Geena Davis: ‘After Thelma & Louise, people said things would improve for women in film. They didn’t’

By 16 December 2015Listen, News & Events

Geena Davis: ‘After Thelma & Louise, people said things would improve for women in film. They didn’t’

Having built a career playing strong women, the Hollywood star is taking on sexism in the film industry, with a gender equality project that will launch at this year’s London film festival.

Geena Davis is tall, very tall. In her bare feet, she reaches 6ft. Today, she is wearing 5in wedge heels and towers over everyone in the near vicinity.

This is worth remarking upon not because Davis’s appearance is the most interesting thing about her – it isn’t, not by a long mark – but because it shows her willingness to occupy a space, to lay claim to it. There is an assertiveness to her physical presence. Most tall women feel the need to slouch or wear flats or somehow make themselves seem that little bit less intimidating. Davis clearly has no truck with this. As she walks across to meet me, shoulders back, smile in place, arm outstretched to shake my hand, her entire stance is one of easy confidence.

Davis has long made it her mission to ensure women occupy more space in a notoriously sexist business. The film industry has never been an equal opportunities employer. But we are meeting at a time when the plates seem to be shifting. Several actresses have recently spoken out about unequal treatment and an increasing number of films are being made with complicated, interesting female protagonists at the helm. Are we at a watershed moment?

“The women in the industry, I think, are remarkable,” Davis says cautiously. “A lot of people are becoming very comfortable about saying it’s not fair.”

Thelma & Louise traile

For her part, Davis has a reputation for making empowered, counter-intuitive choices. She is probably best known as Thelma Dickinson, the radicalised anti-hero in Ridley Scott’s 1991 feminist box-office smash, Thelma & Louise, or as the feisty Dottie Hinson in the 1992 women’s baseball movie, A League of Their Own.

“Having been in some roles that really resonated with women, I became hyper-aware of how women are represented in Hollywood,” she says.

That awareness has tipped over into activism. In 2006, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the only research-based organisation that works to promote gender balance in the media and entertainment industries. Next month, the institute will launch its Global Symposium on Gender in Media as part of the BFI London film festival. It comes at an opportune moment.

Patricia Arquette used her Oscars acceptance speech in March to issue a rallying cry for equal pay – top-earning female dramatic actors take home around 40% of the salaries of their male co-stars. In April, Carey Mulligan, who stars in the forthcoming Suffragette, the story of 19th-century campaigners fighting for women’s right to vote, called the movie industry “massively sexist”. That same month, her co-star Meryl Streep announced she was funding a screenwriters’ lab for women writers over 40. In May, the actor Elizabeth Banks, who had just directed her first feature, Pitch Perfect 2, admitted there were “systemic problems” regarding gender inequality in the movie business. In July, Emma Thompson claimed that “some forms of sexism and unpleasantness to women have become more entrenched and indeed more prevalent”. Earlier this month, Anne Hathaway told the New York Times that, professionally speaking, she had been “treated differently because I was a woman”.

Patricia Arquette Oscar acceptance speech.

Has Davis ever experienced sexism in the industry?

“Yeah, you know, I’ve definitely seen sexism on the set, though not that much directed at me.” She’s been lucky, she says. The only thing that comes to mind is an occasion when a director commented on how much he enjoyed hugging her each morning because: “It’s the only chance I get to feel you up.”

Davis wasn’t having any of it: “I said, ‘OK, that made me uncomfortable’… And he would not stop defending himself, saying: ‘But I am a feminist, I am such a feminist, and you know that.’ I said: ‘Nevertheless, I didn’t like it, that’s all. Just deal with it.’”

From 2007 to 2014, women made up only 30.2% of all speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing films distributed in the US, according to research conducted by Dr Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg. A staggeringly low 1.9% of those films were directed by women. Success stories such as Kathryn Bigelow, who was the first woman to win the Academy Award for best director with The Hurt Locker (2009) are extremely rare (and when I ask one Hollywood producer why Bigelow broke through where others did not, he replies without missing a beat: “Because she was married to [Titanic director] James Cameron. They knew if she fucked it up, he could step in and save the day.” This in spite of the fact the couple had divorced several years before she made the film in question). In fact, the proportion of female directors handed the reins on the highest-grossing films has actually fallen over the past 17 years, and only 5% of cinematographers are women. The same study revealed that a paltry 19.9% of female characters were 40 to 64 years old.

At 59, Davis is familiar with the crushing silence of a phone that never rings. Women in film are, she says “definitely” discriminated against because of their age.

“I was averaging about one movie a year my whole career and that was because I’m fussy. I probably could have done more. And then in my 40s I made one movie… And I was positive it wasn’t going to happen to me because I got a lot of great parts for women. I was very fortunate to have all that stuff happen and never get typecast, so I was just cruising along thinking: ‘Well yeah, it won’t happen to me.’ It did.”

How did she cope with that?

“It’s frustrating and it certainly made me angry at different times… It’s tough.” She smiles that familiar grin, cheeks pressing upwards. We are sitting in an empty studio at the YouTube offices in Los Angeles where Davis is staging an event the following day. She arrived carrying several bags, refusing all offers of help as if astonished anyone should think she couldn’t manage.

These bags are now placed strategically around her feet like well-behaved puppies. I’m not sure what is in them – not her laptop because she thinks she left that in the car, and when she starts rooting for a tissue, she can’t find one. Eventually, her work colleague passes her a packet of Kleenex.

She blows her nose, then continues: “The big takeaway I got from Thelma & Louise was the reaction of women who had seen the movie being so profound, so different. It was overwhelming and it made me realise how few opportunities we give women to feel excited and empowered by female characters, to come out of a movie pumped.”

When Davis’s daughter Alizeh was born in 2002 she started noticing something else: when she watched animated or children’s films, Davis was struck by the lack of female characters on show. “It’s an image we have that women only need to take up a certain amount of space and then we’ve done right by them.”

“It was really shocking,” she says. “I first just mentioned it to my friends and said, ‘Did you notice in that movie that just came out there was only one female creature in the whole movie? Besides the mother who dies in the first five minutes?’ And none of them had noticed. Feminist friends, mothers of daughters, none of them noticed until I pointed it out.”

She started talking to studio bosses and industry figures. Across the board, she was told gender representation was not a problem. It had been fixed: “And very often they would name a movie with one female character as proof.”

So Davis sponsored the largest ever study on gender depictions in family-rated films and children’s television (“I take everything too far,” she admits). The research spanned a 20-year period. It found that for every female speaking character there were three males, while female characters made up just 17% of crowd scenes.

“I told somebody that just the other day and they said, ‘Well it seems like you’d have to work at making it that few,’” Davis says with a chuckle.

Her point is that even in a fictional setting, created from our collective 21st-century imagination, we seem – subconsciously or otherwise – to believe a 17% female representation is the natural state of affairs.

“That ratio is everywhere,” Davis says. “US congress? 17% women. Fortune 500 boards are 17%. Law partners and tenured professors and military are 17% female. Cardiac surgeons are 17%. That’s the percentage of women in the Animation Guild. Journalists, print journalists, are 19% women. So why, across all these major sectors of society, does this percentage of women in leadership positions stall at about the same range?

“I mean, it’s freaky when you start examining it. For decades it’s been the same ratio – we’ve all grown up on that ratio. Could it be that women’s presence stalls at about the rate of female participation in the fiction that we watch? Could it be you get to that level and you feel done? That that looks normal?

“It’s just a completely unconscious image that we have in our heads that women only need to take up a certain amount of space and then we’ve done right by them.”

Davis is quoting American figures. The data in the UK is a fraction better but not much: women make up 23% of FTSE 100 boardroom roles and 29% of all MPs. But statistics only go so far. What of the experience of real women who work in film – not just on-screen, but the cinematographers and writers and costume designers and sound engineers who make a production happen? The anonymous Tumblr, Shit People Say to Women Directors (& Other Women in Film) has some choice anecdotal evidence of women being asked to “smile more!” and of being routinely mistaken for secretaries on set.

The director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk About Kevin) cites a handful of occasions when a predominantly male crew would underestimate her because of her diminutive height and would call her “bitchy or bossy” where a male director would simply be regarded as assertive.

The cinematographer Tami Reiker, the first woman to win an American Society of Cinematographers award, has spoken in the past about how having children affected her career prospects. “It’s a real thing. And we work so hard and when do we have our babies? Between 38 and 44, right at the peak of our careers… I think it’s harder and harder for more [women] to come up through the system.”

The long, unpredictable hours and lack of affordable childcare means many women in film find it nearly impossible to achieve a reasonable work-life balance. Several of those I speak to suggest that one solution to the drastic under-representation of women is to have on-set creches.

It might go some way towards correcting the imbalance in behind-the-scenes roles: in 2013, women accounted for 2% of composers, 4% of sound designers and 2% of special effects supervisors on the 250 top-grossing films, according to research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. It gets worse if you are a woman of colour: out of the 565 directors of the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2012, according to the USC Annenberg study, only two were black women.

That seems odd, given the preponderance of films in recent years featuring strong female leads, such as Trainwreck, Bridesmaids, The Hunger Games franchise or even Mamma Mia!. But, says Davis: “In fact, the ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. So all the times that the press has announced that now things are better, or now things are changing, they haven’t.

Just before you cast a film, change a bunch of the first names to female – hooray! Now you’ve got a gender balance

“There always comes a point where they’re trying to spot a trend, which would be great. The year that Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City were both gigantic hits internationally [the media were saying] ‘Now, beyond a doubt, we’ve proven giant summer blockbusters with women will change [the industry]…’ Nothing changed.

“And it happened to me twice. That’s how I became aware of the phenomenon. After Thelma & Louise, which was pretty noticed and potent and significant, [people were saying] ‘This changes everything! There’s going to be so many female buddy movies!’ and nothing changed. And then the next movie I did was A League of Their Own, which was a huge hit and all the talk was, ‘Well now, beyond a doubt, women’s sports movies, we’re going to see a wave of them because this was so successful.’ That’s balls. It took 10 years until Bend It Like Beckham came out. So, there was no trend whatsoever.

“It keeps happening, and we keep falling for this notion that now there’s Bridesmaids, now there’s Hunger Games…” She trails off. “It hasn’t started a trend.”

Why does sexism in film remain so pervasive? As with wider society, part of the problem lies in the fact that the key decision-makers remain overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged. The majority of studio bosses are men – with one notable exception in the form of Donna Langley, the chief executive of Universal Pictures, who in July this year ensured the studio became the fastest ever to make $3bn, thanks to a roster of films including the female-led Fifty Shades of Grey, Pitch Perfect 2 and Trainwreck.

The success of Universal prompted AO Scott, the chief film critic of the New York Times, to say earlier this month that “there does seem to be something of a shift under way”, despite Hollywood remaining “a hotbed of sexism and retrograde gender politics”.

He continued: “This fall, amid the difficult-man dramas and great-man biopics, there will be a decent smattering of woman-centred movies: Todd Haynes’s Cannes-beloved Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; John Crowley’s Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan; and Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, a movie about feminists.”

Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette.

Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette. Photograph: Focus Features/Allstar

But with men dominating positions of power, the suspicion is they will continue to hire directors or approve projects that appeal to their own tastes. It is interesting to note that not one of the nine Oscar nominees for best picture of 2014 has a female protagonist.

Jill Soloway, the creator and director of the hit Amazon TV drama Transparent, put it this way in a speech at a Women in Film event in July: “Male creators, show runners, producers and directors have to really face the immorality – their own immorality – of hiring their friends, of telling male stories, of perpetuating male privilege through protagonism. The male gaze – men as subject, women as object – is business as usual for men to be able to keep telling their stories from their point of view.”

That might partially explain the recent slew of comic book adaptations with male superheroes front and centre. It is not the whole story, however. The unspoken subtext behind much of this is money. And the received wisdom is that women simply don’t make enough of it.

The producer Cassian Elwes, whose credits include Dallas Buyers Club and Blue Valentine, admitted last year that it was “tricky” to sell the idea of a female director to foreign territories. Seventy-two cents in every dollar made from US movies is garnered internationally, so this is a crucial market.

“The moment that you mention it’s a female director, you can see the eyes start to roll,” said Elwes. “The buyers want action films and they don’t see women as action directors. That’s where the whole thing kind of blows up.”

With the bar already set much higher for female directors than male, they are also given fewer second chances. Women with a box office failure don’t get hired again. Even when they succeed, they struggle: Lisa Cholodenko received four Academy Awards nominations for The Kids Are All Right in 2011, including one for best picture. Afterwards, she was rewarded with almost exclusively small-screen offers.

Mimi Leder directed the sci-fi disaster flick, Deep Impact in 1998, then took time off to have a child. She returned with the box-office flop, Pay It Forward in 2000 – a move that, by her own admission, landed her “in movie jail”. Since then, she too has been directing TV shows.

“If a movie starring or written by or directed by a man flops, people don’t blame the gender of the creator,” the writer and director Diablo Cody told Variety magazine last July. “It’s just kind of weird how the blame is always immediately placed on female directors.”

Davis is pretty dispirited about the paltry number of women directing: “I mean, we’ve known the numbers for years… and they are absolutely stagnant. Sometimes it gets a little worse, but there’s no trajectory of getting better whatsoever.”

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union asked state and federal agencies to investigate the “gross statistical disparities” and “purposeful discrimination” behind the recruitment practices of major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies.

Then there’s the merchandise, which counts for an increasing amount of revenue. According to Bloomberg, if a movie reaches $1bn at the box office, associated merchandise sales (action figures, lunch boxes,T-shirts, Darth Vader Colour Change Lightsabers and so on) will average between $250m and $300m. The Star Wars franchise alone has generated $12bn in toy sales.

The rumour in Hollywood is that female action figures don’t have shelf-appeal and are harder to shift. Apparently, studio executives are worried they will take a hit on the merchandise revenues for the next year’s all-female Ghostbusters movie, directed by Paul Feig, for just this reason.

Director Kathryn Bigelow on the set of 1995 sci-fi thriller Strange Days.

Director Kathryn Bigelow on the set of 1995 sci-fi thriller Strange Days. Photograph: Ronald Grant

And yet because so much of this has for so long gone on behind closed doors, it is difficult to quantify the problem. It was only after 170,000 internal emails were leaked in the Sony Pictures hacking scandal last November that it was revealed the female leads of American Hustle – Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence – were earning considerably less than their male co-stars. This, in spite of the fact that Jennifer Lawrence had won an Oscar the previous year and turned in a performance that was, for many, the highlight of the film.

The revelation prompted several other high-profile actresses to demand a pay hike, including Charlize Theron, who insisted on a $10m raise to be on a par with her male co-star Chris Hemsworth in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Lawrence, too, took action. When it came to signing up for Passengers, a new space-age romance for Sony, Lawrence asked for a $20m fee – and was given it, making her the world’s highest-paid actress. (Her co-star, Chris Pratt, is on $12m.)

Women who have established themselves in front of the camera are turning their hands to producing (Reese Witherspoon and Sandra Bullock both have successful production companies) and directing (Angelina Jolie is increasingly creating her own material to star in), while streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have encouraged a new generation of risk-taking, culturally diverse films and television shows.

And the Geena Davis Institute is doing interesting work in advocacy and education – running workshops and discussion groups where issues are chewed over and women in the industry are encouraged to come along and share their stories.

The day after I interview Davis, I go to one of these events. It’s a panel entitled The Power to Greenlight (to “greenlight” means to commission) and it’s open to members of the institute. The audience is full of feisty, eloquent women, from a twentysomething YouTube vlogger worried about how to deal with online bitchiness to an ageing actor incensed she can no longer get work.

Davis introduces the event with a dazzling smile. She’s still wearing her wedge heels, I notice. Afterwards, she mingles with the audience, stooping occasionally to hear what people are saying. Events like this are the closest thing many of these women have to an informal support network. In pockets, then, the situation is getting better. And it is a sign of progress that female actors feel more able to speak out about discrimination, rather than being silenced by a culture of fear.

In the past, there has been a sense that women who challenge sexism in the industry will be quietly blackballed. And in my experience, the number of actresses I’ve interviewed over the years who react with horror when the word “feminist” is raised far outweighs those – like Davis – who happily identify themselves as such. Once, an actress even got in touch with me via her publicist to complain she had been depicted as too feminist – even though they were all her own words.

A League of Their Own trailer

Davis has no such qualms: “I remember when A League of Their Own was coming out in ’92, when I was doing interviews it seemed like every interviewer at some point would say, ‘So… would you consider this a feminist movie?’ People are worried that it’s a taboo thing, so I took great relish in saying, ‘Yes, I would. Write that, yes.’”

Davis’s feminism was shaped by the strong women she worked with, most notably her Thelma & Louise co-star Susan Sarandon. She tells a story about the first day of a script meeting with Sarandon and the director Ridley Scott, during which Davis had made intricate notes on every point she wanted altered so that she could bring them up without offending anyone.

“And for each one, I had planned out exactly when I was going to say it and exactly what way I was going to say it to get it across in the least objectionable way… I actually planned how disarming I could be. [It was] ‘Don’t mind me, I’m not really asking for things.’

“So we sit down, open the scripts and, I swear, it was like page one and Susan says, ‘My first line here, I think that line, see, the second line is such a better first line. I think we take that line and put it at the end of the scene…’ And Ridley’s going, ‘Oh, yeah. Uh huh, uh huh.’ I was in shock. I was, like: ‘Wait a minute, people can talk like that?’ It was an hour of revelation about just saying what you think.”

Is that a particularly female trait: not wanting to cause trouble and needing, above all, to be liked?

“Yeah. [It’s] ‘I don’t want you to think I have needs or anything.’ I was very, very, very much that way.”

Of course there is no simple solution to the endemic problem of the under-representation of women in film. Davis is not a fan of quotas for the creative industries but she says one of the easiest ways to make an impact is to smash the psychological barrier of 17% on screen and to start doing that now.

“The one area where we could reach parity overnight is on screen, absolutely overnight… My two-pronged solution to the entire problem is just before you cast a film or a TV show, go through the characters and change a bunch of first names to female – hooray! Now you’ve got a gender-balanced cast, you’ve got female characters who are un-stereotyped because they were written actually for a man and then, wherever it says, ‘a crowd gathers’, put ‘which is half female’. And that’ll happen.”

Her suggestion is a valid one: the more representations there are of women doing interesting or unexpected or powerful things, the more we become culturally acclimatised.

“I really think if we change what kids see from the beginning, it will change how they grow up,” Davis says. “You know, we’re creating problems that we have to solve later… If we show them that women take up half the space and boys and girls share the sandbox equally from the beginning, it will change everything.”

In 2005, Davis starred in a TV drama called Commander in Chief in which she played a female president. True, she ascends to the post from vice-president after the incumbent dies in office – the gender-blindness didn’t extend so far as to suggest a woman could actually have been elected – but she did win a Golden Globe for best actress.

“I was only in office for one season – I had a tragically short administration,” says Davis (who, incidentally, is a Hillary Clinton supporter in the race for US president). “But they did a survey afterwards that showed that people were 63% more likely to vote for a female candidate for president.

“Isn’t that extraordinary? And I was behind the desk 19 times, 19 episodes. So that’s an enormous impact and it’s true everywhere. When we studied the occupations of female characters on television, one of the most well-represented occupations was forensic scientist for women. Because of all these CSI shows and Bones and all that, there’s a lot of female forensic scientists. In real life, so many women are seeking to get into that profession that colleges are scrambling to keep up with it. Because they saw it on TV!”

These days, Davis says, she’s more depressed than angry about sexism. She’s told her agent to start looking at the male parts rather than just the female ones “because there’s so many male parts that could easily be a woman”.

Yes, I suggest, she could be the female Jason Bourne.

“I was!” Davis replies, “In The Long Kiss Goodnight.”

It’s true: she’s always been way ahead of the curve.

Geena Davis will appear at the Global Symposium on Gender in Media at the BFI London film festival on 8 October. Suffragette opens at the festival on 7 October and nationwide on 12 October

This article was amended on 29 September 2015 to correct the fact that research originally attributed to the Geena Davis Institute was actually carried out by Dr Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg.