Marjorie Prime’s Geena Davis Hopes Wonder Woman Will Change Everything, But…

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Geena Davis Photo: Getty Images

Geena Davis has been acting in Hollywood for three-and-a-half decades, but it really wasn’t until her new movie, Marjorie Prime, that she got to play out a significant mother-daughter story on the big screen. “It didn’t occur to me how unusual that is!” said Davis this week, while talking to Vulture. “I certainly noticed that the movie was even-handed when it comes to female characters, and that it was a wonderful, interesting, and challenging thing to do, but it never occurred to me to think, ‘For once, we’re doing a mother-daughter exploration rather than father-son.’ ” She laughed. “Now that you mention it, though, I like that.”

And what’s not to like? Marjorie Prime gives the Oscar-winning Davis her most satisfying film role in ages as a guarded daughter who worries that her increasingly senile mother (Lois Smith) has grown too attached to a hologram representation of her dead husband (Jon Hamm). “I found it very moving,” said Davis. “I had a lot of things to work with and interesting things to tackle, and my mom had Alzheimer’s, so the aspect of losing your loved one in dribs and drabs really resonated with me.” As for sharing so many long scenes with Smith, an 86-year-old veteran actor, “To just watch the emotions play out on her face, it’s fascinating,” said Davis. “You could spend a lifetime doing that.”

Lately, Davis has spent her life dedicated to creating more such opportunities for women in the industry. Her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media issues frequent reports on female representation onscreen, and Davis herself often treks to meetings with executives and studio heads to implore them to consider gender parity in the media they make. Given that Davis was once one of Hollywood’s highest-paid women and, with movies like The Long Kiss Goodnight, an action star in her own right, I wanted to get her thoughts on whether things may truly change for the better after this notable summer movie season.

Geena, the biggest movie this summer was Wonder Woman, a giant superhero spectacular directed by a woman and starring one. It’s being hailed as a pivotal moment, but how do we make sure this moment doesn’t just evaporate? How do we build on it?
That’s the big question. I got keyed into that 25 years ago when Thelma and Louise came out: Besides how “horrifying” it was that women had guns, the big topic in the media was how this movie would change everything. And with A League of Their Own the next year, again, “This changes everything.” Okay, yippee, let’s watch that happen! But having that not happen … well, that happens over and over and over, because there are always hit movies with female leads — Hunger GamesFrozen — where they’re supposed to change everything, and then it does not happen.

Now, I’m optimistic, too, when it comes to movies like Wonder Woman and Star Wars and Moana. These days, Disney makes more big movies starring female characters than not, and most of them are gigantic blockbusters. My institute’s research shows that over the past three years, movies with a female lead make significantly more money at the box office than movies with a male lead, so we do want to be more optimistic. But is it really going to change?

Here’s what I can tell you is going to change, according to my experiences. I’ve been doing this for almost 12 years now, and I’m focused very specifically in gender representation in movies and TV made for kids. I started all this because she my daughter was a toddler and I started watching things with her, there seemed to be profoundly more male characters than female characters in what we’re showing little kids. In the 21st century! I was horrified. We’re teaching kids unconscious gender bias from the beginning. I started bringing it up with children’s-content creators in the industry, and every single one of them said, “No, that’s not true anymore.” I thought, “The people who create this stuff are not noticing what, to me, is glaringly obvious?” So that’s why I started my research.

And you’ve seen changes in that section of the industry?
It’s made all the difference. These are very private, collegial, “hey, did you happen to know” gatherings, and the reaction everywhere we’ve been is one of utter shock. They had no idea that they were leaving out that many female characters, and the other instantaneous reaction is, “We need to stop doing that and we have to do better.” We have yet to leave any meeting where at least one person doesn’t say, “You just changed my project.” Though it hasn’t shown up yet in the numbers — and we update every year — I feel very confident that, based on the reactions that we get and the anecdotal evidence that we have of projects that have changed from our influence, the needle will move dramatically in the next five to ten years when it comes to female representation in onscreen children’s media. For female representation in the rest of media — besides Disney, since they make movies starring women — those are different problems.

Disney does make a lot of movies that star women, but I’m always interested in how the ancillary arms may undercut that. There was no Rey character in Star Wars Monopoly, for example. And on the one-sheet for Frozen, the female leads were so buried in snow that you couldn’t even tell they were women.
That’s a good point. There’s definitely that consideration given to marketing things: “We went for it in the product, but are we going to admit that in the marketing?” It’s interesting. Obviously, with Wonder Woman, they didn’t try to skirt it in any way. They didn’t try to make it seem like Chris Pine was the real star, they didn’t call it Wonder Woman and Men.

No, they didn’t. And Wonder Woman became a $400 million phenomenon. I think there’s an obvious connection there. 
Exactly. I’m optimistic that this change will happen, but I’m very impatient. Come on, come on! This is the one area of gross gender inequality that can literally change overnight. How long will it take Congress to become half women? Decades? Hundreds of years? That progress is glacial, but the very next movie someone makes can be gender balanced. The next TV show for kids can be gender balanced. They just have to do it.

What about female directors? There’s still such inequality when it comes to hiring.
The problem with, say, female directors is that everyone knows it’s a problem. They’ve known for decades, the numbers are out. Nobody can claim, “I didn’t know we hired so few female directors,” so giving them the data means nothing. That can’t be the solution to that problem. What I think I uncovered is unconscious bias in some media, but conquering something like female directors is going to mean conquering conscious bias in these creators. I wish I knew the magic bullet to improving the ratio behind the camera. And creating more parts for people like me, for example! When is this going to benefit me? I would like to know. [Laughs.] I make the joke in meetings: If you find a way to cast someone like me, I’m happy to accommodate.

Does the political climate with Trump raise the stakes on your mission?
I do feel an increased sense of urgency, yes. We’re living in a climate where we’re seeing women and minorities undervalued to an alarming degree. It’s sort of become okay to expose your bigoted, narrow-minded, hate-filled, and misogynistic views. The reason to take hope in this climate is because of the intensity of the backlash against that. To see the Women’s March and all the protests that are going on … people who weren’t politically active are becoming very active, and they’re realizing that these are American issues that we cherish. There’s not an alternate version of the world that we want to go back to. I’m very, very committed to this in my life and have been for almost 12 years, but if anything, what’s going on now increases the importance with which I approach this.

Marjorie Prime’s Geena Davis on the Wonder Woman Effect