COLUMN: Actress Geena Davis spotlights ageism in Hollywood

Last week, actress and women’s rights activist Geena Davis sat down with The Guardian to discuss the depressing numbers game for women working in Hollywood today. Many people who have followed this issue know the plain truth: It’s hard out there for women in Hollywood, no matter their title. The cards are undeniably stacked against us when we attempt to forge a career in the industry.

Davis has been a longtime pioneer of women’s rights in Hollywood. Not only is she an Academy Award recipient for her role in The Accidental Tourist, she is also the star of Thelma and Louise. On a personal note, Thelma and Louise was a particularly influential film for me as a  young filmmaker. During my first year at USC, I presented on the male dynamics in the feminist-driven plot. Davis’s character arc, which stretched from a sweet Southern wife to a passionate, stick-to-your-guns woman is what appealed to me most about the film.

Beyond her film work, though, Davis played a female president for one season in ABC’s Commander in Chief in 2005. It goes without saying that Davis only chooses roles that she feels she supports 100 percent. Which is why, as she states in her interview, for most of her career she’s only been in one movie a year. But that transformed in her forties, when, as Davis stated, she only completed one film during the entire decade.

Davis went on to say that she’d been lucky enough not to experience the rampant sexism that so many of her colleagues have experienced, and continue to experience, firsthand. The singular major incident she can recall during her career was when a male director said his favorite part of the day was their morning hugs before set, when he could “feel [her] up.” Davis told him to stop it, which he promptly did. Otherwise, Davis said she’s “been lucky.”

However, Davis’s real turning point came in 2002, when she gave birth to her daughter. Soon after, Davis said she realized that the male to female character ratio in the animated shows her daughter was watching was alarmingly low. This prompted her to start the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which mostly specializes in educating children on how to be “savvy media consumers” and researching data on women and girls in media. The result? People can be more educated about inequality in the industry with incredible fluency and knowledge.

In her interview, Davis drops statistics and data as if it were second nature. And she’s not angry about it. She’s matter-of-fact. She also posits various ways to change the numbers game, not just in animation, but the bigger picture. For instance, Davis suggests taking a network pilot and changing half of the characters’ names to women’s names, without regard for whether or not the role was written for a woman. This would transcend any possible stereotypes a writer may imbue onto a female character.

Basically, Davis’s activism reaches deep into the Hollywood underground and emerges with data, answers and, most importantly, hope. This woman is smart, thoughtful and impassioned. And barely anyone is talking about her.

The Guardian article in question was published last week, and I first heard of it — not, as most of my news is gathered, from a suggested post on Facebook or a quick retweet from a friend — but by my editor, who is naturally invested and aware of many different aspects of publishing and the media, more so than the average consumer. Which got me thinking, why hasn’t Davis’ article been picked up by more outlets? Why aren’t her institute’s findings more prominent?

And then it hit me. As a 59-year-old veteran of the industry, Geena Davis is by no means “new news.” Which isn’t to say she is “old news,” but I think what separates her from a front page article on Broadly or Glamour or something equally as “hip” is the fact that she’s not “young news.” These days, we are bombarded by images and information about the young, beautiful women who dominate the entertainment industry with their girl squads and feminist manifestos. Emma Watson is the clearest example of a young actress who made major headlines when she became the face of the #HeForShe campaign last year. The same goes for Lena Dunham and her female-centered newsletter, Lenny. And Taylor Swift for surprising her tens of thousands of fans at sold-out shows with a new barrage of young female friends that dance around together, united in their womanhood. Then there is the even younger generation of female feminists gaining a worldwide following, beginning with Amandla Stenberg and extending to media’s newest sensation: 13-year-old Disney Channel star Rowan Blanchard, who made waves by speaking eloquently at a United Nations Women conference on gender inequality this past summer.

I realized that even though Davis is doing all that she can to valiantly make change within the industry, she can only do so much when she must not only face adversaries as a woman, but also as a woman past a certain age. Despite the fact that the content is there, mainstream news outlets — or more importantly, outlets that reach the younger generation most in need of this information — seem to find little interest in a woman that doesn’t fit their key demographic. This is where the problem lies. There is information being gathered and intelligent options for change being given, but if the channel isn’t there to broadcast this information — and is instead focused on the newest, bright shiny thing — we can never achieve true equality. Though there aren’t any surefire answers, it’s also comforting to know that there are women who appear more “behind-the-scenes” than others who are giving their best effort to promote change. Let’s hope it’s enough.

Minnie Schedeen is a junior majoring in cinematic arts and critical studies. Her column, “Film Fatale,” runs every Tuesday.