It has been 25 years since Geena Davis held hands with Susan Sarandon and hurtled over a cliff in Thelma & Louise. The film – a trailblazing feminist road movie and box-office smash to boot – was hailed a turning point for women in film. And for Davis, at least, it was; for the past quarter of a century she has been trying to convince others of the lessons the film taught her: that society is losing out because there are too few women on our screens.
“This is my passion. It’s what I do all day,” she laughs. And she’s not exaggerating – almost a decade ago she created the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media to address the gender imbalance in TV programmes and films aimed at children, while she regularly tries to convince studio heads to include more female roles.
Now 60 and a mother of three, Davis started out as a model, scouted after she pretended to be a mannequin in the clothes shop where she worked. Her first acting breakthrough came in Tootsie, playing a person she described as “someone who’s going to be in their underwear a lot of times”. By the time she played the gun-toting, Brad Pitt-seducing outlaw Thelma, she already had an Oscar under her belt for The Accidental Tourist. Her next film, female sports movie A League of Their Own, cemented the idea that no genre was off limits to female leads. Since then, she has played an assassin in The Long Kiss Goodnight, and won an Emmy for Commander in Chief, in which she played the US president.
Today, Davis says she is optimistic that Hollywood will catch up with her – and, in the meantime, she is prepared to wait for the more rounded parts she believes women deserves, for a while at least. “If you see me in a crappy movie,” she laughs, “you know I have run out of money.”
It has been 25 years since Thelma & Louise came out. What has changed since then?
Really, the most significant thing is what hasn’t changed. The way people reacted was overwhelming – wanted to tell me what it meant to them and their friends. In the press they said: “Now we will see more buddy movies or road movies starring women.” After A League of Their Own, it was the same thing.” Neither prediction turned out to be true.
After that, I started paying attention. Every few years there would be a new successful movie starring women and it would be the same – “This will change everything.” But nothing has changed. The Hunger Games came out and the numbers have not moved. The male-to-female character ratio in films is the same as in 1946.
What impact did that have on your own career?
I had always wanted to avoid being just the girlfriend or the wife. My motivation was always to have challenging roles to play – either being dead [in Beetlejuice], or in love with a fly [The Fly]. But Thelma & Louise changed my life. For the first time I realised how rare it is for women to come out of the cinema and feel excited and empowered by the female characters they saw. I was already a feminist – I had always wanted to empower women and girls – but Thelma & Louise was an awakening about how powerful media images could be. And also how negative they are; how women are being completely left out of entertainment media.
But why does it matter?
From the very beginning, we train children to have unconscious gender bias. Even in kids’ movies there are fewer female characters. And the female characters that are there are very often valued for their looks, and don’t have the same kind of aspirations and goals and dreams [as the male characters].
If we see women doing brave things, it impacts us greatlyGeena Davis
In the 21st century, there is no reason to show the world bereft of female presence. But our motto is: if you see it, you can be it. There are so few role models in many fields in real life – in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers, for instance – that we have to see them on screen because that inspires people to think they can do it.
Is that reflected in the research?
When we studied the occupations of female characters on television, there was one that was really well represented: forensic scientist, because of CSI. And, in real life, the number of women wanting to enter that profession has skyrocketed.
In a month or two, we will release research to show that, after Brave and the Hunger Games, the number of women and girls taking up archery has also shot up. Until we show that women take up half the space, and do half the interesting things in the world, it’s going to be hard to make progress.
Our research [commissioned in conjunction with J Walter Thompson] shows that the more TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. She doesn’t see all the great options that are presented to men and boys; male self-esteem goes up when they watch TV. People can be inspired or limited by what they see. If they see women doing brave things, such as leaving their abusive husbands, it impacts us greatly.
But are things changing?
Disney has shown that you can have blockbuster movies with female leads. And witness Star Wars: in The Force Awakens, the lead character is female, so if there was ever a time to retire the idea that men and boys don’t want to watch women and girls … You can’t say that again.
Does Hollywood have a specific problem?
People are unaware of the extent of their bias – it’s unconscious. Whether it’s about diversity or women, people think they are operating in an egalitarian way. But it’s also because the people making the decisions are, for the most part, white males. And you pick up stories about people who look like you, you cast people who look like you. Our research showed that when you have a female writer, producer or director, the percentage of women on screen goes up.
Did it become more difficult to find characters you wanted to play?
Yes, that’s why I have a long downtime between jobs. The kind of parts I want dwindled dramatically after I turned 40 – I didn’t escape the fate of actresses in Hollywood. The pay disparity was not something I noticed. But now there is so much more awareness about it that I would definitely pay attention to it.
What about #OscarsSoWhite? How does that shake up the debate?
There are so few opportunities for women of colour that they barely register in the research [into the numbers of women in film and TV]. We are doing a bad job with women and a horrible job with women of colour. There are female actors nominated for the Oscars because we divide by gender – if it were one category for best performance, we would have a really hard time. But the Oscars are emblematic of a deep-seated problem – really, it’s about the product being put out by Hollywood. Most profoundly, it’s what is made that needs to change.