Academy Award winning actor Geena Davis spoke to a full house Thursday evening to begin the Women in Leadership Symposium. Her keynote speech addressed the issue of gender inequality in the media and the impact it is having on society.
Davis shared several surprising statistics as well as personal accounts from her experiences in Hollywood.
She said the film that changed her life was “Thelma and Louise,” in which she starred as Thelma. The film led to her thinking about how women perceive her character and how it would make them feel about themselves.
“I’ve only played roles that are empowering to women,” Davis said early in her speech. She received rousing applause in response.
She said after filming “A League of Their Own”-a movie about a women’s baseball team-she had several teenage girls approach her and say they were inspired to take up sports. She asked the audience to imagine if there were more movies with females representing strong leadership roles and how that could impact young girls.
Davis explained how self-esteem in girls decreases when they watch movies, yet self-esteem increases in boys.
“What message are we sending to boys and girls at a very vulnerable age if female characters are one-dimensional, sidelined, stereotyped and not important to the plot or simply not there at all?” Davis asked. “We’re saying that women and girls are not as important as men and boys.”
Davis said females represent only 18 percent of Congress, 22 percent of television journalism, ten percent of military officers and 17 percent of crowds in movie scenes.
Davis also surprised the audience with the statistic that the United States ranks 90th in the world for female representation in elected office.
“As Americans, we are used to thinking of ourselves as leading the way,” she said.
President David Hodge attended the speech and said he was inspired by her words.
“We, both men and women, have internalized these impressions (of gender) and don’t even know it,” Hodge said.
Davis’s speech, while on a serious topic and full of shocking statistics, was also very light-hearted. The audience laughed frequently in response to her quick sense of humor.
She shared a story of her first day in college at Boston University as an acting major. The professor informed the class that they had chosen a tremendously difficult profession because only about one percent of the students would be able to earn a living as an actor.
“I swear to God, I was like ‘these poor kids, somebody should have told them,” she said in response.
She said she had an unshakeable faith and her tenacity is what has led to her successes.