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Geena Davis Institute celebrates 20 years of tackling sexism on screen

Two decades in, the Geena Davis Institute is inspiring Canadian groups such as Reelworld and Women in View to tackle representation on screen using hard data

“When we don’t look at who is behind the camera… we’re taking for granted the fact that the narrative is culturally a singular narrative that is not representative of the total Canadian population.”

This year’s WIVOS Report is its seventh iteration, having led the charge in national on-screen equity reporting in its previous six reports. “Data is hugely influential in addressing change,” says Jan Miller, board member of Women in View. Miller is also part of the WIFT (Women in Film and Television) Canada Coalition, as well as a founding member of the National Screen Institute of Canada (NSI).

“Each time the report came out, it influenced change. What started to happen was other agencies started to recognize the value of the numbers and the value of the statistics. And so they began their own reporting,” she reveals.

Key research points in previous reports include the monetary investment in women’s stories, the percentage of films produced by women, and— of that percentage how many were produced by white women versus Black or Indigenous women. Positive change started to trend as a result.

But if the findings indicate a trend toward less equity in the industry, does the industry call itself out for not doing the work? And if so, how do we move forward?

Tonya Williams has been doing that work with Reelworld Screen Institute for 23 years. The Toronto-based not-for-profit’s mission is “to advance opportunities for Canadians who are Black, Indigenous, Asian, South Asian, and People of Colour in the screen industries by providing professional development and advocating for racial equity in Canadian content and production.”

Reelworld is just now releasing the BIPOC protocols guideline for addressing the depiction of Black, Indigenous, Asian and women of colour in Canadian screen content. The research project informing the protocol guideline is called Her Frame Matters.

Williams, who played Dr. Olivia Winters on The Young and the Restless from 1990 to 2012, continually noticed she was the only Black person in a room at any given time—in drama school, at auditions, at roundtable discussions.

“All of these instances reinforced to me that, ‘You are an anomaly to the rule,’” Williams says. “It’d be an audition filled with white people and I was the only Black person. So I pretty much felt the confidence that I was getting the role of the Black person.”

Safia Abdigir, a researcher for Her Frame Matters, says they wanted to collect the data, look at historical depictions of BIPOC women, and then create best practices and an outline on ways to move forward.

“When we are requesting shifts in the industry, the ‘why’ is asked,” says Abdigir.

“Having the data and research is important to be able to prove it and to show exactly the issues that we’re dealing with. If we’re not really specific about what the issues are, we can’t really be specific about moving forward in terms of recommendations.”

On Her Frame Matters, Reelworld conducted content analysis on a combination of films and TV series on their depictions of women, including what the roles were, how long they were on screen, whether they pushed the plotline forward, their role in the story, and particular ways in which they were sexualized or not sexualized.

What all three institutes have in common is threading together the story that data and research tell.

“I’m looking forward to the phase where we get down to the really hard work of recognizing all the systemic problems in the entire structure of our industry,” says Williams, “and how we can, slowly, over the next 20 years, create a strategic plan, where we can see the data means things are improving or not improving.”

For Di Nonno and the work done at the Geena Davis Institute, women seeing themselves represented is key—and now they have the data to back it up.

“We want to see ourselves in the stories that we’re watching. When we see ourselves, we get the message that, well, maybe I can do that. For example, in Hidden Figures… all of those young Black girls seeing that story and saying, ‘Wow, you know, I could send somebody to the moon!’” she says.

In fact, one of the institute’s 58 key findings includes a data point that proves just that. It’s called the Scully Effect, referencing the character of Dana Scully from The X-Files, played by actor Gillian Anderson.

“They actually asked us to validate that, and we found that 63 per cent of the women who are currently working in STEM were inspired by her,” confirms Di Nonno.

“That’s amazing. That’s real-world impact.”