The Oscar-winning actress was in the capital for the third Global Symposium on Gender in Media — the first outside the U.S.
"Give female characters more to do, more to say, greater aspirations… give them more clothes," Davis told the audience at the BFI Southbank Centre. "And don’t listen when people say [gender equality in Hollywood] has been fixed. We need to look to the numbers and make the sweeping changes that need to happen and make them now."
Davis spoke of her role in the hit 1991 film Thelma & Louise, which was notable for having two female lead characters. “In the media it was a furore, both positive and negative," the 59-year-old actress said. "It brought home to me how few opportunities we women have to identify with characters on screen. That’s one of the best parts of watching a movie and we are robbing women of that opportunity."
During her speech, Davis highlighted the need for gender equality in family entertainment specifically, because at present children are receiving a "powerful negative message" from what they watch.
“The results are stunning," she said. "In a world that is half-female, in the 21st century we are showing a message that women and girls have far less value than men and boys. In family rated films, for every one speaking female character there were three male characters. [Our] research also shows that when female characters do exist, they are very often stereotyped or hyper-sexualized.”
Davis had good news for the crowd, following the reaction she received from Hollywood insiders when she presented them with her institute’s research. “I go directly to talk to the creators, the decision makers, and the response has been overwhelming," she said. "Lots of TV and movies have come out now that we know we have impacted, so I feel very confident predicting that the needle will move significantly within the next few years, and it will be historic. For seven decades it has not moved significantly, and I believe that it will.”
Following the screening of Suffragette as the festival's opening film on Wednesday Davis's speech was the perfect continuation of this year's theme: "The Year of the Strong Woman."
And there's plenty more of that to come. Standout female talent (directors, actresses and protagonists) is everywhere at this year's festival. Films featuring actresses in major roles include Trumbo (Helen Mirren), Brooklyn (Saoirse Ronan), The Lady in the Van (Maggie Smith), Queen of Earth (Elisabeth Moss), Steve Jobs (Kate Winslet) and Truth (Cate Blanchett). Blanchett will also receive the BFI Fellowship (the institute's highest honour), on Oct. 17.
The documentary He Named Me Malala, about Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai who survived a Taliban attack to win the Nobel Peace Prize, also premieres at the festival.
The 59th BFI London Film Festival, featuring 240 films from 72 countries, runs until Oct. 18.
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