After nearly four decades of challenging gender norms onscreen, Geena Davis is fighting to level the playing field for all women in Hollywood.

By Christine Lennon
Jan 18, 2019 @ 8:45 am
Beau Grealy

When Geena Davis walks into a Santa Monica restaurant in a striped sweater, jeans, and Givenchy motorcycle boots, the sun reflecting off the Pacific through the massive windows behind her, one is tempted to check for desert dust or a trace of her famed character Thelma Dickinson still lingering 28 years later. Since 1991, when she and Susan Sarandon clasped hands in the front seat of a vintage Ford Thunderbird convertible for the final scene of Thelma & Louise and immortalized their characters as badass feminist antiheroes, she has led the conversation on gender parity in Hollywood.

“The press was saying, ‘This will change everything [for women],’ ” says Davis, 63, whose lithe 6-foot frame is decidedly dust-free. As soon as the Ridley Scott-directed movie was released, it was clear it was destined to become a classic — make that the classic — female road-trip movie. But the expectation was that it would be the first of many.

“The next film I made,” Davis adds, “was A League of Their Own, and everyone said the same thing.” As Dottie Hinson, the fictional star of the World War II-era professional baseball league, she sparked even more cultural dialogue on girls and sports, speaking to young women who were raised as Title IX athletes.

“I was just sitting back waiting for more, thinking, ‘Let’s go! I’m ready!’ [But] it didn’t change things for women. I got sucked into the idea that it would, but we’re still not there yet.”

Not one to wait around, Davis founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004 to speed the conversation along a bit. And since then, the institute’s studies have confirmed the shocking gender inequalities that have plagued Hollywood for years, both on television and in film.

“Google gave us this really big grant to develop software to do the research,” she says. “It uses the latest in voice and face recognition to tell us stuff that we couldn’t perceive with the human eye, like, the exact screen time and speaking time of characters.” One of the latest studies found that overall there are far fewer female characters onscreen these days, and the actresses who do appear have fewer lines. “When there’s a female lead, she’s onscreen and speaks about a third of the time that a male lead does, which is astounding,” Davis adds.

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Another, more promising, study showed that for the past few years, films starring a woman actually ended up making more money at the box office than films starring a man. “In 2017 they made 38 percent more,” she says of the year’s female-led blockbusters, which included Wonder Woman, Beauty and the Beast, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. “That’s a lot.”

Still, in a montage of badass women in film throughout history, when formidable females stopped taking shit from incompetent men, Davis would dominate. The Wareham, Mass., native, Boston University theater major, and mother of three teenagers (daughter Alizeh, 16, and twin sons Kaiis and Kian, 14; their dad is Davis’s ex, surgeon Reza Jarrahy) has brought to life countless characters who are permanently etched in the consciousness of generations of women. She earned a best supporting actress Oscar for The Accidental Tourist in 1989 and a Golden Globe for her portrayal as the first female president in the short-lived series Commander in Chief in 2006. And her big-screen début was alongside Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s Tootsie, a role she landed, in part, because as a young model living in New York, she had no qualms about walking around in her undies. “They knew that a model wouldn’t care,” she says. “It was my first audition, and I got the part.”

Onscreen, Davis’s unique blend of vulnerability and strength, goofiness and intelligence (she’s famously a member of Mensa, with a reported IQ of 140), has made her the perfect heroine for our age. And in real life, all those traits are still very present, even in casual conversation. She speaks slowly, in a low, measured voice, and chooses her words carefully, but she’s also quick to laugh and is brutally honest about her own journey toward self-acceptance. A breakthrough happened for Davis in her 40s, when she discovered a previously untapped athletic ability: archery. She was so good that she made it to the semifinals of the trials for the Sydney Olympics.

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“My coach started working with me on self-talk,” she says. “I would shoot an arrow, and my coach would say to me, ‘What were you just thinking?’ ‘Uh, I was thinking, “I suck.” ’ Then he would be like, ‘Well, we have to fix that.’ I became aware that I was doing this all day long, telling myself that I was awful and embarrassing. So it was really helpful to change all that. ‘I’m doing the best I can. I’m trying my best’ — that’s the conversation I should be having. It impacted my whole life.”

While Davis continues to appear in films and recently wrapped Eve, a drama with Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell, her most important work in the industry at the moment is the research she and her team at the institute are commissioning. The data they’re producing is hard to refute, and Davis’s hope is that they will instigate lasting change.

The institute’s motto, “If she can see it, she can be it,” relates to more than just storytelling. Davis, like the rest of us, watched the recent midterm elections carefully and was encouraged by the number of first-time female government officials elected. “It’s going to take tremendous effort over decades to get anywhere close to parity,” says Davis. “But onscreen we could reach parity overnight. The next movie somebody makes that has scenes with Congress in it, we make it half women. If we show a version of the president’s cabinet, we make that half women. You see it and you realize, ‘Hey, that’s someone like me. I could do that.’ Then maybe life would imitate art.”

What we need, Davis says, are real-life role models that women can see and aspire to be like and that men can accept and embrace. What we need are more women like Davis.

“It’s very simple,” she adds, her smile widening, revealing a glint of Thelma in her eyes. “You just have to expand the possibilities.”

Photographer: Beau Grealy. Styling: Sue Choi. Hair: Dritan Vushaj/Forward Artists. Makeup: Daniele Parsons/Art Department. Manicure: Mel Shengaris. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.

For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.