“This happens in life, too,” Davis adds. “It happened in several of my marriages.”
A feminist icon and an Oscar-winner, Davis is an advocate for gender equality and underrepresented voices onscreen. She’s also a mother of three children, a champion archer, a “late-in-life data geek,” and a charismatic wit.
Davis tours the country speaking about about gender bias and chatting anecdotally about her lengthy career, Most recently, she appeared at Florida’s Tampa Theatre, joining the historic cultural center’s “Limelight” speaker series featuring trailblazers from several disciplines.
AN ICONIC CAREER
Davis has worked as an actor for forty years, most notably in Thelma & Louise, which sent her and co-star Susan Sarandon sailing above the Grand Canyon and into the pop-culture stratosphere. That 1991 film also inspired her to seek more roles that resonated with women and girls. “And in fact, I’ve only played role models. I was in a movie called Earth Girls Are Easy,” she quips to applause and laughter.
Joking aside, Davis has impacted media beyond the hand-wringing editorials when Thelma & Louise premiered that fretted, as she puts it, “This is a nightmare because now the women have guns.”
ADVOCACY IN FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT AND FILM
Her nonprofit organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, turns eighteen this year, working with studios, content producers, and educators to create gender balance, foster inclusion, and reduce negative stereotypes in family entertainment. Its research partners, the Bentonville Film Festival and the Bentonville Film Foundation, turn eight this year, amplifying the voices of creators and stories about women, nonbinary people, LGBTQ people, BIPOC, and people with disabilities. The festival ran in Bentonville, Arkansas, in late June and online through July 3. It featured the premiere of the surrealistic anthology film The Seven Faces of Jane and honored producer Effie Brown (Dear White People, Passing), among other program highlights.
Davis established the institute in 2004 after watching TV with her daughter, now nineteen, and noticing the lack of female characters. Its studies at the time found that only 11% of films for children had a female lead character. While its data shows that this percentage grew to about 50% in recent years, the ratio of male characters to female characters across advertising, film, and television is still 2:1.
The numbers of women onscreen in leadership positions are especially low. Women comprise about 40% of the global workforce, but less than 25% of employed characters onscreen internationally are women, Davis says. “The aspirations of female characters in G-rated movies is limited almost exclusively to finding romance. And one of the most common occupations is royalty, which is a great gig if you can get it.”
YOUNG AMBITIONS AND ACTIVE ROLES
A native of Wareham, Massachusetts, Davis never aspired to any royalty but the Hollywood kind. Her dad built their house and her mom grew most of their food. (“I think they would have been Amish had they heard of it,” she says.) Yet they accepted her acting ambitions matter-of-factly. After Davis landed her debut role in 1982’s Tootsie, her mother said, “Well, she studied acting in college.”
Davis graduated from Boston University with a drama degree and had worked as a server, a sales clerk, and a model before that break. Tootsie star Dustin Hoffman “mentored me constantly,” she recalls. “He took me to the dailies, which is where you watch what you’ve shot the day before, and told me how to watch yourself and find the value in that. And he also told me, ‘Never sleep with your co-stars.’”
Those early days included dinners around Tinseltown with groups of other hopefuls and established stars. “In Hollywood, one of the first times I was there, somehow the group of us ended up having dinner with Jack Nicholson,” she recalls. After she received a message at her hotel to call Nicholson, he suggested he’d “send a car over” to bring her to his place.
She declined, saying, “Well, Jack, I feel very sure that someday, we are going to work together. And I would hate to have ruined the sexual tension between us.”
Davis landed several TV roles before co-starring with future ex-husband Jeff Goldblum in 1986’s The Fly and putting her comic timing to use in 1988’s Beetlejuice. She deliberately sought parts that weren’t just supportive wives and girlfriends but active characters—something she still does. “I only have the luxury of being able to choose really good parts because I can afford to wait. You can’t be as fussy as I am unless you have enough money to wait till something good comes along.”
THE IMPACT OF THELMA AND LOUISE
Davis won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as a quirky dog trainer and love interest in 1988’s The Accidental Tourist. A few years later, she earned another Oscar nomination for Thelma & Louise, a film that “truly changed the course of my life.”
Sarandon inspired her with her confidence from the first day. Davis recalled a meeting with director Ridley Scott where they went through the script to discuss any lines they wanted to change. Davis created a whole game plan: “I thought very carefully about how I would say it. ‘Maybe I’ll say this one as a joke’ … like, the girliest possible way. And so we sit down, and on the first page, Susan says, ‘You know, I think we should just cut my first line.’”
Davis was stunned. “I had never met a woman who just says stuff.”
She turned to Sarandon for backup during the shoot when Scott suggested she sit up on the back of the seat of the film’s Thunderbird convertible and take off her T-shirt.
“I literally said, ‘I think they want me to have lunch now.’ And I went straight to where Susan was sitting eating lunch,” she said, reenacting a stage whisper: “’Susan, Ridley wants me to take my top off in the next scene!’ And she throws down the silverware, goes over to Ridley, and says, ‘Ridley, Geena’s not taking her top off.’”
While everyone working on that film knew it was “an incredible script,” no one had an inkling of the nerve it would strike upon its release. Afterward, instead of people calling, “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” at her in public, they “would grab my lapels to tell me what it meant to them and how many times they saw it. How it changed their life. … And [said], ‘My friend and I acted out your trip.’ Really? Which part?”
She still thinks the film is “really powerful in the way it shows women’s friendship and relying on each other and doing what you think is right, no matter what happens. At the end, we decide to drop off a cliff, but it’s because there’s no alternative for us where we get to be in control of our lives.”
EMPOWERMENT THROUGH ACTION
Her follow-up role as star catcher Dottie Hinson in A League of Their Own clued her in that she was athletic, an “amazing revelation” at age thirty-six. At six feet tall, she’d been a gangly teenager whose “fondest dream was to take up less space in the world.”
In her forties, Davis took up archery, at one point ranking thirteenth in the United States. She also delved into action films with then-husband director Renny Harlin (Cutthroat Island, The Long Kiss Goodnight). The films received mixed reviews, but Davis says of the latter, “I loved that role. I love playing people who are stronger than me and can do something that I can’t do, and then I have to learn how to do it. It was terrifically empowering to be able to play that part.”
Co-star Samuel L. Jackson also contributed to an enjoyable shoot. “Sam Jackson is the greatest person in the world in real life. Anything that he had to do or we had to do, he’d go, ‘All right,’” she says, with a casual shrug.
She recalled one part of an action sequence where the two fell through ice, then popped up, gasping for air. Davis thought the crew would create a fake ice hole for her and Jackson to use for the closeup, but no—they found a frozen lake, cut out a hole, and gave the actors wetsuits to wear beneath their costumes.
“We had to put our heads under, and I almost blacked out. It was like an ice cream headache times a million. I couldn’t see or think or hear. I popped out with Sam, and we crawled out of the hole, and they had a hot tub a little ways away,” she recalls. As they warmed up, Jackson lit a cigarette, and Harlin broke the news that they had to do it again. “And Sam says, ‘All right,’” she says, miming how he flicked away the cigarette.
Since then, Davis has played the nation’s first female president in TV’s Commander in Chief, the entertainment director of a Las Vegas hotel and casino on GLOW, and an intimidating wasteland warrior on She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. She also produced the 2018 documentary This Changes Everything about Hollywood’s gender disparity.
While she’d hoped to change the TV landscape significantly while her daughter was still a youngster, Davis says her institute’s mission and momentum have grown into something she never could have imagined. No one can snap their fingers and correct real-world inequalities overnight, but “the media itself can be the cure for the problem that it’s causing.” That means putting more women in power onscreen, from the boardroom to STEM careers to politics.
“The fact is that women are seriously underrepresented in every sector of society,” Davis says. “We have unconscious gender bias—women and men, we all have it. So you can’t think your way out of it. You have to make very deliberate decisions on how you’re going to conquer this bias.”
She’s encouraged creatives to keep lifting up each other, advocating for characters with diverse voices, and giving actors roles that they’d relish to play. “From the very beginning, I’ve had a very strong instinct when I read something where I say, ‘Oh, I want to be in that situation. I want to say those words,” she says. “All those movies that I chose, I did because I got to do something interesting.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Geena Davis seeks challenges in the roles she plays—and challenges others to view women’s roles differently. She’s used her fame to draw attention to disparities in representation, especially in family entertainment, and she’s passionate about recognizing unconscious biases and breaking boundaries around gender, race, body image, and abilities. By measuring evidence of what we see on screen, her institute provides evidence of how well media represents us and the inspiration to do better. — Valerie Kalfrin