Geena Davis: Thelma rides again

In her most famous role, the actress (and Mensa member) stood up for downtrodden women everywhere. Now she’s found a new front for the fight

One of the things people may not know about Geena Davis is that she’s a whizz at archery. She took up the sport at 41, became obsessed with target shooting, and practised for six hours a day. In two years, she was good enough to try joining the US Olympics archery team heading for Sydney 2000. Three hundred women tried for a place. Geena came 24th and didn’t make it. But she went to Sydney anyway, as a “wild card” entry in the Golden Arrow competition. That’s what you do when you’re a six-foot Hollywood goddess who had three children in her late forties: you don’t give up.

This week she hit a bullseye in media circles with a short manifesto that’s startling in its simplicity. “Geena Davis’s two easy steps to make Hollywood less sexist,” appeared in the Hollywood Reporter’s “Women in Entertainment Power 100” issue. It’s a call to arms for Hollywood scriptwriters, asking them to go through their scripts and change several characters’ names from male to female. “With one stroke you’ve created some colourful, unstereotypical female characters,” she writes. “What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman?” Secondly, she recommends that, when writing a crowd scene, they use the words, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” Hey presto. “You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.”

These recommendations seem almost insultingly simple. But Davis’s manifesto is motivated by a passionate belief that the underrepresentation of women in the media is a social anomaly; that girls can be inspired to be company directors, politicians, scientists and US presidents if women are routinely portrayed in such roles on TV and in films.

She’s been campaigning about this since 2004, when she started watching “family-friendly” movies with her daughter Alizeh, then aged three, and realised that, for every female speaking part in such films, there were roughly three male parts; and that crowd and group scenes were oddly bereft of girls and women. She investigated the phenomenon, founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, consulted friends in the industry and came up with a startling statistic: whenever large groups of people are shown on celluloid, only 17 per cent of them are women – and that woeful gender imbalance has been that way since 1946.

“We are in effect,” writes Davis, “enculturating [sic] kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space.” Can it be, she argues, that the reason why the presence of women in Congress, the military, the academy, the legal profession stands at around 17 per cent is because we’ve come to see that as the normal ratio?

To ram the message home, she recently went on YouTube with “Geena Davis Archery Tricks”, in which she used her trusty recurved bow to shoot various targets – men, balloons, Apple, paparazzi photographers – as she made little jokes about her films and concluded by saying, “Support gender equality in films and television – and now a Long Kiss Goodnight,” aiming the last arrow straight at the camera lens. “Geena Davis is a tall drink of badass,” commented Jezabel.com, admiringly.

Virginia Elizabeth Davis was born in Wareham, Massachusetts, in 1956, to a civil engineer father, William, and a teacher’s assistant mother, Lucille. At school she was unhappy because of her height: at six feet, she was the tallest girl in any class. After graduating, she took a BA in drama at Boston College. She also joined Mensa, but regrettably it was little help when, in 1979, she moved to New York to find a career as a model. Signed by the Zoli agency, she began to model for Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie firm. Sydney Pollack, the film director, was leafing through the catalogue one day, spotted her, and cast her in Tootsie (1982) where she appeared, mainly in her scanties, alongside Dustin Hoffman. But she got good notices, and moved to Los Angeles. TV parts flooded in for the tall, pretty, 26-year-old ingénue with the huge brown eyes and the extraordinary mouth, both sensuous and disappointed. She married Richard Emmolo, the first of four husbands, but it lasted only a few months.

Davis hit her stride as a comedy actress playing Chevy Chase’s research assistant in Fletch. She co-starred in David Cronenberg’s The Fly with Jeff Goldblum, who became her second husband in 1987. Comedy won her the 1988 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Laurence Kasdan’s The Accidental Tourist, in which she played a wacky but romantic dog-trainer. The highlight of her career so far came in 1991 with Thelma & Louise, Ridley Scott’s female-buddies-on-the-run drama, which was nominated for six Oscars. Davis and Susan Sarandon were both up for Best Actress, but neither won. Playing the put-upon housewife Thelma, Davis was convincing in her discovery of both hot sex, at the hands of Brad Pitt, and the joys of being an outlaw. The ending, in which the women drive to their deaths over the rim of the Grand Canyon rather than giving in to the law, was a notable moment in celluloid feminism.

“Afterwards,” David told the press, “I had women holding me by the lapels, so I could hear their story. And that experience really brought home to me how few opportunities we give women to feel like that about a movie. To feel passionately identified with it and feel empowered and thrilled.”

A year later, she drew good notices in A League of Their Own with Tom Hanks and Madonna, a film about sibling rivalry in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League formed in 1943. But nothing seemed to go right afterwards. Divorced from Goldblum, in 1992 she married the director Renny Harlin and they formed a production company whose first film, Speechless (1994) – a screwball romance between rival political speechwriters – was a failure. Cutthroat Island (1995) with Davis as Morgan the pirate queen and Matthew Modine charisma-free as her leading man was one of the biggest flops in film history. After it, her career was effectively scuppered, although she was good as a tough-bunny spy in The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Her personal life, however, took a turn for the better. In 2001, she married her fourth husband, Reza Jarrahy, an Iranian-American plastic surgeon. At 46, a dangerous age for a primagravida, she gave birth to Alizeh, and followed up, at 48, with twin sons, Kian and Kalis. She returned to the screen this year in In a World ... set in the voice-over business.

Davis has been working in films for 31 years, flirting, emoting, screaming, firing guns, doing her dazzling smile and winning millions of hearts. But it’s possible that the role for which she’ll be best remembered is as the initiator of the largest research project ever undertaken on gender in entertainment, and in her ceaseless quest to do something about it. It’s possible. But first we’ll have to shake off the memory of her sweetly, seductively introducing a traffic cop to her Colt .45, somewhere in the Arizona desert.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game