Sure, she’s been out of the Hollywood spotlight for the past few years, but that doesn’t mean that Geena Davis — one of the most prolific actors of her generation — has been taking it easy. Following starring roles in classics like Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own, through which she established herself as a feminist icon, the actress has taken a turn behind the camera.
Davis is an executive producer for the recently released documentary This Changes Everything, which highlights the lack of female and minority representation in Hollywood. The film’s title, meant to bear a dose of irony, speaks to the media commentary surrounding every hopeful gain for women in the industry.
Geena first got a taste of the phrase when Thelma & Louise — which was embraced with open arms by feminists — opened in 1991. “I was like, ‘Hot dog, that’s fantastic — I get to be in a movie that changes everything!’” she recalled during a Q&A at Toronto International Film Festival. “A League of Their Own, the same thing happened — Now we’re going to see all these female sports movies … So I’m just waiting for all this change … Maybe 5 years go by, 7 years, and there’s another movie that comes out … So all this time, men, women, during any interview they’d say ‘Well things are better for women now, right?’ and at first I was like ‘Yeah!’ and then I was like, ‘I think so … ’ and then time goes by … ‘I hope so,’ and then finally I’m like, ‘Google it, I don’t know.’”
More than 25 years later, Davis notes that Thelma and Louise‘s relevance is unchanged. “It [doesn’t] seem dated at all,” she told InStyle. “It’s very much still topical, which says a lot. I remember someone asking did [the film] still need to be made if it was today, and … yeah. Actually, yes, absolutely.”
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After decades spent buoyed by the false hope of her progressive oeuvre, in 2004 Davis discovered a new facet of media inequality, one that felt deeply personal to the new mom: children’s films and television.
“I immediately noticed that there seemed to be far more male characters than female characters in something that was aimed at the littlest kids, and I thought, as a mother, ‘What are we doing?’” she explained during TIFF’s Share Her Journey rally earlier this month. “Why are we training [kids] to have unconscious gender bias from the beginning, when we know that it’s so hard to get rid of?”
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This realization prompted Geena to create the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which provides concrete data about the lack of representation of women and girls onscreen.
“If you don’t see people who look like you doing important things or even taking up space in the world, you get the message that, ‘Oh, I must not be that valuable to society,’” Davis tells InStyle.
In her ongoing attempt to level the gender playing field in children’s programming, she recently spoke with the head of an animation studio. “Before I was going to meet with his staff, he said, ‘Listen, I applaud what you’re doing and I agree with what you’re trying to accomplish, but I have to say, I’m worried that my guys’ — because all of the animators working for him were men — ‘are not going to want to add a message to what they’re making.’ And I said, ‘That’s fantastic news, because who wants messages … It’s entertainment, they should be having fun. So that means, in other words, you’re saying they’re going to take out the message that they are so profoundly putting in their content now, which is, ‘boys are more important than girls,’ right?”
She goes on, “If they don’t want messages, they need to go to half [female representation in programming], because half the population is girls.”
Though This Changes Everything attempts to shed light on the gender inequality blanketing all of Hollywood, it’s hard not to see the irony in the choice of director: Tom Donahue, a white male. But while women’s involvement in film is clearly tantamount to the documentary’s message, both Donahue and Davis agree that men are no small part of the equation.
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“I started to understand the global implications of when most of our storytellers are male, and the kind of toxic culture we’re seeing develop around the world, especially in the year and a half we were making this movie, all because there are not enough stories by women,” Donahue said of conducting more than 40 interviews for the film, which was developed during Trump’s election and the subsequent Time’s Up and #MeToo movements.
“A lot of men are not aware of the issues that women face, and I’m hoping this film will bring awareness to men. And hopefully once men’s eyes are open those eyes won’t close again,” he continued.
Now that we’re at the intersection of such a powerful women’s uprising and the premiere of this documentary, are things finally inching toward that idyllic space of total change? Geena isn’t about to declare the war won, but she’s hopeful.
“I think we are at a tipping point,” she said. “We’ve been overdue for another wave in the women’s movement for a while now. They usually happen every few decades and we’re a little bit behind, but I think this is the moment now.”
The former Madame President (on ABC’s Commander in Chief, at least) wouldn’t rule out her own foray into politics, but “only if I could become the president and not have to do anything before that … ” After a beat she laughs defeatedly. “Oh, right. It actually happened to us.”
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When it comes to the root of Davis’s drive to change the industry, her daughter, Alizeh, the actress and activist is thankful that the 16-year-old doesn’t plan to pursue a future in Hollywood.
“I profoundly am not encouraging her to go into this field,” she shared. “In fact, I’ve always said, ‘If none of my kids become actors, I’ll have done my job right.’ It’s such a crazy business. It’s better to have a real-life job.”
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