Shy would not be the first (second or third) word to come to mind when meeting Geena Davis in the flesh. But even the bonafide Hollywood goddess was wary, she admits, of criticizing the industry that made her name.
“For a long time I felt like I couldn’t complain because of what people would think,” admits Davis, 59, in her soft American drawl. “But it’s become safe to speak out. A lot of it is down to Meryl [Streep]’s example. She has been outspoken for a while and it gives other women encouragement.”
You would have to have been living in a bunker to be unaware that she and Streep are far from the only unhappy women in Hollywood at the moment. Over the past 12 months, a steady stream of A-list actresses have spoken out against entrenched sexism in the film industry. From Patricia Arquette’s impassioned call for equal pay in her Oscar acceptance speech to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s disbelief that at 37 she was considered “too old” to play a 55-year-old actor’s love interest, to Helen Mirren’s recent comment that many casting directors operate a “Would I f**k her?” policy when hiring women - 2015 has been the year that leading ladies took a stand.
Not that the campaign for gender equality is anything new. Behind the scenes, actresses have long lambasted the one-dimensional roles and unequal pay pushed their way by male directors and studio executives. But it’s only recently that they’ve had the confidence to make their grievances public.
That Davis’ latest trail-blazing move comes nearly 25 years after one of her first - flying across our screens with Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise, hailed as the first feminist road movie - is an irony not lost on her. But it’s a cause she has been championing since 2004, when she first began watching children’s films with her daughter Azileh, now 13, and twin sons Kian and Kaiis, now 11 - all of whom she had in her 40s, after marrying her fourth husband, Reza Jarrahy, an Iranian-American plastic surgeon 15 years her junior, in 2001.
Appalled to see Hollywood’s sexist blueprint mirrored in movies aimed at such impressionable minds, she commissioned the largest ever research project into the number and status of female characters in family films made over a 20-year period.
The results were startling: for every female speaking-character in a film, there were three men, while only 3.4 per cent of business leaders and 4.5 per cent of politicians portrayed on-screen were women.
Propelled by a passionate belief that more girls will grow up inspired to be company directors, politicians, scientists or US presidents if women are more routinely portrayed as such, she founded the Geena Davis Institute [GDI] on Gender in Media in 2006, to put her theory into practice.
Davis has plenty of first-hand experience to back it up: “I have been on uncomfortable sets where questionable stuff is going on. There was a director I worked with who kept picking really attractive female extras and putting them in the front of scenes and having them go to wardrobe and put a different top on to really highlight her figure,” she says.
The same director, it seems, relished their on-set ‘good morning’ hugs just a little too much: “He said ‘this is my favourite part of the day; its the only time I get to feel you up.’ I said ‘inappropriate’ and he was like ‘WHAAAAAT inappropriate?’ And there it is. I said ‘no big deal, I’m not mad, I’m just pointing it out’.”
Similarly, when she played a female US president in TV drama Commander in Chief, for which she won a Golden Globe, 63 per cent of viewers surveyed at the end of the series said the show had made them more likely to vote for a woman president in real life. So Hillary Clinton has a lot to thank her for? Davis chuckles. “I don’t know about that but I’d definitely like to see her become president.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Davis attributes the huge increase in female forensic scientists to the success of shows like CSI and Bones.
“We did a huge study of occupations on TV and their influence. Women are now [making up] 75 per cent of forensic science students in American colleges because they saw women do these roles on TV and thought ‘I can do that’.”
As a young actress in the late 1980s, Davis was never content to settle for eye-candy roles - setting her sights on “messed up”, “complicated” characters.
She could hardly believe her luck when she was cast as housewife turned outlaw Thelma Dickinson in 1991, later receiving a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the Ridley Scott classic. The film didn’t just win over the critics; its focus on female protagonists (with Brad Pitt flipped into the eye candy role) electrified a generation of women fed up with being portrayed as either doting mothers or scantily-clad secretaries.
“Women came up to me in the supermarket saying ‘my friends and I recreated Thelma and Louise’s trip!’ It was euphoric,” says Davis laughing. “We all had very low expectations – we were just hoping people would see it and maybe like it. I had no idea that it would strike such a nerve.”
A year later she starred in A League of Their Own about a girls’ baseball team; a similarly unexpected success. She was onto something – or so she thought. “The media predicted there would be so many more women’s sports movies, but there were none. Bend it Like Beckham was the next one and that was 11 years later. We just weren’t able to get the momentum going.”
There is one on-screen genre where women outnumber men, she notes: “In reality TV about 55 per cent of the characters are female. That is not good for us. The number one career ambition of girls today is to be Kim Kardashian. It’s just appalling…By making these shows and films we’re saying that girls are most valued for how they look while boys get 80 per cent of the interesting jobs and adventures. How you’re reflected in popular culture gives you a clue to your value.”
It would be easy to dismiss Davis eponymous institute as a vanity project - a do-gooding venture making a lot of noise, but little real difference. As a television journalist and a feminist, I was keen to find out and flew out to LA to spend a month volunteering there. I found a small but dedicated team of three full-time employees, plus a pool of volunteers - many of whom are young female writers and directors themselves - determined to do everything in their power to change the way girls view themselves and the possibilities available to them.
From a panel event where directors pooled ideas on feminist superheroes to meetings at Youtube to discuss making its video channels less male-centric, everything I saw convinced me that Davis is intent on making more than headlines.
For years now, she has been meeting privately with directors and writers about adding more female characters to films and giving them more lines: “There are two studios I know of where, when someone pitches a new animated film, they say, ‘what would Geena make of this?’ That is exactly what I want!” she cries, citing Pixar’s Inside Out as proof we’re finally moving in the right direction.
None of this is to say that she’s about to turn her back on the red carpet lifestyle altogether. Davis frequently name-checks her A-List feminist troupe (from Reese Witherspoon to Sheryl Sandberg) and has just signed up to a film adaptation of sci-fi play Marjorie Prime starring Jon Hamm.
Is it a suitably meaty role? “I do sometimes take parts that don’t have to be role-modelly things. In fact, I’m allergic to the term role model because I think it limits what people think women should do. But if you ever see me in a movie playing Sean Connery’s adoring wife, you’ll know that I’m broke!”
–The Interview People