Bad Casting: Geena Davis In Wal-Mart Film Festival

It sure didn't take much to buy off actor/gender rights activist Geena Davis, who is collaborating with Wal-Mart on the first Bentonville Film Festival.

On January 6th, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media announced that Davis will be chairing the Bentonville Film Festival underwritten by the Wal-Mart, Coke, and Kraft corporations. This has to be one of the worst casting decisions in Hollywood history.

In a recent interview with Adweek, Davis said "I'm honored to collaborate" with Wal-Mart -- which Davis must know is one of the most controversial gender discriminators in American retailing today.

Davis is perhaps best remembered as "Thelma" in the 1991 film Thelma & Louise. She once told Oprah magazine, "Women would come up to me and say, 'That movie changed my life. My friend and I call each other Thelma and Louise now.' It was eye-opening for me to realize the visceral impact a movie can have on people."

She went on to found in 2004 her Institute on Gender in Media. "I have been an advocate for women for most of my adult life," said Davis. "The Bentonville Film Festival is a critical component of how we can directly impact the quantity and quality of females and minorities on screen and behind-the scenes." Davis added that she is "so impressed with the commitment Wal-Mart has made" to buy products from women-owned businesses. According to Davis' Institute, there is, on average, only one female character for every three male characters.

But here are some impressive numbers about Wal-Mart's women workers that should have given Davis pause before playing a role in the Bentonville Film Festival:

• A class action lawsuit filed in 2000, Wal-Mart v. Dukes, charged women employed in Wal-Mart stores (1) are paid less than men in comparable positions, despite having higher performance ratings and greater seniority; and (2) receive fewer promotions to in-store management positions than do men, and those who are promoted must wait longer than their male counterparts to advance
• Roughly 65 percent of hourly employees are women, while roughly 33 percent of management employees are women
• Only 14 percent of Wal-Mart store managers are women.

The plaintiff class in the Dukes case grew to 1.6 million women who currently work or have worked for Wal-Mart stores. Lead plaintiff Betty Dukes, who was 54 years old when she first filed her lawsuit, alleged gender discrimination in pay and promotion policies and practices in Wal-Mart stores. Despite six years of work and positive performance reviews, she was denied the training she needed to advance to a higher salaried position.

On Davis' Gender In Media website, she explains her mission through a cartoon character named Jane:

Meet Jane. Why does she look so sad? She's a quirky, lovable, superbly talented cartoon girl who wants nothing more than a role to play in the world of animation. Well, technically she'd love a sizable part in a big franchise with some union benefits. But at this point, she'd be happy to be in a crowd scene.

Ironically, Wal-Mart bosses refer to their women workers as "Janie Q's." That's according to lawyers who are representing the 1.6 million Janie Q's who sued the giant retailer for sexual discrimination. And just as Davis' cartoon Jane would love "some union benefits," the women workers at Wal-Mart would also love the opportunity to organize as a union -- something Davis's partner at Wal-Mart has fervently opposed for 52 years.

Davis is not the only Hollywood star honoring the Wal-Mart business model. The Festival's Advisory Board also includes Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Samuel L. Jackson, Randy Jackson, Eva Longoria, Julianne Moore, Paula Patton, Natalie Portman, Nina Tassler and Shailene Woodley. Davis' Institute is the official non-profit partner of the BFF initiative and will be focused on research and awareness building.

Instead of traveling to Bentonville, film buffs will want to watch the real films about Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices, Wal-Mart Nation, Store Wars, and Talking to the Wal. If Davis screens these films, she may want to skip Bentonville for Jane's sake.

In a guest column in Dec of 2013 for the Hollywood Reporter, Geena Davis wrote: "In all of the sectors of society that still have a huge gender disparity, how long will it take to correct that?"

Helping the Janie Q's overcome gender disparity at Wal-Mart would be the best way for Geena Davis' Jane to correct the deplorable gender inequity at the world's largest retailer. Cartoon Jane should quit her starring role at the Bentonville Film Festival, and "advocate for women" Geena Davis should remove her name from Wal-Mart's marquee, and turn off the theater lights in Bentonville.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. He has been helping communities fight big box stores since 1993. His latest book is Occupy Wal-Mart.