Actress Geena Davis this week raised an interesting idea about the role Hollywood could play in boosting the number of women in elected office.
“We’re not showing female politicians in the entertainment media,” Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, said in an interview with Politico. “There’s not enough women presidents and women senators and women governors and women Congress members in what we show to kids and what we see in general. If you don’t see something, it can’t become familiar to you, it doesn’t look normal.”
The former star of the short-lived show "Commander in Chief," in which she played a female president, added: “When I played the president on TV, I had a very short administration, but there was a little study done afterwards and people who had seen the show were 68 percent more likely to vote for a female president."
(Side note: It could also be that people who watched the show were already pre-disposed to support the idea of a woman being leader of the free world. But we digress.)
Taken as a whole, though, Davis's comments don't account for the complex structural impediments to expanding the number of women in office. She essentially suggests that if girls watch some movie or TV show (or cartoon?) that features a woman governor, then they will start to see themselves as possible governors, and then they will be more likely to run for governor one day. And given men run for office at three times that rate of women, that's a laudable goal.
But what about a party structure that often doesn't recruit and groom women to run? Would watching a blockbuster movie starring Sigourney Weaver as president change that? (And would Davis also suggest that showing women directors on screen would change the huge gender gap that exists in Hollywood in the directors chair?)
This argument has a bit of a corollary. Some have suggested that the "The Cosby Show" set the stage for America to elect a black president. Another argument goes that a show like "Will and Grace" helped usher in the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. Davis is making a similar claim -- though it's pretty hard to imagine kids sitting down and being interested in a show about politics. "The West Wing" or even "Commander in Chief" aren't really made for the kids.
The Fix reached out to Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, to get her thoughts on this idea. Lawless said Hollywood's involvement wouldn't hurt, but it is not a “fix” for women’s under-representation:
First ... I uncovered virtually no gender gap in political ambition among a national random sample of high school students. The gap emerges in college, not because women’s ambition decreases, but because men’s increases markedly. The problem, therefore, is not that young girls can’t envision themselves as political leaders, whereas young boys can.
Second, there is little evidence to suggest that voters do not already hold favorable opinions about women in politics or that positive television depictions would change their minds. Seventy-five percent of Americans no longer believe that men are better suited emotionally for politics than are women. ... In addition, 95% of survey respondents express a willingness to support a qualified, female party nominee for president. Voters’ attitudes, in other words, are not the problem.
Third, the two major impediments to women’s candidate emergence are a gender gap in political recruitment and gendered self-perceptions of qualifications (women with the same resumes self-assess as less qualified to run than their male counterparts). It is hard to see how more positive portrayals of women on television or in film would address these barriers to women’s numeric representation.