entitled Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. It’s controversial because in it, she slams modern feminism for being less defiantly active and modern feminists as being more interested in their own personal grievances than working for the vulnerable whole.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied an engineer, author, television, and radio presenter and a co-creator of Youth Without Borders, would later phrase it perfectly, “it’s about solidarity, right? It’s about other people saying, ‘You know what, that injustice does not affect me directly. But I value justice for all.”

She said another thing that stuck with me while she discussed the feminist goal as opposed to the feminist belief. She defined the goal as “creat[ing] a world that is not arranged by hierarchy […] that allows for liberation of all women.”

I think the reason this stuck out to me was because it exposed an image of a character I had stashed away somewhere in my mind.

Her name is Wilma and she’s a feminist. She wearing a t-shirt that has a rude picture on it, and she’s smoking a cigarette. She’s leaning back on a chair, thumbs tucked into her pockets, a snarl on her face. She’s pissed off and she’s looking at me like she’s stirring for a fight. If I talked to her, she’d just complain about her marriage or her job or her kids. She’s cranky and looking for someone to blame.

I have so much fear of this characterization, because to me she represents all the rage of feminism with none of the mission. I worry that I could look like her, so I backtrack quickly and apologise a lot. But the thing is, I’m not going to become that person just because I’m willing to challenge gender norms or aim high in my career.

How are we going to untangle this mess?

Image: Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Lindy West - photo by Prudence Upton
Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Lindy West - photo by Prudence Upton

This brings me to the key point of the discussion. It’s this – we need to speak up for ourselves and each other. Yassmin made a great point about how to create social change on this scale. “If you think about any social change that has occurred… it’s always been through people. It’s never been the people who have power in the status quo saying ‘oh yes we should change and make things better for the marginalised, because we’re good.’ No, it’s always been masses of people that have said ‘Actually, we want better. We deserve better.’”

I left the talk feeling challenged, inspired and totally at a loss for what I was meant to do with this information I was sitting on. I drove home in a daze. I walked in the door and looked around helplessly. Nobody home. Went to my room. Husband’s out. Lay down. Looked at the ceiling. All the ideas were buzzing around my head like angry bees. Got back up. Did nothing for a bit.

That’s when it hit me. Knowing all this doesn’t make enough of a difference. These ideas have to be shared in order for them to have any power.

It wasn’t long before the rest of my flatmates and family got home. I told them ALL the things, and they were patient enough to hear me out. I think I managed to convince them to think more about the media they consume and to be more knowledgeable about women’s issues.

Now I’m going to rewrite my novel to bring in some more powerful women.

What can you do about this?