If Geena Davis isn't on the top of your shero list, you just don't know enough about her yet. The Academy Award-winning actress, activist and mom hasn't just starred in iconic films like Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own. She's also fought long and hard for women's equality, both on the playing field and the silver screen. Not to mention that she's been a nationally ranked archer, a member of Mensa and a fluent speaker of Swedish.
On the 25th anniversary of A League of Their Own, we caught up with Davis to discuss what she's passionate about now, including the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which advocates for the fair representation of women in the media, and the Bentonville Film Festival, which focuses on diversity in filmmaking. Sadly, though, we didn't find out the one thing we really, really wanted to know.
Geena Davis: I’m so sorry, but I will not be putting you out of your misery. I know the answer, but I’m not going to say. I’ve just decided I’m never going to tell.
GD: I know!
GD: No! I know, I know. I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to torture you with it. It just makes it more fun that people don’t know.
GD: I think it’s partly because people, especially women, can feel inspired by the story. People who haven’t been traditionally given a chance to use their skills or shine are given a chance, and they prevail. It’s a very inspiring story.
Also, what I’ve noticed over the years is how many people, mostly women and girls, recognize me from that movie and want to tell me, "I play sports because of that movie." That’s a remarkable achievement for a film to impact people’s lives like that. And it impacted my life like that. I play sports because of that movie.
GD: I was so tall in high school that I was convinced that I was uncoordinated and not athletic. I was terrified to play any sport at all, no matter how hard they tried to convince me to be on the girls’ basketball team as the tallest kid in class. But I had to learn to play for the film, and it was like a true awakening or rebirth. I always felt, "Oh, God, I wish I took up less space in the world," until sports just dramatically changed my life: "Wow, I feel good about my body, I can do things with it." It just completely changed my self-esteem. I became very involved in encouraging girls to play sports and to try other sports myself.
GD: My short answer is: Nothing. Nothing changed. I was a particularly keen observer over the past 25 years because when Thelma and Louise came out, all the press predicted that this was going to change everything. Now there are going to be so many movies starring women, female buddy pictures, female road trip movies. And then the very next movie I made was A League of Their Own. And it was the exact same thing, where the press was all saying, "This changes everything, there’s going to be so many female sports movies." And neither pretty soon proved to be remotely true. There was nothing — there was no bounce whatsoever by either movie. And profoundly noticeable that there were no female sports movies that came out anytime as a result of that.
So that’s when I started really paying attention, and I still thought, well, maybe things are getting somewhat better. Interviewers were always asking me, "Don’t you think things are getting better for women now?" And at first, I would say yes, because I had those two movies, so I would say, "Yes, of course things are better!" And then I would say, "Well, I don’t know, I think so? It seems like it?" And eventually I would say, "I don’t know, Google it, ask somebody with numbers."
GD: And then I did the numbers. I did it because I suddenly had a daughter and noticed that there were far more male characters than female characters in little kids’ stuff. I was appalled — what are we doing that for in the 21st century? Why on earth would we teach kids that girls are less important than boys? It just made no sense to me.
So then I did the numbers, and it was horrifying. It was absolutely as bad as I could have thought. The interesting thing that we’ve found with my institute is that the numbers absolutely make a difference as far as onscreen representation. The creators of kids’ media had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters. They were in utter shock that the worlds they were creating were so bereft of female presences.
In many ways, the research is doing the work for us, where even just hearing the numbers is enough to make changes. We’ve yet to leave a meeting where at least somebody hasn’t said, “You just changed my project.” We’re seeing results in movies and TV coming out all the time that we know we affected.
Behind the cameras, there’s a different problem, which I think is not unconscious gender bias. It’s probably categorized more as conscious gender bias. Because everybody’s known the numbers for decades. Nobody’s stunned to hear there are very few female directors, only 4 or 7 percent. Everybody knows, but it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make people say, "Wow! We should change that." Nothing happens. It’s utterly stagnant.
GD: For that to change, people have to make very conscious, deliberate decisions to hire female directors. One sterling example of someone who’s doing that is Ryan Murphy, who has launched a project called Half. He has committed that on every one of his projects, the cast and the crew has to be half female. He said, "I don’t care if I have to train female grips, I will find them and hire them. It’s dumb enough that we’ve been doing it this long, and I’m just not going to do that anymore." We really need people to say, "Enough already. I’m going to conquer my bias whether it’s conscious or unconscious and make this change." Because it’s an absolute embarrassment how few female directors we have.
GD: I decided with my daughter that I would always watch with her, and I could comment on what she was seeing. I also did it when my twin boys were born. I could lean over and say, "Hey, did you notice that there are only boys in that group of kids? Why do you think that is? Do you think girls could do what those boys are doing?" It really does have an impact because now it’s not unconscious. They’re not unconsciously taking in that that’s the way the world works. They’re pointing out that it’s unfair.
GD: I would say any film can be called feminist that has female characters who have agency in their life, that are in charge of their fate or do important things or take up half the space. I would consider a film feminist, I don’t care what it’s about, but if the cast was gender balanced, where it would be just as likely that the boss or the best friend or whoever was female. It’s really as simple as showing women being in charge of their destiny and giving female characters a voice. It’s really just showing that women are as important as men. My institute has a T-shirt that says "We’re Fine With Half." Nobody’s trying to take over the world, we’re just fine with half!
GD: First of all, I would say how important it is that we stop teaching kids, from the beginning, that boys are more important than girls. It’s the 21st century, you know, let’s go here. We have to show kids that boys and girls share the sandbox equally and do equally interesting things. We’re teaching kids something that we have to try to get rid of later on. Why not just stop filling them with unconscious gender bias?
They can definitely talk about it with their kids, point it out. I usually ruin movies for people because they can’t watch them without counting the female characters anymore. But it’s OK. It must be done. My whole theory is that groups have a very small percentage of women, no matter what sector of society they’re in, whether it’s boards or law partners or Congress, because, partly, we’ve indoctrinated people to see groups with around 20 percent women as normal, and therefore we don’t notice it. So we’ve got to change that image.
Personally, the best way people can help is to donate to my institute. They can also go to my film festival, which is happening May 2-7.
Also, I would say, just take this awareness and notice it now. Notice it everywhere. In advertisements for your favorite products, are women denigrated or objectified in some way? All of that is important. I would rewrite my kids’ books, I would write it in the books for the babysitter!
GD: I don’t know. Penny did a brilliant job, it was just a fantastic example of storytelling, but right before that, Ridley Scott directed Thelma and Louise. Would it have made a difference if a woman had directed it? I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone could have done a better job than Ridley did. While, definitely, we need more female directors, we also need men to step up and identify with female characters and stories about women. We don’t want to create a ghetto where women have to do movies about women. To assume stories about women need to be told by a woman isn’t necessarily true, just as stories about men don’t need a male director.
GD: Well, I mean, I always joke that I take everything too far. If you have the time and the passion, absolutely do it. Women, controvertibly, have shown that a single person can make a huge difference, and all the better if you have people helping you. There’s so many ways to create impact now. Even if you just look at social media and YouTube, you don’t have to wait to make a film until you get financing anymore. You can just make it and put it on YouTube. You don’t have to wait to get a record label, you can just put your songs out there. I think there’s a lot of ways people can impact change without either a tremendous amount of experience or contacts. Put a petition on change.org. There’s so many ways, and I think women are really taking advantage of it.
The 25th anniversary edition of A League of Their Own is available on Blu-Ray on Tuesday.
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