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Being Seen on Screen Conference with Geena Davis in person

The two-time academy award winning actress at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) Melbourne

David addressed a crowd in Melbourne (Photo: Drew Baker)

In partnership with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, ACMI presented a one day conference and exclusive conversational day into diversity and gender representation on screen relating to ACMI’s current Goddess Exhibit.

Two-time Academy Award winner Geena Davis presented an exclusive keynote speech and in-person conversation, providing insight to her Institute - a world leader in research and advocacy for women on screen representation.

Her Institute uses hard facts and under-representation data to critique gender challenges and Hollywood power systems to drive positive screen industry change.

Davis discussed that despite her recognition as one of the “badass women in Hollywood” and leaders in challenging screen industry gender imbalance, she hadn’t always been this way.

Referencing her book, Dying of Politeness: A Memoir, Davis spoke about how her family’s obsession with politeness nearly killed them.

Davis said this trait affected her early career, identity and womanhood, at times preventing her from standing up for herself from fear of seeming impolite.

Davis said playing strong female leads, especially alongside strong women like Susan Sarandon, ultimately challenged her identity and changed her perspective.

“I had never spent time in the presence of a woman who says what she thinks without putting 1000 qualifiers in front of it,” she said.

“Watching Susan say what she thought - it was revolutionary to me.”

Speaking on the impact of Thelma and Louise and its reception, she noted that society predicted the film’s success would make things better for women on screen - which unfortunately did not happen.

“The success of Thelma and Louise highlighted how little opportunity there was for women to identify with characters on screen.

“It was really the reaction of the press, they said this will now change everything.

“And it was the same with a league of their own, and every three years after that when a woman lead film was successful, but this did not happen - the changes in screen have only realistically started in the last few years.

“From there, I have thought about every woman I’ve portrayed and what impact that’ll have for women.

“Every role has impacted my offscreen life, I have taken something from every woman - they’ve helped me on my journey to badassery,” she said.

But Davis did not deny her privilege as a successful actress, and the impact this has on her ability to select roles - a privilege most women in the industry don’t have.

“I can only be this picky about roles because I have not run out of money yet,” she said, “if you see me playing Shatner’s comatosed wife in a movie you’ll know I’m broke.”

Davis and her institute challenge media creators through statistical evidence with a focus on data pertaining to kids programming.

“20 years ago, only 11 per cent of leading and supporting roles in kids programs were female,” she said, “how can we expect adult changes when we were teaching our young humans inequality and misrepresentation.”

“When we presented this research to media creators they were horrified.

“We needed these companies and entities to challenge their unconscious bias.”

She praised filmmakers like Disney for recognising this gap, and becoming a pioneer in change.

“People like Disney have hired more women directors than anyone else, they’ve added a lot of female leads and superheroes - a success we can see in every child’s Superwoman and Moana costume.”

The ‘positive steer’ away from films where male leads have deceased mothers, which is an often valueless, tired Hollywood trope, was also highlights by Davis.

“To gain equality in film, I propose that Hollywood begins killing off fathers too.”

But Davis said that diversity is deeper than having 50/50 men and women on screen, and that screens needed to “accurately output and reflect the society we live in.”

“Around 26 per cent of people in society identify as having a mental and/or physical disability, but this is only represented around 1 per cent on screen.”

She explained how films featuring diversity are more successful - going against the popular ‘Hollywood belief’.

“We are seeing expediently growing changes in screen audiences, the more diverse a movie is - the more people see it.”

New software ignorance is no longer an excuse for lack of diversity and representation in film.

“We have software that can read scripts and detect bias, down to how many lines men have, so creators can catch bias even before they begin casting.”

Instances of sexual harassment in the screen industry and how the Me Too Movement has begun significant change were also noted in the speech.

“Me Too brought Significant change, and I hope it sticks around .

“No longer will a manager send an actress to a hotel suite to audition - we hope…

“I think my peers and I, my generation, were made to feel like these actions were normal and accepted.

“We knew men were ‘bigger stars’ who make more money - they were untouchable.

“We thought it was ludicrous to complain about.

“We were taught that we were replaceable and expendable, women had to swallow so much abuse and hide it and to never complain.”

This address concluded the InConversation with focus on the future, and success stories like X Files’ Gillian Anderson, who fought for, and won, equal pay to her male counterpart - David Duchovny.

“Equality will take decades to correct, but the screen is powerful enough to change overnight - which directly impacts life - this is where we start.”

The Geena Davis conference is part of the Goddess Exhibit at ACMI, running now until October 1, 2023 - for more information visit ACMI here.


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