By Karly Stilling
For the past couple of years, my sister and I have had a running joke: Geena Davis for President!
We’re half-serious (nevermind that we’re Canadian)—after all, she’s played the President before, and as kids my sister and I were both obsessed with the Geena Davis/Tom Hanks classic, A League of Their Own, being softball players ourselves.
Since watching her kick ass as Dottie, our love for Geena has only grown. She’s tall, like us. She’s an outspoken feminist, like us. And like us, she has spent much of her career pushing for greater gender equality. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which works directly with the entertainment industry to implement positive change.
The institute takes a statistical approach, collecting data on female representation in film and television. Their philosophy is ‘if she can see it, she can be it’ and they have a bunch of nifty tools to help filmmakers ensure greater gender parity in their works. One, which Geena calls a spellcheck for gender bias, allows users to pop in a script and get back detailed data comparing how men and women are portrayed and represented in the work. With a grant from Google, the institute has also been working on developing software that uses facial recognition and voice recognition to analyse how much time women spend on screen and how much they talk.
The data so far is eye-opening: the institute has found that in advertisements, men use more intelligent and multisyllabic words, while women use mostly monosyllabic words. Only 1% of female characters are portrayed as funny. And there are twice as many male characters on screen four times as much as women, who speak seven times as much.
But the news isn’t all bad: Geena says progress is being made. Since 2017, there are 38% more films being made with female leads. And this shift mirrors the greater number of films being made by female writers, producers, and directors, and films that feature women in positions of power (although they remain scantily clad).
Recently, I rewatched Thelma and Louise on Netflix. It’s shocking to realise that the film was made only a year or two before A League of Their Own. Geena does such a good job playing the naïve country girl Thelma that she seems miles younger than the steely-eyed catcher Dottie, and yet the two aren’t so different: both are small-town girls, both married, both from another time—the key difference being that Dottie has agency right from the start, while Thelma has to claw back control of her life one whiskey at a time.
Since Thelma and Louise was released, it’s been seen as a treatise on female empowerment—strange when you realise that the film is ultimately about two outlaws who end their own lives by driving off a cliff rather than get caught (spoiler!). But what the film captures so perfectly is the reality that sometimes, certainly more often in the past than now, the only way for a woman to decide her own fate is to break through the structures of the society that holds her bound. Thelma and Louise make a lot of bad decisions, but I think most women can relate to their experience. Who among us would do differently, given those circumstances?
“What was so arresting about Thelma and Louise,” says Geena Davis, “was that they take charge of their fate and remain in charge the entire time. Driving off the cliff is a metaphor for retaining control of your life no matter what. You know, I’d rather die than give up control of my life. I think that’s why people find it so inspiring.”
That quote is from one of my favourite feminist podcasts, Unladylike. Hosts Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin interviewed Geena for the new festival being put on by her institute, The Bentonville Film Festival. The episode was an hour of joy for me that not only upped my girl crush on Geena, but reaffirmed my eternal love for Susan Sarandon.
In the Unladylike episode, Geena speaks about learning to overcome her conservative upbringing and discovering how to voice her own opinion—something she got a real blueprint for while working on Thelma and Louise.
As a self-described ‘shrinking violet’, Geena was in awe of how bold Susan was in giving her notes on the script to the director, Ridley Scott. Geena had come prepared to gently make some suggestions, with a whole strategy on how to subtly introduce an idea to Ridley so that he might think it was his idea. Susan, meanwhile, sat right down and gave her opinion up front.
“I was agape,” said Geena. “I couldn’t believe it. I realised later I’d never seen a woman behave like that. I’d never heard a woman ask for things without starting with ‘I don’t know what you think, and this is maybe a bad idea, but what if we, of course we don’t have to…’ and that’s how I lived my life. Spending three months with Susan was an incredible education.”
There’s another great story Geena tells about walking to lunch with Ridley as he’s suggesting that in the scene coming up, as Thelma is feeling fabulous and free, she might sit up in the back of the car and whip her shirt off.
“I’m just frozen completely,” recounted Geena, “and I say ‘uh, you know, I think they need me to have lunch’ but what I really wanted to do was go find Susan.”
“She’s already eating and I run up and I say ‘Susan, Susan, Ridley wants me to take my top off in the next scene!’ She throws down her silverware and goes over to Ridley and says, ‘Ridley, Geena’s not taking her top off!’ and just comes back and goes back to eating.”
“I was just like, I wish I could be like that!”
It’s great to see how much that relationship is mirrored in the on-screen dynamic between the innocently naïve Thelma and the world-weary Louise. They both carry baggage with them, but Louise has learned to keep hers stuffed way down inside. Thelma has a lot to learn from Louise, but so too does Louise from Thelma’s vulnerability. They are complements to one another, a yin and yang.
I didn’t watch Thelma and Louise for the first time until I was an adult, and if I had watched it as a kid there’s a lot I wouldn’t have understood. But what I think would have been clear even then is the complexity of the female dynamic. With so few ways for women to make their mark on the world, the route there is often a bit messy.
Thelma makes a lot of stupid mistakes, but we love her anyways. In fact, those mistakes are part of what makes Thelma so relatable: she loses Louise’s money because she’s distracted by a cute guy, she gets them even further in trouble when she tries to make up for it. She’s doing the best she knows how, and how can we blame her for that?
Without Thelma, Louise would never have wound up in such an adventure, and without Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis might never have discovered her voice.
When women are allowed to be fallible, to fail and to keep going, we can inspire one another to incredible things. We can achieve whatever we want to.
But it helps if we can see it first.