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Geena Davis on Fighting for Female Representation in Hollywood and the Golden Age of Roles for Women

Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Hollywood legend Bette Davis once famously put an ad in a trade paper declaring, ‘Actress, late 40s, eager to work.’ It was a harsh showbiz reality that Geena Davis thought she might be able to elude. After all, she’d won an Oscar by the age of 33 for The Accidental Tourist and starred in one of the biggest movies of all time, Thelma & Louise, by 35. Nothing but opportunity lay ahead— right? But a decade later, Davis found herself where so many others — including even Meryl Streep, for a time — had: no longer at the top of Hollywood’s Must-Hire List.

Davis decided to take action. For the last ten years, she has been at the forefront of gathering data on how women are depicted in TV and film — from the ratio of female-to-male characters in a given program, to the number of minutes they have onscreen, to how children’s programming depicts gender, to the degree to which women are clothed (and unclothed) — and sharing her findings with the only people with power to effect change: Hollywood executives. And as founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Davis, 60, was also uniquely positioned to become the face of the first-ever film festival specifically geared toward creating and celebrating diverse content.

Davis sat down with Vulture over lunch in L.A.’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood to chat about her Bentonville Film Festival (which runs from May 3 to 8), why Thelma & Louise sparked a life-changing epiphany, how she’s turned Hollywood’s harsh realities on female representation into a movement, and the one thing even Shonda Rhimes hadn’t noticed in her own diverse-rich programming.

What was the genesis of the Bentonville Film Festival? And why in Arkansas, of all places?
My longtime friend, producer Trevor Drinkwater, heard that Walmart, which is headquartered in Bentonville, was looking for new ways to support diversity and inclusion and was interested in sponsoring a film festival. But we knew there would have to be a significant impact. Not another, “Wow, look at all these artsy movies by women and minorities,” rather, actual impact in the industry. We had 80 total sponsors in the first year and this is what has allowed us to have such amazing prizes for winners, which is: guaranteed distribution of their films. We are the only festival in the world to do this. Winners have their films shown theatrically in AMC theaters, aired on television on Starz and Lifetime, and sold on store shelves at Walmart. I even have my own “Geena Recommends” section in the store. We had 37,000 people attend last year, so when I walk around the town now I’m sort of like the honorary mayor. (Laughs.)

The festival requires that entries meet a number of distinct criteria on the diversity front. What are they?
There are a few markers you can hit: If there is a female director, a person of color or female as the lead, and/or a very diverse and gender-balanced cast and crew. We take all of those things into consideration.

You came of age as an actor at a time when diversity was not an official agenda; a time when studios were still making several movies a year with strong female protagonists, like Places in the Heart and Sophie’s Choice. Did it feel like a promising time to be a woman in Hollywood?
Yes, it did. I started acting in the early 1980s when Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and Sally Field had incredible movies coming out every year. I thought, “Wow, things are fabulous for women in the industry right now. I’d heard about this problem that, when you turn 40, the roles dry up. But these women are clearly changing this!” I was very optimistic. I was always trying to choose a role that was challenging and interesting and avoid parts like The Girlfriend of the Person Having the Adventures, which is why I gravitated toward movies like Beetlejuice and The Accidental Tourist. I also didn’t have faith in myself to do a part that didn’t have some fancy or quirky bits to it.

Meryl is one of few magical performers who can turn a nothing role on the page into something special.
(Laughs.) Exactly. I didn’t believe I could take something basic and make it extraordinary. What I didn’t realize until much later, in hindsight, was I had subconsciously been choosing projects where the woman was in charge of her own destiny. When I did Thelma & Louise, it wasn’t until the movie opened that I had this revelation. The movie obviously sparked a lot of national conversations — including, “Oh no, women have guns now!” — but mostly shined a light on how few real opportunities women had to play real characters. Identifying with a character is one of the best parts of seeing a movie, but as women, we’ve had to train ourselves to experience the male journey. So from then on, I made a conscious choice to think about the women in the audience. “What will they think?” And it’s not to say we aren’t girlfriends, wives, or partners — of course we are. But that’s not all we are, and that’s the problem.

What’s really sad, but not shocking, is that despite the worldwide success of Thelma & Louise, there wasn’t a glut of female-centered movies that followed, much like what everyone predicted in the wake of Bridesmaids’ success a few years ago. And nothing has really changed on that front, either, in terms of women-centered comedies.
Yeah. Everyone thought tons of female buddy pictures and road movies would somehow materialize and they didn’t. Nothing happened, though my very next movie was A League of Their Own, which was all about women. “And now there will be so many female sports movies! And Geena Davis is personally leading this revolution!” (Laughs.) Instead, what we had around that time were movies that incited the audience to want to say, “Kill the bitch!” Movies like Misery, Fatal Attraction, which was earlier, and Basic Instinct. Psycho-bitch roles. It’s fine to do a few movies like that as long as they are part of a larger mix. But there was no mix. It was then I started to wonder: Doesn’t someone have the numbers on how women are represented onscreen? When I realized no one did, I started researching on my own.

In 2005, concurrent with the beginnings of your research, you landed the coveted role of the president of the United States in ABC’s Commander in Chief. I imagine this somewhat restored your faith in opportunities for women over 40?
Yes. I had always said to my agents, “I never want to do an hourlong series. It’s the worst lifestyle. It’s like a movie that never ends.” But the opportunity was impossible to turn down. I said yes even before I read it. Film roles really did star to dry up when I got into my 40s. If you look at IMDB, up until that age, I made roughly one film a year. In my entire 40s, I made one movie, Stuart Little.

I know. Wow. I was getting offers, but for nothing meaty or interesting like in my 30s. I’d been completely ruined and spoiled. I mean, I got to play a pirate captain [in Cutthroat Island]! I got to do every type of role, even if the movie failed.

Also, you were never typecast.
That’s true. One thing I always want to clear up was the notion that I “took time off to have a baby.” A lot people leapt to that conclusion because becoming a parent happened to coincide with film roles tapering off. When I made Commander in Chief, I had three children under 3 years old. If I was really going to take time off from working, I think it would have been then. (Laughs.)

Commander lasted only one season. Did it feel like a personal failure?
I was devastated. I still haven’t gotten over it. I really wanted it to work. It was on Tuesday nights opposite House, which wasn’t ideal. But we were the best new show that fall. Then, in January, we were opposite American Idol. They said, “The ratings are going to suffer, so we should take you off the air for the entire run of Idol, and bring it back in May.” I put a lot of time and effort into getting it on another network, too, but it didn’t work.

What initially spurred you to start gathering hard data on representation of female characters in TV and film?
I had the impetus from watching preschool-age TV shows with my daughter, before my twin boys were born, and realized there were so few female characters. What the heck was this? How haven’t we fixed this?

You saw this even in an iconic, diverse children’s show like Sesame Street?
The humans on Sesame Street are diverse, but they had 19 male puppets. It took 25 years before they added their first female puppet, and of course she wears a pink tutu and is covered in jewelry and bows. They also added a purple and pink sparkly fairy. I also remembered watching the movie Finding Nemo, after the mother dies in the first five minutes, they don’t meet any other female creature in the ocean besides Ellen DeGeneres’s character, Dory. In the entire whole ocean, which by its definition is very, very big. (Laughs.) The turtles, sharks — all male. They even meet a school of fish that speaks in unison in all male voices. I was like, “What the hell? This is crazy.” So that’s how the whole thing started.

How do studio execs and producers react when you share your findings?
My goal always has been to educate the business instead of the public, which is why people didn’t hear about it for a long time. It was much more important to reach them in a collegial way, “I’m in the biz, I’m your friend,” rather than encouraging the populace to rise up and demand better. I didn’t know what to expect, but the reactions have been the same for ten years. People are shocked. They feel horrible, actually. At first they say, “That’s not true, not anymore. That’s been fixed!” They are completely sincere. They would name a movie that had one female character as evidence. (Laughs.) It didn’t occur to them to care about the supporting characters or background artists. And for kids’ movies they’d mention Belle from Beauty in the Beast, or something their studio had made. “Doing right by girls is a huge focus for us. If we have one important female character, then that’s enough.”

Have you noticed real change in the decade you’ve been doing this research?
If you’ve seen a movie or TV show that seems to do right by women, probably I had something to do with it (Laughs). I’m kidding. But 68 percent of the respondents to our surveys say that what they’ve learned changed two or more of their projects; 41 percent said it changed four or more of their projects — meaning they added more female characters or changed them from male to female; gave them more lines or gave them more clothes — stuff like that. It’s fantastic. It takes a very long time. The ratio of male to female characters in movies has been the same since 1946. For every one speaking female character there are almost three male characters. We’ve found that, not surprisingly, if a female is the writer, director, or producer, onscreen female characters go up by at least ten percent. The dismal numbers for female directors? I can’t even begin to talk about that.

What’s interesting to me is how the majority of casting directors are women and yet this trend has persisted for decades. What do they say about it?
The first time I presented my research at a studio, by the end of it, the casting director had her head in her hands. She said, “For every movie we make here, we ask ourselves, “Okay, who can become black? Who can be Asian? Who can become Hispanic? We’ve never once said, Who can become female? I have no excuse.” So this is always my advice:  The easiest and quickest way to solve this is to change male characters to female. It will probably make the story more interesting and less full of stereotypical characters.

What prime-time TV series are role-models to you on this front?
TV is great now, in that many series showcase tremendous diversity and women in leadership-style careers. Obviously The Good Wife is great, but, sadly, that’s ending. All of Shonda [Rhimes’s] shows are incredible. I was on Grey’s Anatomy for half a season and, oh my God, it’s so diverse there. But it’s funny, I was on a panel with Shonda last year and she told a story about how she thought she’d thought of everything on the diversity front, then she heard me talk at an event and realized she had far fewer females than males in crowd scenes — only 17 percent. The ratio was way off. But you can’t notice everything unless it’s pointed out! Another cool example of a recent change was when Empire writer Wendy Calhoun told me she heard me speak and decided to make a new character in season two — someone they temporarily called Rich White Man — into Rich White Woman, and that became the character that Marisa Tomei played. Pretty cool.

What movies this year embodied this ethos best, in your opinion?
Brooklyn was great. Room, too.

I’m now imagining The Revenant with a female lead, which would be amazing. But a movie like that, released by a major studio, would never happen.
This is why when I go into studios, I never say, “Make more movies with female characters.” I’d run into tremendous resistance. Instead it’s, “Make whatever you’re going to make, but populate it with female characters and flip the gender whenever you can.” It’s really an easy fix.

Geena Davis on Fighting for More Roles for Women