It might be hard to remember whether she was Thelma, or Louise, but that’s the film that springs to mind when you think Geena Davis.
It’s apt. Ridley Scott’s 1991 female buddy movie took a time-worn movie plot and reversed the gender. It skyrocketed her career and became a benchmark of directing, writing, acting and feminism.
Has it ever frustrated her that such a defining film has dominated her career? “Well, no, it hasn't really even occurred to me. But I feel lucky I was in one film that was a cultural landmark, that struck a nerve, and I'm happy it was about women and women's freedom to be who they are. It means a lot to me.
“You know you can go through your career and have successes and hits, maybe even awards, but to touch the pulse of what’s going on is very gratifying.”
She certainly has her finger on the pulse.
She’s in Sydney as the keynote speaker for All About Women, a women-in-media conference at the Opera House being simulcast by satellite to 25 centres across the country, including Parramatta, Blacktown and Penrith, and two in New Zealand.
Davis has always taken a strong stand for strong female roles. She was a rabble-rousing pirate in Cutthroat Island, a sleeper agent in The Long Kiss Goodnight, she beat Hillary to the US Presidency in Commander in Chief. Roles with plot agency, that don’t rely on men for their existence.
But it was when she began watching films and TV with her daughter, then just 2, she was shocked to see how females were being presented in family entertainment.
She took it up with studio bosses who said she didn’t have a case.
So she fought back. She established the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to scrutinise current screen output and lobby for better female role models.
You must have been pretty alarmed to establish your own institute?
“Right! I founded it as a result of watching G-rated movies with my daughter [Alizeh Davis Jarrahy, Davis is married to neurosurgeon Reza Jarrahy]. She was 2 then, she's now 14.
“And watching these things with her I was appalled to see there was a big gender disparity in the entertainment we're showing the youngest kids.
We found the female characters in G-rated movies wore the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as in R-rated movies. What?! Why is there ANY sexually revealing clothing in G-rated movies?!Geena Davis
CHARACTERS IN FAMILY FILMS WEARING SEXY ATTIRE
- FEMALE 28.3%
- MALE 8%
CHARACTERS WITH THIN BODIES IN PRIME-TIME SHOWS
- FEMALE 37.5%
- MALE 13.6 %
- source: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, seejane.org.
“I mean their first impression of society being reflected back to them shows girls as being very much not there, not to the action, stereotyped, hyper-sexualised.
“I thought, wow, this is the 21st century – you woulda figured we'd got past this by now for kids!
“So I started asking round, talking to studio executives, whoever I happened to meet, and they'd say no, I don't think that's true, no I don't think so.
“They'd say like, well, no, we have Belle in Beauty and the Beast – as if this one character solved the whole problem when the vast majority of characters in that movie were male.
“That's what made me realise we needed data in order to really get the message across. The institute funded the largest study ever done of G-rated movies and we found there were quite a few problems that needed addressing.
“One is that for every female character there were three male characters, and if it's a group scene you’re lucky to get one or two females and they’re all highly, highly stereotyped.
“And it was astounding to learn the female characters in G-rated movies wore the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as in R-rated movies.
The more television a girl watches, the fewer opportunities in life she believes she has. Clearly there's something in what she's watching that's giving her that idea.Geena Davis
SPEAKING CHARACTERS IN PRIME-TIME COMEDIES
- FEMALE 31.5%
- MALE 68.5%
PRIME-TIME SHOWS WITH GENDER BALANCE
“What?! Like, what? Why is there any sexually revealing clothing in G-rated movies at all! So that's disturbing and kids do more TV-watching than any other activity except sleeping.
“Some kids are up to like 10 hours a day of screen time, whether it's on a computer or watching television. Obviously it’s gonna have a big impact on them.
“We also found that for girls, depending on the number of hours they watch, that – how do I put this? – the more television a girl watches, the fewer opportunities in life she believes she has.
“Clearly there's something in the media she's looking at that's giving her that idea. There are so few female characters and those that are there are so stereotyped and really very, very often just eye candy, even though this is stuff that's made for little kids.”
Clearly there's something in the media she's looking at that's giving her that idea.Geena Davis
MALE-TO-FEMALE ROLES IN KIDS’ SHOWS
- 2.15 TO 1
FAMILY FILMS NARRATED BY MALES
To quantify the problem is a huge step in the right direction but have you been fighting a losing battle to get something done about it?
“What we've been doing is going to the people who make these products – the movies and TV. We go to Disney and Pixar and all the studios and present our research and what I find fascinating is that they had no idea.
“They were floored when we told them about this. You'd think they'd have been a little more aware. But it's not a malicious plot, I think it's just sort of the way it's always been.
“Most animators are male and people just sort of are enculturated [yes, it’s a word] not to notice. But I do think there's hope to make some change, because of their reactions. Some even said, like, wow, this is not appropriate, we should tale a look at this . . .”
- All About Women at the Opera House: aaw.sydneyoperahouse.com.
- All About Women simulcast locations: aaw.sydneyoperahouse.com/satellite.
- Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: seejane.org.
WEB BONUS INTERVIEW | Geena Davis talks about her hit movies
Even Dustin Hoffman got all hot and bothered when you made your first film in your undies!
“[laughs] “Well, it was an unusual way to start! It was actually my first audition ever and I remember thinking well, there's no chance I'm gonna be in a movie [Tootsie] with Dustin Hoffman, so relax!
“I think that's one of the things they found appealing at the audition – that I didn't seem intimidated.
“But I was thunderstruck when I got the part. I thought this is a weird way to meet Dustin Hoffman, in my underwear! I had a great time with him right from the beginning.”
Martin Sheen did it for eight years on The West Wing. And Dennis Haysbert was a black president for six years on 24. But it seems we're not ready for a woman in the White House yet. Was that one of the reasons Commander-in-Chief only lasted a season?
“All the reason! In fact they took a poll of people after the show had been on the air and even if people had only heard of it 58 per cent said they were more likely to vote for a female candidate for President so for people to see, but you know we came out really strong out of the box, we were the No.1 new show and doing very well.
“What happened is, starting in January we were going to be opposite American Idol which is like the killer spot, you know, because no one's gonna watch and the network decided to take us off the air during American Idol.
“So we came back three and a half months later and unfortunately we were on a different day, at a different time and people just couldn't find us again. You know, it was gamble one way or the other. Either you go against American Idol or you go off the air but it just kinda killed everything which was very unfortunate.”
You compete in archery at international level [including at a pre-Olympics event here in Sydney]. In one of the last episodes of Commander-in-Chief someone says about your character "I'm sure she knows how to handle a bow and arrow".
You weren’t aware of that? It wasn't said to you, it was said about you.
“I didn't know that. [laughs] That's hilarious. Well, that's gotta be an in-joke, right? [laughs]. ‘Cos I actually know my way around a bow and arrow, yes! [laughs].
We'll have to send you the DVD!
“Yes, thank you! [laughs].”
For the Sydney-made film Accidents Happen, why did shoot Connecticut in St Ives?
“I was the only imported person on that – we were actually going to shoot in the United States and then we suddenly got this finance to shoot in Sydney. I said, hey, you know we have Connecticut already . . .”
There were lots of one-liners in that great script. What was your favourite?
“You can't swear on this, right? You can?! OK, my son is cooking dinner – I don't know what exactly – and I come home and I say ‘It doesn't matter. I’m so hungry I could eat a crowbar and shit a jungle gym!’ [laughs]. That's pretty good, right?
It’s about dysfunctional families but there’s a lot of heart in the film.
“I’m always interested in playing characters that have something interesting or unique about them. Really what this one’s about is finding redemption through the relationships you have, that despite horrific things happening in life you can come together and you can keep going, basically. Life is hard and awful sometimes, but you can cling to each other. I think that's the message.”