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Mrs congeniality: Geena Davis in September. Photo/Getty Images

Oscar winner Geena Davis on her fight against Hollywood's sexism

Geena Davis, self-described as the most polite person on Earth, who brings that approach to campaigning for film-industry equality, would really just love a role such as that of Breaking Bad meth-maker Walter White. 

Geena Davis: to many of us, she is forever frozen in time, holding hands with Susan Sarandon as the two sail thrillingly off a cliff into the Grand Canyon in a 1966 Thunderbird convertible. In Ridley Scott’s 1991 classic, Thelma & Louise, she was Thelma, Arkansas housewife-turned-desperado.

Nearly three decades later, she may be the most courteous feminist icon you will encounter. I pick up the phone and there she is on the line, calling from LA. When the signal falters, she calls right back, full of apologies. When I go over time, she kindly pretends not to have noticed, even though it sounds as if she might be needing to sustain herself on the publicity round with a snack.

We speak as she’s about to head to Auckland for the Power of Inclusion summit held this month, a global event exploring issues of representation and inclusion in film and the media, featuring such local and overseas luminaries as Niki Caro, Oscar Kightley, Osnat Shurer (producer of Disney’s Moana), Kath & Kim’s Magda Szubanski, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern …

Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise. Photo/Alamy

When I commend her commitment to the cause – it’s a long way to come; she’s busy – she returns fire with the manners of one who called a production company she set up in the 90s Genial Pictures. “Oh my gosh, I’ve never been to New Zealand so I’m really excited. You guys probably know that the whole world talks about how fabulous New Zealand is, right?” This is exactly the sort of talk we like to hear from visiting stars.

Of course she’s coming. The summit is right up the alley of someone who has been fighting for gender equity in her industry for ages. “Yeah, somehow this has become a mission in my life.” In 2004, she set up the non-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The organisation collects statistics on gender and other forms of inequity and presents the often depressing results to the industry in the hope of provoking change. As she says with masterful comic timing in This Changes Everything, the documentary on the under-representation and misrepresentation of women in the entertainment industry, “Remember the kids’ books in the 50s, ‘See Dick, see Jane’? I just felt like we see Dick all the time. I just wanted to see more Jane.”

Davis is 1.83m – six feet – tall. She’s played a CIA assassin (The Long Kiss Goodnight) and a pirate (Cutthroat Island). She won an Oscar for her sweet, off-beat dog trainer in The Accidental Tourist. Her career has been bold. She once remarked, of David Cronenberg’s 1986 sci-fi masterpiece, “Who would’ve taken on a role where you get romantically and sexually involved with a huge fly?”

In The Long Kiss Goodnight with Samuel L Jackson. Photo/Alamy

She might be a little intimidating. But in these often-angry times, her activism on behalf of women takes a different tack. However bad the statistics – only 4% of feature films are directed by women, still – there is no naming and shaming of individual organisations. “I’m in a space where it works to my advantage to be how I am in real life, which is trying the friendly approach. I was raised to be the most polite human being on Earth. That was always the goal. My family … oh my god.” She decides not to go there. “Anyway, very polite,” she concludes.

Being unthreatening can be a very female strategy. “No, that’s my specific clever strategy.” Because she believes a lot of the gender bias she’s battling is unconscious. Even she was unprepared for what she found when she started watching programmes for children with her then-toddler daughter. “I noticed how few female characters there were in movies and TV made for the littlest kids. I was stunned.” She began to talk about it. “I have lots of meetings with directors and producers and studio executives. I would always add, ‘Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in movies made for kids?’ Every single person said, ‘Oh no, that’s not true any more. That’s been fixed.’ Often, they would name a movie with one female character as proof that gender inequality had been fixed.”

She decided she needed numbers. Thus, her institute. “Since I’m in the industry, I can share with them privately; say, ‘You didn’t know this but what do you think?’” The data was, she says, the magic key. “Every meeting from the first one back in 2006 until the one we had last week is the same. Their jaws are on the ground. They have no idea they are leaving out that many female characters and they immediately want to change.”

In 1991. Photo/Getty Images

Just before we speak, her institute reports that there has been heartening progress. “We have actually achieved one of my goals from when we started out. The lead characters in television made for kids 13 and under have now reached parity.” A search back a few years revealed parity had been achieved by 2012 and has held steady since. “I have to say it’s incredibly dramatic progress to have one category of gross gender inequality improve by 10% for the past six years.”

In a way, children’s television was the low-hanging fruit. “The very first presentation I gave was to a big studio that makes lots of kids’ entertainment. They had their heads in their hands and they said, ‘But we’re supposed to be good for kids. How is it possible we never thought about counting the female characters?’”

In other areas, including female film directors, data hasn’t made a dent. “People have known those numbers for decades and it’s done nothing – I speak in italics sometimes – nothing to change the numbers. To be stagnant at about 4% is an embarrassment and so one has to assume it’s not unconscious bias. It’s conscious bias at that point.”

She can be forgiven for getting a little italic. She’s been pondering these issues since Thelma & Louise. “Having people recognise me from that movie was so different than if they recognised me from Beetlejuice or The Fly. They really wanted to talk about what impact it had on them.” Women still relate. “I had somebody say this, like, yesterday: ‘My friend and I acted out your trip.’” That might be a little alarming, role-model-wise. “Yeah. I’m like, ‘Not with total commitment, I see, because you’re still here.’”

Davis in Auckland. Photo/Getty Images

There’s controversy over whether the film’s shock ending is really a tribute to female empowerment. Women who step out of line may find liberation but still wind up dead as the credits roll. “Right,” says Davis. “Well, it struck me that women were feeling so empowered when we kill ourselves. They come out of the movie going, ‘Yay!’” she says, laughing. Does she think it would end like that if it were made now? “Yes, I do, because, if you think about it, frustratingly little has changed since then. It doesn’t seem like we get punished. We’d get punished if they caught us and locked us up. Driving off the cliff is a metaphor and I think that’s how people unconsciously take it in. We did retain control of our fates.” So Thelma and Louise are still sailing around out there, flipping the bird to the patriarchy.

The experience of making the film was certainly personally empowering. “Oh my god, yes.” It helped that her co-star was Sarandon. “Somehow I managed to get to my thirties never having met a woman like her who said what she thinks.” They met at the script read-through. They were asked if they wanted any changes. “I had a few little ideas. I was going to wait until we were on the set or maybe I can say it as a joke … It was a very girly preparation for this meeting.” Sarandon was not girly. “I swear, on page one, she said, ‘My first line here, I don’t think that’s right.’ And I just looked at her aghast. She didn’t say, ‘I don’t know what you think’ or, ‘Maybe I’m wrong’, which was the only way I knew how to say anything. So the film was a daily education in how she moved through the world effortlessly, not confrontational at all but simply not apologetic for her thoughts.”

The success of Thelma & Louise, she imagined, would bring more strong roles for women. For her. Nope. Roles started to evaporate in her forties. “If you look at IMDb,” she has said, “up until that age, I made roughly one film a year. In my entire forties, I made one movie, Stuart Little.” She’s far too genial to seem bitter. “I have other ways to fulfil myself, and other goals, but I have to say acting is my day job and it’s what I most care about and what I most want to do. And to have your options artificially limited is incredibly frustrating. It just is.” Perhaps just a little bitter. And who could blame her? “It’s gender bias and age bias and there’s no reason if men’s careers are still flourishing in their forties, fifties and sixties that women’s couldn’t be as well. It’s just lack of imagination, really.” It’s all fixable. Start with crowd scenes. “We could immediately go to 50/50 and diverse. It’s important to show that women take up half the space in the world.”

As for bigger roles, “It would be very easy to say, ‘Let’s read men and women for this part.’ In fact, JJ Abrams does that. He told his casting director that he wanted to see men and women for every part, which is fabulous. I recommend it as a very good strategy.”

With then husband Goldblum in 1990. Photo/Getty Images
Of course, these inequities arise in real life as well as on screen. The media fixation with the lives of women in the industry can be punishing. “You know, there’s some very particular level you’re at where you get the extreme attention of the tabloids and from there you’re fodder. I think Jennifer Garner got on that list and that’s it. Whatever she wears every minute is judged. I don’t get that, extraordinarily,” she says. There have been occasions. “The first time I took my twins to a park, just a little park in the neighbourhood, the next thing I knew there were photos of me pushing them on the swing and making funny faces.” The text amounted to, “Oh my God, what’s happened to her? Look how she looks now.” If it had been a man, it would have been all cute dad bod and praise for being in the vicinity of his own children. Women get attacked for looking like a mum. “Yeah, I just was being a mum. The first time and it kind of ruined it for me.”

It’s not just women’s representation her institute is concerned with. “I make the mistake sometimes of talking about gender without pointing out that I mean intersectional characters. It can be gender, people of colour, disability, sexual orientation, all of that stuff.”

And she’ll take any support she can get. She was executive producer on This Changes Everything. It was directed by Tom Donahue. “People thought I had hired a man to direct this documentary about women, but then we made it clear that I didn’t hire him. This was his passion project, his idea. He funded it, started shooting it and then heard about my research. He asked me to come on board,” Davis says. “He said it’s utterly unfair to ask the underserved, under-represented population to fix their own problem. He felt it was vital for him to do this and also to set an example to encourage other men to become involved.”

Still, even with staunch allies, change can be a long, dispiriting game. “You know, a huge percentage of the media consumed globally is made in the US, so we are to a very large degree responsible for exporting a negative view of women around the world,” she says, sighing. It’s a lot to take on. But, as Louise told Thelma nearly three decades ago, “You get what you settle for.”

As for the day job, Davis has talked about wanting such characters as Breaking Bad’s Walter White for women. “Actually, for me. Specifically me,” she says, breaking out the italics again to clarify. “I wish it for women in general but I deeply wish it for me. At some point I have to directly benefit from what I’ve been doing,” she says, with a wintry laugh.

“It’s the only show I’ve ever watched that I started crying during the first episode, thinking, ‘Why can’t I have a part like that?’” Someone should write her one. She has form when it comes to breaking bad. “Come on, I can break bad,” she agrees. “I know how to break very bad.”

As another feminist icon, Margaret Atwood, writes in The Handmaid’s Tale, Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Davis is not about to let the patriarchy and its bias, conscious or otherwise, grind her down. In this year’s third season of GLOW, about an 80s all-female wrestling show, she rocks a Las Vegas showgirl outfit composed of little other than strategically placed spangles. “You couldn’t look more gorgeous if you were 25 years younger,” someone tells her character, Sandy. “F--- you,” says Sandy.

“Yeah, that was really fun, so I’m always looking for something,” Davis says. “When I have these meetings at studios and networks and I talk about adding more female characters, one of my tips is just change some of the characters’ first names and make them female. Then I add, ‘And then cast me.’ And they laugh. And then I say, ‘I’m serious.’”

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.