You may not see Geena Davis on screen as much these days, a slight born of Hollywood’s ageism, but her impact on the film and TV industry has never been stronger.
Since 2004, the star of films like Beetlejuice, Thelma & Louise, and A League of Their Own has operated the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media—a data-driven research organization that works with the entertainment world to improve female representation. And earlier this year, a study released by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 43 of the top 100 movies released in 2019 had female leads or co-leads, compared to just 20 of the top 100 in 2007.
Davis, 64, also co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival—one of the most inclusive film festivals in the world, which is held in Bentonville, Arkansas. The sixth edition of the fest, a mix of virtual and limited-capacity in-person screenings running Aug. 10-16, is its most diverse outing yet, with 80 percent of the films directed by women and 65 percent of them by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
“I didn’t intend to make it my life’s mission,” Davis says of her push for diversity.
And now, she’s tackling toxic masculinity. The Geena Davis Institute’s latest study, titled “If He Can See It, Will He Be It?” examined “messages about masculinity present in popular television programming among boys ages 7 to 13” to determine its “real-world effects” on the behavior of boys and men. The study analyzed the top 25 top-rated TV shows according to Nielsen, including 3,056 characters from 447 episodes, and found that male characters are less likely to show emotion and far more prone to aggression, committing 62.5 percent of violent acts.
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Daily Beast, Davis opens up about how she’s helped shape Hollywood.
You really seemed to be ahead of the curve in creating this inclusive film festival.
That was the whole genesis of it—was to have a film festival that was specifically about inclusion. It’s turned out to be fantastic. I’m very excited to have it be in its sixth year, and we are more radically inclusive than ever this year. Of our films in the program this year, 80 percent were directed by women, and 65 percent by BIPOC, and 45 percent by LGBTQIA.
It does stand in sharp contrast to some of the European film festivals, in particular Cannes, which has struggled to evolve and be more inclusive.
Right. What we’re trying to do is show how easily this can be done. There’s zero compromise for us in the quality of films. We were able to find amazing films directed by wildly diverse people, and that’s just part of our mission, to show what we’re missing when we’re not being inclusive, and setting an example. We feel like we’re not asking for anything “radical” whatsoever. We’re just interested in having things on screen and behind the camera be reflective of the population as it is—which is half-female and incredibly diverse. It’s not a concept that anyone should find at all controversial!
And it’s partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. What inspired you to start that?
It all started because I had a daughter, and when she was 2 I started showing her kids’ stuff. From the first thing I sat down with her to watch, I was floored to see that there were far more male characters than female characters. I was horrified. And I noticed it all over the place in kids’ entertainment media. I thought, “So this means we’re training kids from minute one to have gender bias, because we’re showing them that boys have so much more importance than girls—they take up more of the space, do more interesting things, and are the lead characters.”
I didn’t intend to make it my life’s mission in that moment but what happened was, whenever I had a meeting in town I’d mention, “Do you know how few female characters there are in TV and movies made for kids?” and every single person said, “Oh no, that’s not true anymore. That’s been fixed.” I thought, “Wow, I can’t even find one person who agrees with me on this—even the people making it. Maybe if I had the data it would make a difference.” And so the goal from the beginning was I would get the data, go directly to the creators, and share it privately with them and see what they think. It turned out to be the absolute magic key, the data, in order to encourage change.
A show like Commander in Chief also encouraged change. You were playing the first female president on that show, which came out in 2005, before Hillary Clinton ran for the first time in 2008, and of course predated the 2016 run and Kamala Harris’ VP candidacy. Although it was abruptly canceled after just one season.
It was an extraordinary experience and I was just heartbroken that I had such a short administration! The fascinating thing to me was there was a study done by a group called Kaplan Thaler that showed that people were 58 percent more likely to vote for a female candidate for president. And that was only after 19 times of seeing me behind the desk! I forever after wished I had had two full terms. Then we for sure would have had a female president by now! [Laughs]
As a kid, I remember how jarring it was seeing Glenn Close as VP in Air Force One but then as you’re watching the movie you’re like, OK, I’m very much on board with this. These cultural examples really matter, and they were so few and far between.
It’s true. My motto is, “If she can see it, she can be it.” And as you point out, it’s literally true: If people see something on screen, they say, “I thought that was weird, now that looks normal.” There’s something called the Scully Effect, which is the result of a study we did for Fox to find out what impact the Dana Scully character from The X-Files had for women going into the STEM field. Of women who currently have jobs in the STEM field, 63 percent say their inspiration of going into STEM was from that specific character. That one character inspired 63 percent of women!
Your most recent study at the Geena Davis Institute concerns masculinity. What do you feel were the big takeaways?
Without even seeing the research, I think people could guess that the image of masculinity that is being portrayed in popular culture is damaging to boys and men—and the study definitely bore that out. Male characters are more violent, less prone to be in touch with their emotions, and that image of toxic masculinity that we know about is present in the male characters we see in movies and TV.
One of the reveals that jumped out at me concerned “hypersexuality.” To quote from the study: “Men should value sexual conquests over intimacy, and never say ‘no’ to sex. Men are expected to be naturally sex-driven and the sexual initiators.”
When you say that it sounds like such an old-fashioned idea that was foisted on men and boys, to be that way, and yet we’re still perpetuating that in what is on screen, and we’re more or less encouraging boys and men to stay stuck in these old tropes or old version of what masculinity was supposed to be about. You would think that since we’ve realized how toxic this could be what we’re showing on screen would be changing more dramatically but it apparently hasn’t happened that much yet.
I recall being a teenager and watching Animal House. And one of the big scenes in the film concerns a 13-year-old girl who passes out drunk, and the twenty-something lead of the film, who is supposed to be the nice one, has a devil and angel pop up on each of his shoulders to ask whether or not he should assault a passed-out 13-year-old. And that is a scene that is played for laughs.
Oh God! I haven’t seen that movie in forever and I didn’t remember that… but that is horrifying.
And a movie that was big when I was a teenager was American Pie. And the big sequence in that movie has the nice-guy lead of the film broadcasting an exchange student changing over the internet, to his entire community.
So toxic! Wow. That is really shocking.
Donald Trump seems to be the apotheosis of male toxicity. He’s almost every trope wrapped into one. He used to go on Howard Stern and rate women’s faces and bodies with a number, ogled young women at beauty pageants, is accused of assaulting a bunch of women, you name it. Do you feel like your work at the Geena Davis Institute has taken on added importance in the Trump era?
Ugh. I think this is critically important no matter what, but you’re right, to have someone acting out the worst possible versions of toxic masculinity as the leader of our country is just so morally reprehensible. It’s really a shame. And the good part is that people are sickened by it and calling it out, and hopefully we will get past it very soon. It’s horrifying that it can live that much now. When you talk about Animal House and American Pie, that was a while ago, and you think, “Well, probably things have changed by now,” and then you realize, “Well, maybe it hasn’t changed that much.”
On a much brighter note—and please excuse this harsh transition—but I had read that you’d auditioned for Saturday Night Live in 1984. Is that true?
Oh, I didn’t remember what year it was, but yes, I did! I made a stupid videotape of myself doing hopefully funny things. It was the year Billy Crystal, Chris Guest, and Harry Shearer were on the show, and I had a lunch meeting with them. Obviously I didn’t get cast, but I’ve always loved the show.
Do you remember what you did in your audition?
Gosh, I don’t! I don’t even think I have a copy of that! The lunch was pretty awkward because it was like, “OK, what’s funny about you?! Just prove to us that you’re funny,” and it was this lunch, and so it was definitely weird!
Lorne must have it stashed somewhere in the archives. I wanted to talk about Thelma & Louise, which I love, and which gets timelier by the day. I thought it was cute that Brad [Pitt] recently thanked you when he won the Oscar.
I thought that was great!
Because I’d read that you were very instrumental in casting that role, and the people who went up for it are like a who’s-who of Hollywood: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Christian Slater, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. I’d actually read that Downey Jr. was almost cast but that Ridley [Scott] thought he was too short.
I didn’t ever hear [Downey Jr.’s] name, but it’s possible I wouldn’t have! I’m sure Brad would’ve been cast anyway. I read with about five guys for Ridley and the casting director, and they came in one-by-one, and I thought each one was great. But the last one was Brad and you could just imagine having seen him on screen that he’s insanely charismatic. There was just something magnetic about him. So at the end I said, “Do you want me to weigh in at all about what I think?” And they said, “Sure.” And I said, “The blond one, don’t you think?!”
I also read a story about how Ridley wanted to use a stunt double for the sex scenes with Brad and you were like, “Nope! I got this.”
Oh! You know, I vaguely remember that happening! A funny thing that happened while we were shooting those scenes also was before we shot, Ridley would personally spray Evian on Brad’s washboard stomach. I was like, “Hi! I’m in this scene too. Does anyone want to make me look sexy?” [Laughs] It was just really funny. He’s the artist. He wants his vision to come across, and that included Brad having a great stomach.
It sounds like Sir Ridley was very attuned to the female gaze.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, you spoke about how the opportunities for you in Hollywood dried up when you turned 40. There was that period where you were trying to be an action star, and I love The Long Kiss Goodnight, but then it seems a wall—or ceiling—was hit.
At my institute we studied six different categories of underrepresentation—gender, people of color, LGBTQIA, body size, disability, and age. We’re definitely making great progress in gender, we’re making quite good progress in people of color, but as far as body size and age and disability, we’re really, really behind. For example, even though people with mental or physical disabilities are 20 percent of the population, they’re only about 1 percent on screen. Also, LGBTQIA is only about 1 percent on screen. And with age, we’re by no means reflecting the population of people over 60. So we have a lot of work left to do. I always make the joke: “Some day, this will benefit me personally!” Like, “Cast more female characters… and also, when you do, cast me!” [Laughs]
I do feel like a generation of female action stars owe you some props for The Long Kiss Goodnight. When you look at, say, Charlize Theron kicking ass, it seems like you helped pave the way for that.
You know, I love those movies. I loved making The Long Kiss Goodnight, and when I see The Old Guard or more recent movies that have come out, like Wonder Woman, I think, “Oh man, would I have gone for that part!” I really would have loved to play it. But I love seeing it. I love it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about this A League of Their Own spinoff. Have they reached out to you for a role or at least a cameo? It seems like they’ve gotta have you involved somehow.
Ha! Well, I might become an executive producer on it. We’ll see. But there’s so much more story to tell with that incredible period and history. What a unique time. And so many people hadn’t even heard of it until our movie came out—to remind them of this time when women were actually pro baseball players, and very successful.
There’s that wonderful sequence in the film where the ball ends up in the “Colored” section and a Black woman picks it up and fires it back at you. There was a viral tweet by the filmmaker Matthew Cherry who said that would be such an amazing spinoff, to follow that scene and the Black women players who played in the Negro Leagues.
Oh, absolutely! I would love to see that. What’s amazing about it is it’s less than a minute long but in one gesture, it made you think, “Wow, there’s a whole other story here.”