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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
    A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

    A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

    Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

    He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...